How Do I Go Back to College? A Step-By-Step Guide

Returning to school isn't as simple as filling out a college application. Nontraditional students — those who are over age 25, working full time, attending part time or who have a family to look after — drop out at a significantly higher rate than traditional students. But if you're among this new majority of adult college students, you can beat the odds, say the experts. Our step-by-step guide can show you exactly how to get back into the college life.

Step 1: Look within and start reading

Whether you're starting college at 40, 30 or somewhere else on the age spectrum, school is an adjustment. For older students, the odds of completing a new degree are intimidating, especially for part-timers. A study published by Complete College America in 2017 showed that just 6.9 percent of part-time students seeking associate degrees graduated within four years. At the bachelor's level, 15.9 percent of part-timers attending non-flagship public schools graduated in eight years.

One reason why adult students may get derailed is because many don't have a clear idea of how the new credential fits into their future career plans, says R. Lee Viar IV, president of the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education and author of "The Nontraditional Learner's Guide to Success." Some simply are out of practice when it comes to studying.

"You need to start practicing," Viar says. "Start reading. Start getting yourself into that modality of reading because there's going to be a boatload of reading that you're going to be doing."

Taking no-cost online classes before you go back to college, such as through Khan Academy, EdX or iTunes U can give you a taste of what it's like to return to the classroom.

Step 2: Research adult-friendly institutions

Once you've got your eye on a specific degree, you'll need an institution that can help you get there. When it comes to college for nontraditional students, it's important to not only research whether your major is available, but also investigate what it takes to get in, says Jolene Sedita, articulation officer and admissions counselor for the University of California, Riverside.

"If they do have that major, [students should ask] what are the admissions requirements for that major? Does it require a higher GPA? Are there certain courses that I need to take to be competitive for admissions to that major?," Sedita says, adding that returning students often need to attend a community college before entering a four-year school.

You'll also need to know whether classes are delivered in a way that fits your schedule — look for online, night, weekend, hybrid and low-residency programs — as well as what types of support programs are offered for nontraditional students. These could include subsidized child care, tutoring or mentoring opportunities, benefits assistance for veterans, single-parent programs and student groups for older enrollees.

Step 3: Meet with admissions

If you've completed some college courses in the past, you could have transfer credits. Grab those dusty transcripts and head to the admissions department at institutions you're eyeing to figure out what courses will transfer, which count toward a degree and how long that degree might take, says Alexander Ott, associate dean for academic and enrollment support services for New York Institute of Technology.

"That's an essential piece of information," Ott says. "Sometimes schools will say, 'We'll take 60 credits,' but you only find out later that only 40 credits count toward your degree. … Don't sign up for anything until you get that information."

Jolene Sedita adds that if you're starting at a two-year school but a bachelor's degree is the ultimate goal, it can help to meet early with an admissions rep from a four-year institution. They can provide you with information on which courses will transfer in and how to stand out as a transfer applicant.

Step 4: Figure out the financing

College costs can be painfully high for older students, but some schools help more than others. Institutions such as UC Riverside, for example, offer scholarships specifically for students returning to college, while others offer generous grants for transfer students, student-parents or part-timers. Older enrollees might also be eligible for aid through federal and state governments, private organizations and their respective colleges.

"You want to get a full financial aid package from the college you're considering and get answers on how much this is going to cost you per semester, per year until you complete the degree," Alexander Ott says.

Step 5: Enlist recruits

Adult learners also need support from their families, says Kathy Matson, a mother of three who returned to Mount Wachusett Community College for her business administration degree at age 47 and graduated two years later.

"Everybody's got to pitch in and do their part," she says, adding that individual family members should be clear on how they can help alleviate home responsibilities for the student. "… Especially for a mom that's coming back, getting the whole family on board with what's going to happen and knowing that there are going to be times when Mom needs quiet time to study [is crucial]."

Matson also recommends that students build a network of support at school, too, by connecting with other nontraditional students in similar situations.

Step 6: Plan Ahead

Jim Rule earned at bachelor's in Organizational Leadership at age 52 from Eureka College in Illinois, while running his own company. For him, the hardest part of earning his degree was balancing work, family and academic obligations. To ensure that all three areas receive attention, Rule recommends creating a time management plan before enrolling, even if it's just a day-by-day strategy.

"Plan it out. Really take a look at, 'Do I have the time for this? Do I have the commitment?,'" he says. "... You can't just go into it haphazardly, or you'll set yourself up for failure."


  • Guided Pathways to Success: Boosting College Completion, Complete College America,
  • Kathy Matson, Interviewed by the author on July 16, 2014
  • Dr. Alexander Ott, Ed.D., Associate Dean for Academic and Enrollment Support Services at New York Institute of Technology, Interviewed by the author on July 23, 2014
  • Jim Rule, President of The ShedQuarters, Interviewed by the author on July 23, 2014
  • Jolene Sedita, Articulation Officer & Admissions Counselor at the University of California Riverside, Interviewed by the author on July 23, 2014
  • The Osher Re-Entry Scholarship Endowment, University of California, Riverside,
  • Dr. R. Lee Viar IV, President of the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education, Interviewed by the author on July 22, 2014