Home / Blog / Back to School Guide for Adults

Tips for Adults Returning to the Classroom

If it’s been awhile since you set foot in a classroom, you’ll notice some things have changed.

diverse group of students studying together
cathi stevenson

Written and Reported by
Cathi Stevenson
Contributing Writer

Nearly a quarter of the population—children and adults alike—will return to school this year. There’s no reason you can’t be one of them—even if you haven’t been inside a classroom for years. An estimated 40% of college students will be adult learners over the age of 24. These will be parents, full-time employees, volunteers, retirees, entrepreneurs, veterans, and more, all with varying backgrounds and education levels. 

There are many reasons to head back to school, and adults returning to the classroom often have different motivations than younger students. Adult students are often seeking to change careers or earn additional certifications to advance in their current jobs. They may want to start side gigs, open a business, or pursue a personal interest.

“With the appropriate match, additional schooling can provide you with abundant benefits—career-wise, personally, socially, and intellectually,” says Sally Lipsky, PhD, a plant-based nutrition educator and former professor of education. “Taking the leap into a return to school can have tremendous paybacks throughout the coming years.”


Back-to-School Checklist

If it’s been awhile since you set foot in a classroom, you’ll notice some things have changed. Before you register for classes, make sure you’re ready for the journey.

Do Your Research

woman doing research in college library

Researching your potential field of study is arguably the most important tool for a return to the classroom as an adult. Lipsky suggests potential students:

  • Dig deep into your area of interest. What does the field look like for a medical massage therapist? Is the salary of a chiropractor enough for me to pay my mortgage and support my family? Does a career as a health coach give me options to advance?
  • Talk to others working in fields that appeal to you. Find out how they obtained their positions. Ask about their backgrounds and their job satisfaction. Ask for specific recommendations or advice.
  • Explore options for courses. The growing number of online programs add convenience for adult learners but often require self-discipline and responsibility.
  • Consider professional “boot camps” that offer condensed but very intense programming.

Choose a Program

woman looking at laptop

Once you’ve narrowed down what you want to study, it’s time to choose a program that works for you. Before making a decision, Lipsky recommends asking an admissions counselor:

  • Are courses online, in-person, or hybrid?
  • What is the teacher to student ratio?
  • What is the employment rate after graduation?
  • Are previous college credits or experiences accepted?
  • Is experiential learning included in the curriculum, such as internships, practicums, and professional shadowing?
  • What support services are available? Is there a career center, tutorial services, or counseling services?

Picking a program that aligns with your past experience and lifestyle can mean the difference between an enjoyable program and one that could cause roadblocks to your success. For example, a program with small classes could mean more one-on-one time with the instructor. A program that offers a flexible schedule or online options may mean the difference between being able to dial in from home when your child is sick and missing an important lecture.

Gather Support

group of students talking together

It’s always a good idea to start building a support system as soon as possible. You never know who might be able to offer some insight into the field you’re considering. You can begin this process right now. Facebook and LinkedIn are good places to find groups from specific schools, fields of study, and even individual courses.

Study groups are another way to build a support system academically and socially.

“In the course or program, seek out like-minded students who want to collaborate on learning and support,” says Lipsky. “Many institutions have formal advisors and support programs for the non-traditional students.”

Explore Financing Options

schoolbook with flowers and herbs on it

The cost of an education can be a major consideration for adults going back to school, says Lipsky. If you’re already working, some companies and institutions may pay for training and professional development opportunities, but often there are strings attached.

Your company may expect you to commit to a work contract with them, so make sure you understand the details of the agreement before taking them up on their offer to fund your education. Some graduate programs offer assistance in the form of stipends or waived tuition for assistantships.

There is no age limit for federal student aid, and the U.S. Department of Education’s online resource page is easy to navigate. There are also scholarships available through a number of programs—including many for single mothers, for example—so be sure to put some time into exploring your options.

Use What You Already Know

woman gives massage to client on table

If time or money are big factors, ask if the school you’re interested in offers course credits for prior learning. Some colleges and schools allow adult learners to use skills they already have towards degrees or certificates. Prior learning can be defined as knowledge acquired on the job, in the military, doing volunteer work and even perfecting hobbies.

Make Sure Your Technology is Up-to-Date

woman updates software on laptop

Delivery methods have been changing rapidly in education.

In-person classrooms are being replaced or augmented with remote and hybrid learning systems. A working computer is essential, as is the proper technology. It’s not enough to have meeting software installed; you must know how to use it, so take some practice runs before your first live lecture. A camera and microphone are necessary, although students can use their cell phones in many cases. A bigger screen is likely necessary for lectures and collaborative labs.

You’ll also need word processing software or programs such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs for assignments and papers.

Manage Your Time Wisely

hands type on laptop with clock overlay

Delivery methods have been changing. Adult students have to take special care with time management, particularly if you’re juggling a family and full-time job while trying to study. Keeping track of your appointments, classes, and tests is essential. Learn to use digital calendars and set up reminders for deadlines, assignments, meetings, and tests. Reminders can be sent through email, smart phone, or watch.

Professional Resources

Check out these sites geared towards helping adult learners return to the classroom.

1. College Unbound offers tips and guidance for adult learners who have faced significant barriers while getting their education.

2. Kantis Simmons has motivational, practical, high-energy videos packed with information for adults returning to school, including Help! I’m Returning to College and How to Finish School as a Working Adult.

3. Become” is a website that offers support for adults continuing their education.

sally lipsky

With professional insight from:
Sally Lipsky, PhD
Plant-Based Nutrition Educator and Author