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Attending college as an adult can feel intimidating. From the the thought of walking into a classroom filled with students younger than you to concerns about finding childcare, these anxieties are enough to prevent some from applying. But if you’ve had these thoughts before, rest assured you’re not the only one out there wondering “Am I too old to go to college?” To help you navigate the transition back to the classroom, we spoke with representatives from University of Wisconsin-Madison and College of Staten Island to provide some tips on how adults can come back to school.

Returning to school as an adult

High school students can generally count on their parents, teachers, and guidance counselors to help them make a smooth transition to college. But what if you’ve been out of school for years and no longer have a network of experts at your disposal? 

“Returning adult and nontraditional students typically have different responsibilities than those attending directly from high school. Responsibilities could include children, job, home, aging parents, previous military experience, among others,” says Moira Kelley, Senior Counselor and Communications Coordinator for the Adult Career and Special Student Services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Adult Career and Special Student Services at UW-M assists students in transitioning back to school by providing resources and career advice. And while some may find the thought of juggling family and classes overwhelming, Kelley finds adult students often achieve academic success.

“I have found that returning adult students are often more motivated and have clearer goals than traditionally-aged students. While returning adults tend to doubt their abilities, they typically do better academically than they expect they will,” adds Kelley. 

Fear factors

Many students don’t know how or where to start their journey back to school. Don’t let the fear of the unknown stop you from reaching out to your school of choice.

“Working in admissions, I’m generally the first point of contact for many adult students. I’d say fear is the biggest factor holding students back from returning to school. Students ask themselves, ‘Can I do this?’, because it’s been 10, 15, or 30 years since they’ve last been in school. They wonder if they’re capable of becoming a student again,” says Sean Walsh, Assistant Director for Orientation in the Office of Recruitment and Admissions at College of Staten Island of the City University of New York.

In addition to technical support, the College of Staten Island provides adult students a transitional service called Adults Returning to the Classroom (ARC). Like the service offered at UW-M, specialists working with ARC students assist with the adjustment in returning to the classroom. To find out if your school offers a similar service, contact an admissions representative or academic advisor.

Another common fear among adult learners is technology. Filling out an online application can be intimidating for those not comfortable with technology, so Walsh meets with students individually for pre-admissions counseling and offers to assist with completing online applications. 

“Adults coming back to school may not be savvy with navigating the internet, but that shouldn’t hold them back. In that case, I’ll invite them in for an appointment and we’ll fill out the application together. I’ll help them step-by-step with each component until it’s submitted.” 

Lastly, don’t let the fear of finances keep you from furthering your education. You may be eligible for scholarships or financial aid, depending on your situation. Check out Peterson’s Scholarship Search Engine to help find an award, grant or scholarship that’s right for you. 

How can I juggle family and class?

Your family may need to make adjustments to their normal routines. Be sure to communicate your goals to your significant other and children to help clarify the need for change. 

“Get the whole family on board (including extended family if they are available, dependable, and nearby), and ask for help. Enlist the kids with age-appropriate tasks. Prioritize, organize, and ditch perfection. Carve out a study space at home that is only for studying (if possible). Many returning adults talk about how they and their kids enjoy doing homework together. Remember, they are role models for their kids,” says Kelley.

Many schools also offer child care services. Rates and hours will vary among schools, so make sure you verify the details before enrolling.

Connect with other students

Both Kelley and Walsh emphasize the importance of building a network on campus. Interested in getting involved with a student organization? Go for it! If you’re too busy to join a club, visit your school’s social media pages to connect with other students. 

“Studies show that students involved in campus activities perform better academically. Take advantage of the resources your college has. At College of Staten Island, we have Facebook groups specifically for adult learners to make it easier to connect with one another and form study groups,” says Walsh.

Additionally, look for opportunities to meet other students in the places you frequent.

“Campus childcare can be a resource to connect with other student parents. Ask if there is a student group for returning adult students and if not, start one,” adds Kelley.  

Focus on your end goal

“Keep your eyes on the ‘prize’ while understanding that challenges and setbacks can and likely will arise,” says Kelley.

The decision to return to school can feel like a never-ending commitment. Stay focused by setting small goals and allowing yourself to be flexible. And remember, you’re not the only adult returning to school. Don’t be afraid to utilize your campus career center or ask your advisor for guidance.

Need help finding the right school for you? Check out Peterson’s College Search Tool.