Getting Back in the Groove: College as an Adult Student

Adult students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Have you thought about going back to school, but not sure where to start? You’re not alone. An estimated 700,000 to one million Wisconsin adults have college credits but no degree. Others never attended college but now find they need a degree to change careers or advance in the workplace.

In either scenario, returning to school as an adult student after a stretch of 10, 15 or 20 years can be stressful, and many people are afraid to fail. As a career counselor, I talk to hundreds of people like you every year. Here are some useful tips to help you through the process

1. Talk to an adviser.

Make an appointment before you even apply. Colleges and universities have professional advisers who can help you understand your educational options and the process, including what you need to do and when.

2. Plan ahead for life as an adult student.

Don’t wait until your classes start to plan your time, make childcare arrangements and determine transportation plans. When will you study in addition to your other responsibilities? What activities will you forgo while you’re a student? Who can you ask for help? Make sure you have back-up plans for everything.

3. Consider starting at a smaller school or technical college.

Case Dunphy, of Madison, is a returning adult student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who will graduate in December 2015 with a degree in food science.

Sybil Pressprich is a senior career counselor
Sybil Pressprich

She started out at Madison College (MATC) with prerequisite courses and recommends it to other area students.

“If you know what field you’re into, check out class road maps at the college you want to attend,” Dunphy says. “The path may seem all mysterious and out of reach, but the information is out there. Plus, there are people who get paid to help people like you.”

4. Make a financial plan.

Review your finances and determine expenses you can limit or cut while in school. Fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) because even if you don’t qualify for federal aid, many scholarships require it. Apply for scholarships through your school and community organizations. Your employer might also offer tuition reimbursement.

5. Talk to your professors.

Professors enjoy having adult students in class because they add workplace and life experiences to classroom discussions. Professors can better understand your needs as a returning student if they know about your unique background.

6. Ask for help!

This may seem obvious, but many students think they have to go it alone, which is not true. Get to know the resources on your campus — libraries, advisers, tutors, and health services. If you need help, but aren’t sure where to go, ask an advisor.

Returning to school with family, a job, or other adult responsibilities will be a challenging time in your life. The best advice? Keep your eye on the prize.

“The hardest thing is that it’s hard work,” Dunphy says. “It’s like working out, but for your brain and with harsher deadlines. The greatest thing is that hard work pays off, and I’m really proud of what I’ve done.”

Sybil Pressprich is a career and educational counselor for the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Pressprich helps adults with career transitions and continuing education through individual sessions and workshops. Contact her at spressprich@dcs.wisc.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal. 

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