Whether it’s a down economy forcing parents to take on new careers or moms and dads moving beyond diapers and teacher conferences to the next chapter in life, adults are returning to higher education in droves.
And colleges and trade schools are doing everything they can to embrace the adult-age student, partly because it’s now a huge portion of the student body.
Parents are trying to get new training to keep up with college graduates half their age, or are hoping a new career will jump start their empty nest life, according to college officials. So if you’re a parent considering going back to school—or to college for the first time—you’re far from alone in Pennsylvania.
Older and wiser
According to the most recent Department of Education data, in fall 2011 there were a quarter of a million adults ages 25-64 enrolled in a Pennsylvania higher education program.
At Kaplan University, an online for-profit institution, two-thirds of students are older than 30, with about 3 in 4 being women. Elizabethown College’s Center for Continuing Education, an accelerated degree program specifically for adults, has about 600 adult students.
"It’s a very thriving area," said Barbara Randazzo, Elizabethtown’s assistant dean of enrollment management.
Many times, adult enrollment comes because of job loss or a job that now requires new training, said Kim Kaufman, interim dean of Economic and Workforce Development at Harrisburg Area Community College. Other times it can be adults who want to accomplish a lifelong goal, Randazzo said.
If you’re an adult student, you may have some advantages. Adult students are more likely to be committed to classwork, several officials said, partly because they are painfully aware how much it costs. "They are a lot more motivated," said Rebecca Schultz, YTI’s director of education-professional careers.
"Attitude accounts for a great deal. It truly does," Kaufman added.
Just showing the drive to go to school can also make a difference in the work world, Kaufman said. If an employer has two candidates who are unemployed, with one sitting back and the other taking classes, "that individual is showing some real initiative," Kaufman said.
5 things to consider
But just having the need or desire to go to college isn’t enough to guarantee success.
School officials at several central Pennsylvania colleges and trade schools gave a list of what any adult preparing to enter higher education should know and/or do:
Time commitment: Going to school requires hours devoted to class and schoolwork. Children, work and other responsibilities might make it too difficult for some. Elizabethtown’s accelerated degree program still requires 15-20 hours a week per five week class.
"Can you fit that into your life?" Randazzo said. "It’s a big commitment."
Check to see if the program offers online courses, which have flexible scheduling.
Also look at the length of the program. At HACC, some certification can be done in as little as 2-3 months, while others take a year, and associate degrees take two years.
Financial commitment: Apples-to-apples comparisons between schools can be difficult, so try per credit hour cost. Taking one standard three-credit course can defray the costs but will greatly lengthen the time in school.
Kaplan lets students take a course up to three weeks to see if the course fits their needs before making a financial commitment.
Don’t assume that just because you’re older, you don’t qualify for grants and scholarships, either. Any student applying to college should fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) available at www.fafsa.ed.gov or at any financial office. Financial aid officers can see if in-house or other grants can be found, too, to reduce the amount of out-of-pocket expense. Some grants are even available for specific workforces.
YTI’s Schultz stresses making a budget ahead of time to see how much you can afford so that you aren’t halfway into a semester before you realize you can’t foot the bill.
Transfer credits: Check whether a school will accept transfer credits, as this can reduce both time and money spent getting the degree. Randazzo said most credits should be accepted outside of technology-related or some career-specific courses.
Online ready: At least some of your coursework likely will take place online. If you’re not computer-savvy, take a workshop at the college or library to get you ready. Even if a course isn’t online, professors may prefer communicating via email.
Choosing a school: If the time and finances are OK, it’s time to choose a certification or degree program. "Look carefully at the reputation, at the strength of the institution," Randazzo said. "In Central Pa., there are so many great schools."
Check with your employer or potential employer to see exactly what certificates or degrees are necessary to get what you want. And many schools will have programs designed just for adults that offer night, weekend, and online classes to better fit your schedule, with a more concentrated program to get you through faster.
Kaufman said adult students need to be critical consumers and ask professors what jobs are available in the area, what types of income are possible, and what kind of job schedule should be expected for students who go into that career path.
Even with all of that in mind, some adults might still be daunted to go to college.
"Maybe it’s a fear of coming back to school, that ‘Math class was a long time ago! What do I do if I don’t remember math?’ That kind of thing can get in the way," Schultz said.
The age gap and other fear factors can be overcome by talking to school officials in advance, she said. At YTI, faculty and administrators have an open door policy, and the student services department can help students find solutions for childcare, healthcare, part time jobs and other concerns.
Randazzo has one other factor that can make a huge difference in easing anxiety and ensuring collegiate success: families.
Involve your family in the decision to return to school, she said, and talk to them about your school work, tests, ambitions and more. You’ll be a role model for your kids and feel like you aren’t in it alone.
"The family can feel like they are part of it," Randazzo said.
Andrew Shaw is a freelance writer, comedian and father-to-be from York.