Opinion

Godbey: College Admissions Are Complicated Enough, but Returning as an Adult Learner Adds Extra Complexity. 5 Must-Ask Questions for Adults Thinking of Pursuing a Bachelor’s

By Bobbie Godbey | June 3, 2019

Mustafa Jama (center) works in an English class at the Seward County Community College adult education center in Liberal, Ks. (Christopher Smith/ For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

While they may sometimes feel like outliers, the millions of Americans in the market to finish their college degree or start a new program are anything but. Adult students are part of an emerging majority and in high demand on America’s college campuses. According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, about 3.6 million U.S. high school seniors are expected to graduate in 2019, compared with nearly 37 million adults who have some college and no degree. But as more and more colleges realize the importance of serving the new normal of adult learners, these students are facing new and complex questions when picking a college.

The traditional college admissions process is complicated enough, with issues ranging from academic requirements and campus housing to scholarships and financial aid. Returning as an adult learner adds so many extra layers of complexity.

How do these learners choose the right program, at the right institution, for the right price?

Here are the top five questions adult learners should answer before they take the plunge into their next academic endeavor.

1. What is my return on investment, economically and personally?

With an estimated 65 percent of 2020 jobs requiring some type of degree or credential after high school, calculating the economic value of a degree may seem like a cinch. But measuring the personal motivation to persist through the highs and lows of being an adult in the classroom represents a broader challenge. When the going gets tough, all students fall back on an inner sense of motivation, and that’s doubly true for working adults, for whom college is just one of many priorities.

One way to evaluate these options is to make a list of what you stand to gain: a promotion, a pay raise, a transfer to a new corporate location to be closer to family. Are you looking to advance a career or shift into a new profession? How will these gains impact other areas of your life? Students who can clearly define their reasons behind taking the leap back to school can develop those motivational muscles from the get-go.

2. How will I add “one more thing” to an already overfilled plate?

Despite the pop culture archetype of a typical college student, most of today’s students are much more than that. They are also parents, caregivers, employees, military service members. For adult students, managing multiple, competing priorities can be the determining factor in whether they are able to start a new chapter in higher learning.

As busy adults, it’s easy to assume that we’ll figure it out in the moment. But when school impacts getting your child to soccer or conflicts with your or your partner’s plans to work late, it’s even more tempting to put academic assignments or deadlines on the back burner. Students should discuss and then create a plan with their families. It may seem silly to consult family members about details like study habits, but they will be your support network: Make sure they are on board with or at least understand your new time commitments and the sacrifices they entail, as well as the resources you need to be successful.

3. Which skills can I repurpose for academic success, and where do I need to grow?

For some adult students, the idea of heading back into the classroom can be daunting, and questions abound. “What if I’ve been out too long?” “What if I’ve forgotten everything?” ”Do I still have the right study habits to work under pressure?”

Ironically, adult students often underestimate the breadth and depth of skills they already have that translate to classroom success. In fact, the same skills that serve busy adults well in the workplace, in parenting and in their community can translate to an academic context. Busy working adults often have strong personal and professional time management systems, honed through many years of lived experience.

When you’re successful at work, which skills do you use to meet deadlines and manage up? When family schedules seem particularly hectic or you miss a personal appointment, where were the breakdowns and what could you have simplified? When and how do you practice self-care? Whom can you lean on in times of need? Taking stock of these strengths, opportunities and resources will allow you to recognize your current abilities and skills while anticipating areas for growth.

4. Will this campus community support me?

Life would be easy if everything you needed to know about a college or university could be encapsulated in a website. One of the biggest doubts adults students face when looking at schools is whether the school is really “for them.” Returning to campus can be loaded with unexpected challenges.

It’s easy to find some data online. But can a school or program speak to career advancers or career changers in addition to students just starting out? Don’t be afraid to investigate before you commit: Connect with alumni or current students in your network, or reach out to faculty.

5. Can I afford this?

It’s an obvious question — and a deeply personal one, often the first one students pose. However, it can be the most difficult to answer if the above questions haven’t been fully explored. For students who can’t clearly articulate why they want to go back to school or haven’t generated appropriate buy-in from their family or support networks, the cost of attendance can seem insurmountable, even with federal financial aid, as they consider the realities of repaying mounting student loan debt. When students ask about the return on their investment, they often want a dollar-to-dollar comparison of cost of attendance versus anticipated monetary gain. This is certainly critical. But there are other, equally important, questions to ask: “Is this the right means to the end I’m seeking? And can I afford not to do this?”

Bobbie Godbey is a director of team and partnership operations at InsideTrack. She serves as a primary consultant to colleges and universities seeking improved efficiencies and enrollment growth.

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