Is it time for you to get back in the college classroom? It’s a common move for professionals who want to advance in one career or switch to another. Former students who didn’t complete a college degree on their first try may head back to the books too. But how do you start? We consulted advisers, admissions representatives and financial aid experts from Omaha-area universities and nonprofits to find the top things adult learners should consider.
1. Research schools and programs
There’s a wealth of information online, said Treve Florom of EducationQuest, a Nebraska foundation formed to improve access to higher education. Once students identify an area of study, college and university websites help them explore options. Florom, director of outreach services, said students also should consider the course delivery method. Are courses online, in-person or available both ways?
2. Evaluate programs
Ask youself: Is this program flexible, or will I need to be flexible? Degrees such as a master’s in business administration are offered at many institutions and allow students to shop for the best fit. But some programs may have only one or two options in Iowa and Nebraska. In that case, students must adapt to the program. A returning student with some college courses but no degree has many options. These students can complete a traditional program or opt for completion programs such as the bachelor of multidisciplinary studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, or online programs at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in areas including business or education.
3. Pick up the phone
This advice was universal: Students should follow up by reaching out to an admissions representative, program coordinator or adviser. Lindsay Johnson, Creighton’s director of graduate and adult recruitment, said this gives prospective students a contact person as they navigate admissions processes. It also gives future students a chance to explore what Johnson calls “the reality of the commitment.” If a program has requirements beyond coursework, such as practicum hours, they might not be flexible. It’s best to know early if a big life change is required.
4. Figure out your finances
“Returning students’ No. 1 concern is almost always financial,” said Florom of EducationQuest. The foundation offers free help to Nebraskans considering college, with offices in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney and a representative in Scottsbluff. Its key service is help with the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Check out the foundation’s online funding calculator (www.educationquest.org) to estimate aid packages. Iowa has a similar service, the Iowa College Access Network, with offices in Sioux City and Council Bluffs.
5. Explore funding options
This includes grants, work study or graduate assistant positions, loans and scholarships. Florom advises that it’s never too late in the process to fill out a FAFSA.
6. Set a realistic timeline
Brad Green, associate director for undergraduate recruitment and admissions at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, wants students to know that the admissions process is a process. It often doesn’t take long, but there are multiple steps, including tracking down high school or college transcripts. Many but not all institutions charge an application fee. The NU system schools fee is $45, Green said. Students can pay once and apply to all schools in the system. Potential graduate students should look closely at deadlines, which vary based on program. Some accept students once a year. Others, such as Doane University, offer up to five opportunities to start each year. All students should ask about the timeline to complete their program. Is there an accelerated option? Green’s top advice for returning students: You can start slowly. “If you’re nervous, take one or two classes, get your feet wet! Then you’ll know you can manage it.”
7. Expect to work hard
Even the most flexible, most interesting program is a lot of work. When students give undergrad coursework a second try, or take graduate courses for the first time, many must step up their academic game. “Graduate work is intended to challenge you,” said Cathy Dillon, academic adviser for Doane University’s MBA and master of arts in management programs. “It’s OK for it to be difficult. It’s supposed to expand and enhance your undergrad learning.” But graduate students also get plenty of support from their professors, said Creighton’s Johnson. Help is available, such as a refresher in academic writing.
8. Know why you’re going back to school, and share it
“Begin with the end in mind,” said Amanda Micheli of UNO’s Division of Continuing Studies. Goals help students stay on track, said Micheli, assistant director of academic affairs in a unit focused on adult learners. A goal-oriented approach also can keep priorities in line. “When you’re thinking about where you’ll fit school into your life, think of your education as a part-time job, an investment — not a hobby,” Micheli said. Johnson, of Creighton, said it’s also key to get your support system on board. “My No. 1 advice is to begin conversations with friends and family so they understand your goal,” she said. Returning students may need to carve out space at home, and time in their lives, to be successful.