Going Back to School as an Adult: The Highlights and Pitfalls

Should you make the jump to go back to school as an adult? There are some big risks, and some big rewards for those that do. According to a recent Gallup Poll, adult students who are able to achieve their degree earn similar income to their traditional peers. Although those who complete their degree before age 25 will still have greater lifetime earnings (due to attaining their degree early in life), graduates over the age of 25 tend to make similar incomes to their younger counterparts.

Despite delaying their college education, nontraditional college graduates -- defined here as those who earn their degree at age 25 or older -- have personal incomes later in life that are similar to those of traditional graduates, or those who earn their degree before age 25

Although non-traditional students usually have lower graduation rates than traditional, for part time students this is the opposite, with part time students older than 24 more likely to graduate in a reasonable time.

…exclusively part-time students over age 24 actually had a higher completion rate than did part-time students in either of the two younger age groups, contrary to the trend for full-time and mixed enrollment students.

Many adult learners go to school part-time in order to balance family and work obligations and are highly motivated to complete their education. A younger student going to college part time may be doing so simply because they are not yet sure what they want to major in or do as a future career.

Will You Graduate?

Unfortunately, non-traditional students in general have much lower graduation rates than first-time degree seekers. A study by the American Council of Education found that only 33.7% of non first-time degree seekers graduate after six years.

Attending school part time means you’re less likely to graduate. As noted above, being older than 24 means you’re more likely to graduate as a part-time student, but in total two-thirds of part-time students end up dropping out.

It is possible that some of the part-time students dropped out because they have learned what they wanted and did not need to continue their education.

More Adults are in College than Ever Before

Despite the difficulties more adults than ever are currently enrolled in college. Although we define a “traditional” student as being under the age of 24 and a first-time degree seeker, most students are actually over the age of 24, and one fourth of students are over the age of 30.

These students are bringing different expectations and preferences to the higher education industry.  Adult students tend to prefer weekend or night classes, as well as online or hybrid learning options. When they do make the effort to get into the classroom, they want to be engaged in discussion with their professor and peers.

Colleges can help their adult and part-time students succeed by offering more flexible options, and keeping student services open later than 5 pm to accommodate those who need to conduct business after traditional work hours. Offering college credits for life experience or accepting transfer credits will also help these students graduate on time. Professors and other students should be open to learning from adult-learners, as they have plenty of life experience to draw from.

As this segment of the education market continues to grow, colleges will need to continue to adapt to their needs in order to stay in business. This means we should be seeing more flexibility and creative options in the future.

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