I was 29 years old when I decided to get my bachelor’s degree. Walking into my first class—English 101—had me feeling more than a little bit nervous. I remember looking down at my shoes as I aimed straight for the back of the classroom. I could feel the skeptical eyes of all the other students on me and I hated to think of how flushed my face must have been. Could they sense my fear? Could they see the streaks of grey in my hair? Yeah, I was perfectly petrified.
That first day our instructor had us all move around the room in musical-chairs fashion for an activity she called speed-dating. As I met my classmates, one by one, I was shocked to learn I was not the oldest one in the room. And there were plenty of other first-time students who had, like me, taken a gap year (or two, or three…). Some of them had spouses and children. Others were coming from the military or from a career that no longer brought them satisfaction. Sure, there were plenty of students straight out of high school. And I quickly discovered that they were much less surprised by my age than I was by their immediate acceptance.
I learned an important lesson that day. Nontraditional students are no longer all that nontraditional. Or, perhaps, no student is traditional. It’s a bit elementary, but I was impressed by the realization that each one of us in that classroom came with a unique life story—individual histories and ambitions.
And that brings me to my point. While a resident degree program was right for me, it might not be right for you. Here’s a look at some of the options available, their pros and cons, and which sort of student is most likely to benefit from each one.
[Does this sound like you? Get some tips on going back to school as an adult.]
Resident Degree Programs
Most of the time you think about “college,” you’re thinking of a resident degree program. Students live on, or near, campus. They spend more time than not in the classroom, usually attending several classes each day. Resident degree programs provide opportunities for extracurricular activities, such as team sports and student-run clubs.
Resident degree programs are a natural fit for many traditional students—those who recently graduated high school, who may or may not know what they want to study, and who generally have not spent much time living on their own.
This option was a natural fit for me, too. While I opted to keep my off-campus apartment, I liked having complete access to a brick-and-mortar university. I would spend the time in between my classes at the library or a quiet café beside the courtyard, rather than driving all the way back to my place where I was likely to distract myself with the latest episode of Breaking Bad or my Facebook newsfeed.
Enrolling in a resident degree program also appealed to my social nature. Once I got over my initial worry that being older than a lot of my peers would alienate me, I actually got very involved in campus events and activities. Spending time on campus also allowed me greater access to my professors. If I had a question or was especially excited about an idea or theory, I could stop into their office or arrange to meet over coffee.
If your learning style or career aspirations rely on teamwork and interaction, a resident degree program may be for you. Many of them offer on-campus housing tailored to meet the lifestyle preferences of older, nontraditional students. Some universities even have condos and apartments where students can live with spouses and children.
Of course, not everyone can afford the time and financial investment that a traditional resident degree program requires. Maybe there is not a college or university reasonably close to where you live and you’re not looking to move. Maybe you’re not able or willing to leave your current job and have a limited schedule. If either of these is true, you may want to consider alternatives to “traditional” school.
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Night owls and working adults rejoice! Many colleges offer evening classes for students who, for one reason or another, cannot attend classes during the typical 9–5 day. Night school is often a good fit for those who only need a few credits to finish a degree or who have a job that subsidizes the cost of continuing education.
The main drawback here is that course offerings are generally more limited if you can only enroll in evening classes. Before making a plan to pursue this option, it is wise to schedule an appointment with someone working in the registrar’s office or an academic advisor. Find out if you’ll be able to achieve your goals without getting into a situation where the last courses you need to round out your degree are only available during times you can’t make it to campus.
Community College First, Distance Learning Later
Many nontraditional students have established residence in cities that have a nearby community college, but not a university. This doesn’t have to be a limitation. Community colleges provide foundational coursework for a diverse array of disciplines and have the added benefit of being cheaper—oftentimes significantly cheaper—than four-year universities. Credits earned at a community college can be applied to almost any program of study at a four-year college. If you’re looking to go back to school but aren’t positive what you’d like to earn your degree in, spending two years at a local community college can take the pressure off and buy you time to figure out where your passions lie.
You may find that two years in, you’re in a position to relocate and want to attend a traditional on-campus program. If that isn’t the case, many excellent universities offer distance learning options that enable you to remain situated where you already are. These programs are growing increasingly popular and are generally considered just as relevant as on-campus equivalents.
[Get college credit for the life experience you already have.]
Online Degree Programs
The most flexible route to a degree is to enroll in an accredited online degree program. These programs allow you to work at your own pace on your own time. Online programs are great for single parents, those already immersed in a career, and students who have medical conditions that would make it difficult to show up to regularly scheduled classes. Making sure to find the right online degree program will ensure you earn the degree that you want and the one your future employer will want to see.
Haley Coffman is a recent college grad at the age of 31. The road to her degree was a long and windy one, but she made it! She now enjoys working with eDegree, helping students navigate through their own college careers
Do you think the word “traditional” still applies to student populations?