Going back to school as an adult: Guidelines for success

December 14, 2021 · 6 min read · By ASU Online
Going back to school at 30, 40, 50 or above presents unique challenges. Find out what adults returning to college need to know to succeed.

Adult college students are the new normal.

Many people think of the average college student as someone between the ages of 18 and 22, but now older college students aged 25 and up are becoming more typical. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of fall 2019, there were about 7.9 million people aged 25 or older enrolled in a college or university. That amounts to approximately 40% of the overall student population in higher education.

Adults returning to college can face some unique challenges, but the rewards are often worth it. And a suitable college will offer comprehensive support services to assist you in managing your various obligations and succeed in your classes.


Why should you consider going back to school as an adult?

Going back to school at 30, 40, 50 or above is often driven by one of several motivations. Some want to earn a college degree so they can continue to grow in their current career. Others are looking for the training and knowledge they need to pursue an entirely different path. Individuals in the latter category may be driven by their desire to find a more meaningful degree in important areas such as health care, sustainable leadership, nonprofit management and more.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median weekly earnings figure for those with a bachelor’s degree was $1,305. That’s $428 higher than individuals who had some college credit but no degree. It was also $524 more than the total earned by those with a high school diploma and no college credit.


What about going back to school for an advanced degree?

Many returning students are interested in building on their educational experience and professional accomplishments to earn a master’s degree, a graduate certificate or a doctoral degree.

The BLS reports that on average, those with a master’s degree earned $1,545 per week, which is $240 more than the rate for bachelor’s degree holders.

If you want to continue working in your current field and you’d like to remain at the same organization, talk with your supervisor to develop a plan for your education. They may be able to support your efforts by adjusting your workload or schedule as well as assist you in selecting a major that will be most beneficial for your professional growth.

You may also find that you’re interested in working for a different employer in the future, but in a similar field. If this is the case, tap into your existing network to see if you can discuss your academic plans with colleagues who work elsewhere. They may be able to provide insight to determine which major is right for you.

What master's degree should I get?

Learn how to choose the right master's degree for you and what makes ASU Online so popular for graduate students.

What are your options for going back to school online?

You can earn your college degree in a variety of academic disciplines either completely or partially online from an accredited university. Many nontraditional students find that attending classes online is easier to manage alongside their family or work obligations than traveling to campus for their courses.

ASU Online provides the same high quality education as the school’s on-campus programs, with courses designed and taught by the same award-winning faculty. We offer nearly 300 graduate and undergraduate degree programs and certificates across more than 20 areas of study. As you look at our degree options, you can explore possible courses and related careers for each major.


Support services to empower students of all ages

Given the wide variety of outside commitments you may have to juggle while returning to school, it’s important to find a college or university with robust student services. 

Author Rebecca Klein-Collins, a researcher who works with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), observed that these learners frequently face additional hurdles outside of the classroom, including balancing their education with career and family obligations.

“Find a place that acknowledges who you are at this stage in your life,” Klein-Collins said in a 2018 interview with NPR.

ASU Online offers a suite of personalized student services to guide you in staying on track with your studies while still keeping up with your responsibilities outside of school. In addition to time management, ASU Online offers:

  • Counseling and life services: You can seek out support for career advice as well as assistance with personal care, crisis intervention and a wide variety of other concerns at any time.
  • Student wellness support: Licensed professionals are available online and over the phone to provide counseling, therapy, consultations and more.
  • Success coaching: Your success coach is part personal advisor and part professional motivator who’s there to empower you to get organized, improve your study habits, access additional resources and stay on track.
  • Technical assistance: Support is available from the help center at all hours, and you’re encouraged to use university-provided resources for storing data, sharing documents, accessing research and more.


Find instructional models that work for you

When deciding on the right school, it’s important to consider how the institution accommodates students who are returning to school as adults. At an instructional level, this means having a strong foundation in andragogy, which suggests that adults learn best when the course material is relevant to them and they’re able to direct their own educational experience. Transformational learning encourages students to reflect deeply and assess their own perspectives, while project-based methods allow them to learn by doing, incorporating practical applications into classroom exercises. Online courses from ASU prioritize hands-on, experiential learning — which emphasizes active participation over rote memorization — to ensure the material is relevant and approachable for learners of various ages.

In addition, innovation and technology are cornerstones of the ASU philosophy. Our courses contain immersive virtual learning experiences and use state-of-the-art technology. Students in our programs have access to online labs and remote research opportunities, and can collaborate and communicate openly with faculty members and their peers while participating in engaging discussions.


Financial planning and aid for adults going back to college

First, you’ll want to get an estimate of the total cost of your education. Consult your school’s website for a quick look at your potential expenses. The ASU Online tuition calculator can assist you with this step. Simply enter your residency, student status and academic program to receive an estimate. You can also raise or lower the number of credit hours per semester to adjust the total.

In some ways, learning how to go to college as an adult is not significantly different from starting out right after high school. You’ll still need to complete the FAFSA to apply for financial aid, which 80% of the students at ASU receive. Additionally, you may want to consider pursuing other scholarship or grant opportunities. Older college students may be eligible for scholarships reserved for those in specific age ranges.

Consider your other possible expenses as well. If you have to adjust your hours at your current job, that may impact your income for now, but earning the degree could improve career prospects in the future. Also think about family expenses, such as if you need to factor child care into your planning. You should also explore whether your current position offers financial assistance for education related to career development.

With some careful planning and budgeting, you can create a plan to pay for your education. Keep your goals in mind as you apply for aid, search for scholarships and create a road map forward.


When you’re ready to take the next step on your path to success, ASU is ready to support your needs. Returning to college later in life presents unique challenges, but it also demonstrates admirable drive and dedication.

Returning to higher education: Tips for parents in college

Going back to college as a parent? Use our tips below to develop strategies to balance parenting and other responsibilities when you head back to class.


About ASU Online

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