How to go to college as an adult

April 26, 2021 · 7 min read · By ASU Online
Today, adult learners are the typical college student. Find tips on how you can go back to school and earn your bachelor’s or master’s degree no matter your schedule.

When you imagine the typical college student, you probably think of a young adult fresh out of high school attending lectures and living in a dorm. But this traditional image is representative of only a small portion of actual college students.


Can adults go to college and be successful?

The short answer is yes! Many college students are adult learners who have taken some time off after high school, have full-time jobs or are raising a family. These types of learners are often called nontraditional students, but actually, almost 40% of all college students are over the age of 25, according to estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics.

So if you’re an adult considering going back to school, know you’re not alone. And while that may make going back to school a little less intimidating, you probably still have a lot of questions. Below are a few tips to help you get started.


Find a college that supports adult learners

Adult learning is simply any situation where adults are in school or pursuing an education. This can be formal education such as working toward a college degree or taking continuing education courses. This also includes informal education like learning a new hobby.

Adult learning is often considered distinct from other types of learning because some research shows that adults learn differently than kids. Children are new learners. Adults, however, already have a foundation of knowledge and applicable life experience.

Adult learning theories attempt to address these differences and tailor learning to meet the needs of adults. There’s a variety of theories, but some of the most popular ones focus on adults’ ability to self-direct their own studies and learn from hands-on experiences.

  • Andragogy: This learning theory directly targets some of the biggest learning differences between children and adults. It attests that adults are most interested in learning when it’s relevant to them and they can take charge of their learning. It’s a pragmatic approach that focuses on applying learning to specific problems.
  • Transformational: The transformational learning approach focuses on helping adults learn through transformative experiences that challenge their existing knowledge and critical thinking skills. This method uses problem solving and reflection to help knowledge stick and to potentially shift the learner’s perspective of the world around them.
  • Experiential: This learning method puts the learner at the center of their education. Instead of reading or memorizing, students actively participate in hands-on learning experiences and then reflect on the experience and how they can apply what they’ve learned in the future.
  • Project-based: The project-based method focuses on learning by doing through real-world simulations and projects similar to what students encounter in future jobs. This theory aims to incorporate real-world applications throughout the learning experience.


When researching schools, look for universities that incorporate adult learning theories into their teaching and make sure they include the learning methods you think will work best for you.

For example, all online degrees at Arizona State University are developed by our award-winning faculty and professional instructional designers using adult learning theories. Our online courses use videos, textbook readings, class discussions, hands-on projects, experiential learning activities and more to create an engaging learning experience for adult learners.


Consider your learning modality

When thinking about going back to school, you may assume you’ll be commuting to campus and sitting in a classroom. But as an adult learner, you’re probably leading a different life than you were the last time you were in school. You may have a full-time job, children, hobbies or other responsibilities you need to fit around your education.

Some colleges offer evening classes meant to work around your schedule, but many adult learners find online learning to be the most beneficial.

Online learning is often asynchronous, meaning there isn’t a set time you have to log in each day. There are deadlines, but otherwise, you can study at your own pace, whenever you have time. You’ll find many online degrees, including those at ASU Online, use software that is accessible on nearly any device so you have the flexibility to study from anywhere in the world.

Most online degree programs don’t require any special computer skills or equipment, so you don’t worry if you’re not tech savvy. All you’ll normally need is a desktop or laptop computer, reliable internet connection and web browser. Many schools also have technology support teams ready to assist you if any issues do come up as you try to access your courses or class materials.


What bachelor’s degree should I get as an adult?

As you’re doing your college search, you’ll also have to consider what you want to major in. One advantage of going to college as an adult is you’ve had more time to explore different career paths.

If you love your current job and career field, earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree related to your current role can be a great way to advance your career. In many industries, managerial or senior positions require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

If you’re looking for something new, going back to school is a great way to spur a career change. A college degree will equip you with the foundational knowledge and practical experience needed to break into your new chosen field.

Still not sure what degree is right for you? Play the me3 game to find a major that aligns with your passions and career goals.


Figure out how you’re going to pay for school

Research and data show that earning a college degree pays off in the long run.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for workers with a bachelor’s degree is $1,248, which equates to almost $65,000 a year. For those with only a high school diploma, the median weekly earnings is $746, which is only about $39,000 a year.

But even knowing this, tuition numbers can still be overwhelming. It’s important to keep in mind that most people don’t pay the full tuition estimate you see listed on the website.

Your net price is a better estimate of how much you’ll actually end up paying for your degree. Net price is the full cost of tuition and fees minus scholarships, grants and financial aid. About 80% of all ASU students receive some sort of financial aid.

To be eligible for financial aid, you’ll first need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This will also determine your eligibility for federal aid and grants.

After completing the FAFSA, you can look for additional scholarships at the college you're planning on attending or at various private organizations. If you’re planning to continue working while in school, you can also check to see if your company offers any education benefits or tuition assistance.


Find a support system

Going back to school can be a big adjustment and you’ll probably face some challenges along the way. This is why it’s crucial to have a good support system.

At home, you may need to coordinate with family members to shift responsibilities, allowing you to allocate more time for school. Friends and family can also encourage you on days you’re lacking motivation and remind you why you decided to go back to school in the first place.

Equally important is having support at school. The challenges you face as an adult learner will be different than younger students, so it’s essential to attend a school with resources and support specifically geared toward adult students.

At ASU Online, adult learners have personalized support from enrollment to graduation and beyond. This includes a success coach who provides one-on-one coaching and can help you manage work, school and life. You’ll also have access to financial aid advisors, technology support, career coaching, tutoring and counseling.

Going back to school as an adult can be intimidating, but with the right support, it’s completely manageable. Join the growing number of adults who are successfully going back to school and completing their degrees.

Learn more about earning your degree with ASU Online.


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