How to Return to & Finish College

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Students returning to college after dropping out have their work cut out for them. They must re-navigate admissions and enrollment, and they also may have to overcome additional challenges such as having originally left under academic probation due to poor grades. The guide below helps re-entry students better understand exactly what they need to do to get back into college and how to succeed once they’re in the classroom.

Who is a Re-entry Student?

Re-entry students are one-time students who abandoned their academic journey. They’ve made the decision to pick up the threads and complete the requirements for their degree.

Classification for re-entry students varies by institution. Some colleges classified students as re-entry applicants if they have not been a full-time student in the past five years. Other universities deem students re-entry applicants after a one-year hiatus from full-time enrollment.

While students may choose to return to school at any time, historically, adult re-entry or non-traditional students are generally 25 years or older. They may be transferring to a four-year university after completing some credits at the community college level, or making the decision to pursue higher education to improve their job prospects.

Why College Students Leave School

College is much more than dorm life, frat parties and thrilling football games on Saturdays. Perhaps more than anything, college is hard work. It’s time-consuming, and it dominates the time students could spend elsewhere — such as working and earning money to support themselves or their families.

A report by Public Agenda for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that 45 percent of students in four-year universities worked at least 20 hours a week, while nearly 25 percent of all community college students work more than 35 hours a week. It’s not easy blending the two – the stress of combining work with school is the primary reason most people quit school. Inability to pay for tuition, and the need to care for family, are the other most-cited reasons for dropping out of college, the report says.

College is a bit like running a marathon— it’s a long journey that requires dedication and perseverance to see the finish line. Just like running 26.2 miles, the journey to a degree is never easy. Life often gets in the way, especially for younger students valiantly trying to establish a foothold in the world apart from their parents. That’s one of the reasons why less than 30 percent of young adults earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s.

Those aren’t the only pressures facing students. Other top reasons for leaving college include:

  • Moving to a different part of the state or country
  • Unprepared for the academic requirements
  • Need a break from the rigors of education
  • Lack of dedication and time for classes and coursework
  • Isolation, or homesickness
  • Dropping out due to academic probation or suspension

It’s never an easy decision to leave college, but getting back into academic life isn’t as difficult as you might think.

5 Steps to Returning to College

Re-entry students should decide if they want to return to the same institution where they previously studied or resume their academic journey somewhere else. Following these five steps can help ease the transition back into the classroom.

Apply (or re-apply) for admission

Re-entry students who have been away from college for more than a year might need to re-apply for admission, and students who decide to attend a different institution will need to apply for admission. Many colleges accept online admissions, which can be especially helpful for re-entry students who choose to complete their degrees through an online college. Students with low grade point averages (2.0 or lower) may be admitted on a probationary status.

Meet with an academic advisor or re-entry counselor

Re-entry students usually meet with a counselor or advisor to map out their upcoming schedule before they are allowed to register for classes. Many colleges also help re-entry students establish a comprehensive academic plan to put in play for subsequent semesters

Determine transfer credits and prior learning

If you are transferring to a new university, a determination will be made regarding how your existing coursework translates into classes offered at the new institution. You’ll have to submit transcripts of all past college experience. Re-entry students – especially older students with years of work experience – may also parlay prior learning into college credit. Colleges have varying criteria for awarding college credit for life or military experience, but don’t pass up on an easy way to advance your degree through hard-won experience if that option is available.

Do some financial aid legwork

Complete a Free Application of Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to establish eligibility for state and federal aid, grants and student loans. Check with your college about possible re-entry scholarships as well. There are many ways to pay for college without depleting savings or taking out loans.

Get it all together

Once you’ve completed all the steps above and have registered for classes, it’s time to start preparing to resume your academic journey in the classroom. On-campus students need to get a campus email account, photo ID, textbooks and supplies, and sometimes attend a student orientation. Online students must complete many of these same steps.

What to do if You’ve Been Placed on Academic Probation or Dismissal

Students who fail to meet university criteria for grades (typically at least a C in every graded class) are placed on academic probation. Basically, this is a warning issued by the college that grades are suffering, and the student needs to promptly remedy the situation. It can take a full semester of good grades to return to good academic standing. And if this is the case, C’s simply won’t cut it — students need to earn As and Bs to jump-start their GPA and remove the probation.

For many colleges, the threshold for academic probation is a cumulative GPA between 1.99 and 1.5. Students with a semester grade point average below 1.5 may be subject to dismissal from their university.

Following these steps can help you clear academic probation:

  1. Meet with an adviser to fully understand your academic status and the requirements needed to remove the probation.
  2. Develop a manageable course schedule for your probationary period to boost your chances of success.
  3. Dedicate yourself to the fine details of student life, such as time management, smart decision making, regular study time, and full use of campus resources such as learning or writing labs.
  4. In classes where you earned a D or lower grade, you may be able to repeat the course. A higher grade can be substituted for the lower one and subsequently improve your GPA.
  5. Students who have been dismissed from college for poor academic performance typically must petition the college for re-entry. Some colleges require students to complete a full year at a community college or other institution and earn a GPA of 3.0 prior to reentry.
  6. Lastly, undergraduate students can petition for academic renewal. Students can request that all grades received during one or two semesters are disregarded for their cumulative GPA, although they still get credit for all grades on record. Each college has its own requirements for academic petition, but it may be one way for re-entry students to quickly resume their college journey.

Tips & Resources for Meeting the Challenges of Returning to College

Students leave college for a variety of reasons. Similarly, there are an equal number of reasons adults choose to go back to college.

Adult learners face different challenges than college freshmen just out of high school. Below are some of the main issues facing re-entry students:

  • Finding a school-life balance

  • Accessibility

    With work, family and other responsibilities, it may not be feasible for re-entry students to drive to class at a specific time every day like when they were younger. Attending online college eliminates time spent commuting, and students also can learn when it best fits their schedule.

  • Financial aid

  • Transfering credits

    Figuring out what credits you can use when you transfer to a new university can be one of the most challenging aspects of returning to college. Our transfer guide can de-mystify the transfer process and help you get the most out of your previous college experience.

  • Adjusting to college life

Re-entry students who tap into the resources on this page can better position themselves to cross the finish line and earn their degree.

Expert Advice on Returning to College

Dana Bearer, associate director of transfer, adult and graduate admissions at Clarion University in Clarion, Penn., gives answers to some of the most commonly asked questions from re-entry students:

Will my previous credits still count?

For the most part, yes. Some science and technology courses have 5-year limits.

Can I receive credit for life experience?

Yes. Prior learning can be assessed for college-level credit.

Can I receive credit for military experience?

Yes. At Clarion we require a joint service transcript (JST) and a DD214 for military credit to be considered.

Will I be assigned an advisor and or a mentor?

All students are assigned an academic advisor in their major – mentors may be from any discipline.

Will I have access to a tutor?

Absolutely! We have a student success team to support all students needing additional academic assistance.

Will I receive financial aid?

All students are encouraged to file a FAFSA to determine if they are eligible for financial aid.

Do I need to take a full load of credits?

No. Students may take one credit or up to 18 credits at a time. An advisor will help determine the best course selection based on your individual goals.

Below, Bearer shares some common counsel for re-entry students:

  • Breathe: don’t let fear or anxiety prevent you from taking the step.
  • Make a plan: financially, academically and professionally. It will ease concerns associated with returning to college.
  • Explore your options: there are a variety of schools, programs and cost-effective options to consider, such as scholarships, reimbursement programs, military benefits, FAFSA, etc.
  • Don’t overload your schedule: ease into courses.
  • Ask for help: in the classroom, at home and with your support system.
  • Embrace the fresh start: past challenges have little bearing on future success.
  • Don’t give up: returning and adult students and transfers have higher than average rates of persistence and graduation.

Note: It’s important to defer to your own college’s admissions department for the most accurate information regarding re-entry and transfer for your particular situation.

Spotlight on College Re-Entry Programs

Many colleges have dedicated re-entry programs to help students who wish to complete degree requirements or are just beginning college better assimilate into the student population. Colleges recognize that re-entry students usually have needs and concerns that are much different from traditional college students who enroll right after high school.

Here’s a spotlight on three programs as examples of how colleges recognize the unique experiences and diversity that re-entry students bring to their prospective universities.

  • Re-Entry Resource Program, Cerritos College

  • Adult Re-Entry Services, California State University-Long Beach

  • Returning Students, Ashford University

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