How to Return to and Finish College

Returning to college can be challenging and exciting. This guide will give you helpful tips and resources on how to finish college.

February 10, 2022 , Updated on May 26, 2022

Edited by Veronica Freeman
How to Return to and Finish College

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Students who leave college may wonder how to return to college and finish their degree. Bachelor's degree-holders earn an average of 59% more than those with just a high school diploma, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This increase in earning potential leads many students to think about how to finish college.

Students returning to college may face different challenges than students coming straight out of high school. Full-time jobs and family obligations can make it hard to readjust to higher education.

Our guide for returning students offers information on how to finish college. We cover steps to re-enroll and helpful online resources.

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Why Students Leave College

See below for some of the most common reasons students leave college. Keep in mind that the list below does not represent every possible situation.

1. Financial Issues

Some students may experience issues with financial aid and paying for tuition. The financial aid system may confuse some learners. However, schools can work with returning students to explore financial aid options and other potential issues, such as unpaid student loans.

2. Juggling Work

Students with jobs may struggle to balance the demands of higher education with work. They may find it more financially rewarding to drop out of school and work full time. Today, online learning and other flexible enrollment options can help students returning to college find a balance between work and school.

3. Balancing Family

Students may also struggle with family obligations, such as caring for children or other family members. Caring for a sick or elderly relative can impact class attendance or completing assignments on time. However, many schools offer flexible enrollment options to accommodate students' needs.

4. Academic Challenges

College can also bring traditional academic difficulties. Students may find themselves unprepared for college-level work. In addition, they may struggle with time management. Today, most colleges offer academic support services to help students adjust to college life.

5. Lack of Support

Many students, particularly first-generation college students, may lack support for their higher educational journey. Understanding financial aid requirements and paying for school can be challenging. Students may also struggle to manage coursework. However, many schools offer support services for various student needs, such as advising, counseling, and childcare.

Steps to a Successful Return to College

Planning how to return to college may feel overwhelming, but students can prepare in many ways. See below for tips for returning to college.

1. Identify Your Why

Students should consider their academic and professional goals. Clear reasons for finishing college can help them stay motivated. Many learners return to school to improve their career and salary prospects.

To identify your why, write a list of your reasons for pursuing higher education. Identifying your goals can help you choose the right school and program.

2. Apply for Financial Aid

Students returning to college may worry about tuition and how they will pay for their education. Completing the FAFSA is the first step to getting financial aid, such as grants and loans. Students should apply for financial aid early to help make the process as easy as possible.

Reach out to prospective schools if you need help with the process. Schools' financial aid offices can also help you identify school-specific scholarships and other aid opportunities.

3. Assess Your College Credits

Students returning to college can likely transfer some of their previous credits. Many colleges feature similar low-division class requirements. Courses students completed in the past may fulfill their current credit needs. Talk to a school's transfer counselors to learn about credit equivalencies and transfer procedures.

Many schools also offer credit for prior learning. College-level examination program (CLEP) tests can help learners gain credits for what they already know. Some schools also let students submit portfolios of previous work to earn credit.

4. Pick the Best Program

Picking the right school and program can help students increase their chances of finishing college. Consider factors like cost, class offerings, and enrollment options when choosing a program. Look for programs that meet all your needs, whether academic or logistical.

Many learners returning to college appreciate the flexibility of online learning. Online programs can make it easier to balance school and work.

5. Get a Support System

Campus resources can help students returning to college succeed. Many schools offer support specifically for students readjusting to college life. Schools may offer academic counseling, financial aid assistance, or campus childcare.

Browse your school's website for academic services, student clubs, and other campus groups. You can also ask admissions counselors about available resources for returning students.

An Expert's Advice on Returning to College

Dana Bearer, associate director of transfer, adult, and graduate admissions at Clarion University of Pennsylvania

Q. Will My Previous Credits Still Count?

For the most part, yes. Some science and technology classes have five-year limits.

Q. Can I Receive Credits for Life Experience?

Yes. Schools can assess prior learning for college-level credit.

Q. Can I Receive Credit for Military Experience?

Yes. At Clarion, we require a Joint Services Transcript and a DD 214 when considering military credit.

Q. Will I Be Assigned an Advisor or Mentor?

All students receive an academic advisor in their major. Mentors may be from any discipline.

Q. Will I Receive Financial Aid?

All students are encouraged to complete the FAFSA to determine their financial aid eligibility.

Q. Do I Need to Take a Full Credit Load?

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


Below, Bearer Shares Some Tips for Reentry Students:

  1. Breathe: Do not let fear or anxiety prevent you from taking the step.
  2. Make a Plan: Create a financial, academic, and professional plan. This can help ease concerns associated with returning to college.
  3. Explore Your Options: There are a variety of schools, programs, and cost-effective options to consider. Research scholarships, reimbursement programs, military benefits, and federal aid.
  4. Do Not Overload Your Schedule: Ease into courses.
  5. Ask for Help: Seek assistance in the classroom, at home, and with your support system.
  6. Embrace the Fresh Start: Past challenges have little bearing on future success.
  7. Do Not Give Up: Returning, nontraditional, and transfer students have higher-than-average rates of persistence and graduation.

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Resources for College Re-Entry

The CollegeBoard offers this service to prepare students for higher education. The site primarily caters to high school students, but it also offers information on how to return to college. Students can explore FAFSA resources, college selection tips, and career paths. CLEP exams help students earn college credit for existing knowledge. Students who pass these exams can save money on tuition and earn their degree faster. CLEP exams come in many subjects, including history, literature, and math. The FAFSA determines learners' eligibility for grants, scholarships, and student loans. Students can also use the site to manage their loans after graduation. The site offers an extensive listing of scholarships, many of which serve students returning to college. Students can quickly browse scholarships, which list award amounts and application deadlines. Many schools offer services specifically for returning students. California-based Cerritos College hosts a Reentry Resource Program. This program provides information for returning students on how to finish college. The program offers personalized assistance for returning students, including counseling and scholarship information. Students can also get referrals to other campus resources. CSULB also offers specialized resources for students finishing college. The school's University Outreach and School Relations office advises students on college readiness and preparation. The office provides many resources for returning students, including academic advising and transfer counseling. Prospective students can also attend virtual and in-person transfer workshops. UofA offers specialized support for returning students. The school's reentry counselors can help students with credit transfers, admissions eligibility, and academic preparedness. Reentry counseling can also help students plan their return date and connect with other academic resources.

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