How to Return to and Finish College

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Going Back to College After Dropping Out

Around 30% of college freshmen never return for their sophomore year, and 40% of undergraduates leave college without a degree. Students leave college for many reasons, including financial hardship, work conflicts, and academic pressures. The average cost of college tripled in the past 20 years, pushing many students to drop out.

Leaving college without a degree costs students $3.8 billion in lost earnings each year. Fortunately, many colleges offer re-entry paths for adults returning to college. Learners who go back to school benefit from specialized scholarship programs, transfer credit opportunities, and flexible enrollment options like online degrees.

This guide walks through the process of returning to college. We cover common reasons for leaving college, higher education re-entry programs, and a step-by-step approach to returning to college. We also offer guidance on finding scholarships for returning students and grants for adults returning to college.

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Why Students Leave College

College life can be hard, and students leave college for a variety of reasons. Some face a personal or family crisis that requires them to withdraw from school, while others leave because of financial barriers. Fortunately, learners returning to college can navigate these problems by planning ahead.

  • Financial Concerns

    College costs continue to rise, as does student loan debt. Students often leave college because of these financial concerns. If financial aid sources lapse, like grants or scholarships, students may need to temporarily leave school until they can afford to re-enroll. Financial challenges can disrupt college attendance, but making a financial aid plan helps students return to school.

  • Academic Demands

    Incoming freshmen sometimes feel overwhelmed by the demands of college. High school may not offer adequate preparation for the academic rigor of college, and the less structured environment leads to struggles for some students. Many adult learners find themselves better prepared for the academic pace of college.

  • Work Conflicts

    College students generally work while in school. In 2018, 43% of full-time students worked, as did 81% of part-time students. Balancing college life and work life challenges many students who struggle to stay on top of their coursework. Rather than leave their job, some students put their college plans on hold.

  • Direction and Connection

    Many students struggle with choosing the right college and fitting in on campus. Whether from a lack of advising support or a sense of disconnection, students who feel directionless in college may drop out. Learners returning to school often benefit from knowing more about their needs and interests, making it easier to find the right fit.

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Understanding College Re-Entry

Re-entry students formerly attended a college or university but stopped attending at some point. For example, an undergraduate who left the University of Central Florida two years ago without earning a degree and wants to re-enroll would be a re-entry student.

Many colleges offer specialized resources for re-entry students. Since these students used to attend the college, they may not need to apply for admission to enroll in classes. However, the requirements vary depending on the school. The University of Arizona, for instance, offers a different re-entry path for students enrolled within the past 12 months and those who attended more than one year ago.

Re-entry offers a smooth path to continuing a degree. Rather than submitting transcripts and undergoing a credit evaluation process, re-entry students benefit from picking up where they left off. College re-entry services help learners navigate the process of returning to college.

  • Re-Entry Resource Program, Cerritos College

    Cerritos College offers a re-entry resource program for students returning to campus after a gap. Learners receive personalized assistance during the enrollment process, access to campus resources, and the option to enroll in success workshops. Cerritos College also offers re-entry scholarships to support learners.

    Explore Here

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

    CSULB provides specialized support for adult learners and nontraditional students pursuing a degree. The re-entry services help learners apply as a transfer student and enroll in classes. The office also connects students with certificate programs, professional courses, and other options that may not require regular admission.

    Explore Here

  • Returning Students, University of Arizona

    At the University of Arizona, returning students work with re-entry counselors to resume their degree. Learners who left within the past year plan a return date and work with an academic advisor to resume classes. The university also offers continuing education support for students who left more than a year ago or returning military students.

    Explore Here

Why You Should Return to College

Returning to college offers several benefits. For one, college graduates generally earn higher salaries. Compared to professionals with some college but no degree, those with a bachelor’s degree earn a median pay of nearly $19,000 more each year. Many careers also require a bachelor’s degree for entry-level positions, and returning to college helps professionals move into different careers or advance in their current field.

Students with prior college experience can transfer their credits toward a bachelor’s degree to save money. By investing in a strategy and seeking out support, learners successfully return to school.

5 Steps to a Successful Return to College

The transition back to school can feel overwhelming. In this section, we provide a step-by-step guide to successfully returning to college. Steps like identifying your motivations and applying for admission and financial aid make it easier to return to college after a break.

Define Why You Want to Return
Understanding your reasons for going back to school can make it easier to select a school, choose a major, and qualify for scholarships. For example, many learners return to college to increase their earning potential. However, seeking a degree to advance in your current career or to switch into a different field require different paths. Once you know why you want to return to school, you can find the best path to reach your goals.
Apply for Admission
Whether you decide to start over at a new school or return to your former school, you will likely need to apply for admission. During the admissions process, applicants submit transcripts, recommendation letters, and essays. Most learners do not need standardized test scores or their high school transcripts. Instead, they submit college transcripts to receive transfer credit toward their degree. Many colleges offer admissions advisors to smooth the process and help returning students enroll in classes.
Speak with an Advisor
Before enrolling in classes, talk to an academic advisor about your transfer credits and your degree plan. Sitting down with an advisor helps returning students maximize their prior credits and avoid repeating classes or taking the wrong courses. For example, colleges may not accept credits from an unaccredited institution, so students may need to repeat courses. An advisor can also recommend majors that line up with the student’s completed credits. This step can potentially save students thousands in tuition costs.
Assess College Credits
A bachelor’s degree typically requires a minimum of 120 credits, and many schools accept up to 90 transfer credits. Since students often pay by the credit, maximizing your transfer credits saves money. Colleges typically offer a transcript review to determine transfer credits. An advisor can help students navigate the process of earning credits for work or life experience. Once you assess your transfer credits, you can create a degree plan to earn the remaining credits toward your degree.
Apply for Financial Aid
Returning students qualify for many forms of financial aid, including federal student aid programs. Every student should plan to fill out the FAFSA for federal aid programs and spend time researching grants for returning learners, including the Pell Grant. In addition, search for scholarships for returning students, including opportunities based on your major, school, state, and career goals. Applying for financial aid helps returning degree-seekers afford college.

  • 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 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 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.

Expert Advice for Returning to College

Dana Bearer

Associate director of transfer, adult, and graduate admissions


Clarion University


Clarion, PA

Do not let fear or anxiety prevent you from taking the step.
Make a Plan
Financially, academically, and professionally. A plan 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.
Do Not 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.
Do Not Give Up
Returning, nontraditional, and transfer students have higher-than-average rates of persistence and graduation.

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

Resources for Students Returning to College

Students returning to college benefit from resources to find scholarships, apply for financial aid, and choose a school and major. The following resources help returning learners relaunch their college career. In addition to these resources, you should consider scholarship search tools, including Niche, College Board, Peterson’s, and other sites to help pay for college.

  • BigFuture BigFuture offers college planning resources, including information on College Board services, tips on returning to college, and a college planning program. The site also offers career resources and information on colleges.

  • CareerOneStop CareerOneStop provides information on careers and the transition from a college program into the workforce. The site boasts a local training finder to identify programs and learn more about costs, online options, and internship opportunities.

  • CLEP The College-Level Examination Program lets learners earn college credit by passing an exam. With exams in composition, world languages, social science, business, and science, students can meet general education requirements through CLEP. Nearly 3,000 colleges and universities accept CLEP exams.

  • Federal Student Grant Programs The federal student aid program awards grants to undergraduate and graduate students. The Pell Grant program provides up to $6,345 per year for income-eligible students, and the TEACH grants support teachers earning a degree.

  • National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators NASFAA provides information on federal student aid programs. The nonprofit offers tips for filling out the FAFSA, accepting federal aid, and determining eligibility. NASFAA also offers information on state financial aid programs.

  • U.S. Department of Education - DAPIP The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs lists accredited colleges and programs. The U.S. Department of Education provides the database to help prospective students identify accredited schools and programs.

  • U.S. News & World Report U.S. News & World report delivers rankings and tools on colleges. The site also lists scholarships, provides financial aid advice, and offers other advice for college students.

Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

See more articles by Genevieve

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