How to Return to and Finish College

Planning to go back to college? This guide will give you helpful tips and resources to make the process easier so you can return to and finish college.

September 28, 2021

How to Return to and Finish College

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Approximately 40% of college students drop out before earning an undergraduate degree, according to EducationData.org. The majority of these learners leave school after their first year. Many factors can lead to this decision, such as expensive tuition, life changes, and challenging courses. Individuals who drop out often struggle in the job market and earn less than their peers.

Going back to college can help individuals qualify for higher-paying positions, such as operations manager, software manager, and registered nurse. An advanced degree may confer additional financial benefits. In addition to increasing their earning potential, college graduates often experience personal satisfaction. This feeling may inspire workers to pursue other professional and academic challenges.

The following sections explore common reasons that students drop out of college and how learners can return to school. This guide also features success tips and links to outside resources. Learners can research college and university programs that help nontraditional learners finish college. Many institutions offer remedial courses, academic success initiatives, and counselors who work with students returning to college after a gap in their education.

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Why Students Leave College

Some students find dropping out of school unavoidable due to one or more of the following reasons. Learners facing these circumstances should first research their school's retention programs. An academic or financial aid advisor may offer solutions that allow degree-seekers to graduate on time.

  1. Financial Issues

    Financial issues make it difficult for many degree-seekers to finish college. These issues may include increasing tuition costs, loss of financial aid or income, and excessive student debt. Learners may consider dropping out to be the only solution. Degree-seekers in this position should consult a financial aid advisor before making a final decision.

  2. Juggling Work

    Many college students pay for school by working full or part time. Although financially beneficial, juggling work and school can involve significant challenges. Degree-seekers may choose to leave school rather than lose their source of income. Although individuals who choose this route continue earning an income, they sacrifice the opportunity to increase their salary potential with a degree.

  3. Balancing Family

    Balancing family and school can put excessive pressure on degree-seekers. Related issues include experiencing a family emergency, getting married, and giving birth. These complications often impact learners' grades and lead to them leaving school. Fortunately, many colleges offer childcare and marital counseling services for students experiencing a family change or crisis.

  4. Academic Challenges

    Higher education's rigorous academic environment often challenges even students who excelled in high school. Learners without strong study, time management, and communication skills typically earn poor grades. Failing one or more classes may convince students they cannot succeed in college. Instead of dropping out, these learners can explore their school's academic support services, such as free tutoring.

  5. Lack of Support

    Some learners drop out of college because their school does not offer sufficient student support services, such as mental health counseling, academic tutoring, and career advisors. Other degree-seekers attend a school with these resources but do not know how to access them. In either case, learners may see dropping out as their only option.

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Understanding College Re-Entry

Students returning to college must follow their school's reentry process. Most institutions provide one-on-one assistance, offer free resources, and ensure eligible students receive transfer credit. These and other services help learners succeed academically and finish college.

Students can explore the following schools' resources to understand how returning degree-seekers access reentry program resources. Other colleges and universities may offer more or fewer services than those highlighted below. Learners should contact their prospective school's admissions department for details.

Cerritos caters to nontraditional learners' needs with personalized assistance, guides detailing relevant on- and off-campus services, exclusive scholarship opportunities, and success workshops. These and other resources accommodate learners who plan to work or raise children while earning a degree. Prospective degree-seekers can attend a reentry event to learn more. CSULB offers transfer workshops and specialized enrollment services for learners returning to college. The school's Open University program allows students to take individual courses without applying for admission. Open University also offers fully online certificates and degrees. Californians ages 60 and older pay a reduced tuition rate. Learners returning to college can consider UofA's Global Campus. The university employs reentry counselors who help students fill out forms, locate external resources, and access university resources. Some counselors work exclusively with veterans and individuals who have been out of school for more than 12 months.

Steps to a Successful Return to College

Going back to college requires learners to complete the steps below. Following this process helps create a plan, obtain financial assistance, select a program, and transfer credit. Admissions counselors and financial aid advisors help incoming degree-seekers with these and other tasks. Family and friends may also play a significant role in supporting students' academic journeys.

  1. Identify Your Why

    Students going back to college begin by assessing their goals. This step helps prospective learners identify their motivation for earning a degree. Common reasons that individuals pursue higher education include increasing their earning potential, supporting their family, and attaining personal satisfaction. Learners may also return to college to qualify for graduate programs.

    Prospective learners should discuss these reasons with family and friends. College admissions counselors can also help applicants identify their reasons for returning to school.

  2. Apply for Financial Aid

    Adults returning to college may need significant financial assistance to fund their education. Fortunately, the federal government offers generous grant programs to eligible students. Learners should submit the FAFSA form to determine how much federal funding they qualify to receive. The FAFSA includes questions about the student's income and taxes.

    If the learner's FAFSA results indicate that tuition costs exceed the amount the degree-seeker can afford, the learner qualifies for federal aid. Many institutional aid programs and private scholarship opportunities also use FAFSA results to determine students' eligibility for funding.

  3. Assess Your College Credits

    Learners returning to college may already possess college credit. These applicants should research schools' transfer credit policies. Choosing a college or university with a generous policy can help students save money and graduate sooner.

    Prospective students can contact admissions advisors for information about which credits will transfer. Some institutions offer an online research tool that allows users to compare course equivalences. Credits earned more than a few years prior to enrollment may not transfer.

  4. Pick the Best Program

    Some colleges and universities offer more than 100 majors and minors. The significant number of options may make selecting a major difficult. Prospective students should consider their preferences and goals before applying to college.

    Students should also consider whether they prefer to learn on campus, online, or in a hybrid format. Each offers advantages and drawbacks. Students can work with enrollment and academic counselors to decide which learning style works for them.

  5. Get a Support System

    Many students drop out of college because they lack a personal and academic support system. A learner's support system may include friends and family, mental health counselors, and peers. Adults returning to college can expand their support system by inviting coworkers and friends to finish their own degrees.

    Degree-seekers can also develop a support system by joining a club or attending study sessions with other learners. Many schools also provide on-campus and online support resources.

An Expert's Advice on Returning to College

Dana Bearer, Associate Director of Transfer, Adult, and Graduate Admissions

Q. Will my previous credits still count?

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

Q. Can I receive credits for life experience?

Yes. Prior learning can be assessed 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 for military credit to be considered.

Q. 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.

Q. Will I receive financial aid?

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

Q. 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 you determine the best course selection based on your individual goals.


Below, Bearer shares some common counsel for reentry students:

  • Breathe: Do not let fear or anxiety prevent you from taking the step.
  • Make a Plan: Create a financial, academic, and professional plan. 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, and federal aid.
  • Do Not Overload Your Schedule: Ease into courses.
  • Ask for Help: Seek assistance 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.

Resources for Students Returning to College

Learners returning to college can search the internet for the best programs, financial aid opportunities, and career advice. Organizations and agencies such as those below help degree-seekers meet their education goals. Prospective students can use the embedded links to learn how each service assists students.

BigFuture provides online tools that help college applicants research schools and explore careers. Users can take interest and career surveys to discover how earning a degree may help them advance professionally. Some schools allow returning students to earn credit by passing CLEP exams. The CLEP website features a list of participating colleges and current exams. College applicants visit the Federal Student Aid website to fill out the FAFSA. The service features an extensive question-and-answer section and walks users through the process of applying for aid. This resource features financial aid opportunities exclusively for adult students going back to college. Typical application requirements include a competitive undergraduate GPA and financial need.

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