Going Back to College: The Myth of Starting Over

How to go Back to College

The benefits of a college degree are clear, but getting that degree isn’t easy, with high costs of education and personal obligations often getting in the way. As a result, many who desire a college degree aren’t able to begin college or have to drop out. However, later in life, many renew their desire to get a college degree. It stands to reason they have many questions, are intimidated with the prospect of going back to school or don’t know where to start. We’ll address these concerns and explain the good news: that going back to school doesn’t always require you to “start over” and take a full two or four years to get a degree.

The Realities of Returning to College

Returning to college is a significant commitment that requires a large investment of time and money. But just how much of an investment? Let’s debunk some of the myths about going back to college.

  • Myth: Going back to school would be starting over.

    Reality: This is a myth because it’s rarely true. Yes, depending on your chosen area of study and level of background knowledge, you may need to take remedial courses to reinforce the foundation you built in high school. But much of the time, any prior college credits you earned or work experience you’ve gained can be credited toward your new college degree.

  • Myth: It’s too difficult to balance work, school and other time commitments.

    Reality: While it might be difficult for an adult with a full-time job and family responsibilities to go back to college, it’s not impossible. There are many college programs that offer part-time and online courses for tremendous flexibility, which allows students to meet their professional, family and academic obligations.

  • Myth: I can’t afford to go back to college.

    Reality: Almost anyone who asks for financial aid will be eligible for at least some awards. It may not be a grant or scholarship, but rather a loan that must be paid back. But it will often be enough to help pay for the cost of schooling.

  • Myth: A college degree won’t make a difference anyway.

    Reality: A college degree makes a huge difference! For many positions, having a college degree is a prerequisite for applying. Even though you are the most qualified applicant for a position, except for the fact that you don’t meet the minimum educational requirement of a college degree, you may be refused a job offer. It’s not fair, but it happens all the time.

  • Myth: I’m too old to return to college.

    Reality: How does being 25, 35 or 55 affect your ability to learn? It doesn’t. In fact, going to college after spending time in the working world can actually be an advantage as it provides a perspective and context for the (often theoretical) material you are learning in class.

  • Myth: If I change my major, I won’t be able to apply my old credits toward a new program.

    Reality: No college degree program consists of only courses for the major. There are a number of foundational, elective and general education course requirements that go along with major courses. At the very least, you should be able to have old college courses transfer for elective credits.

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Online Learning for Working Adults

One of the easiest ways to return to college is through an online program. Attending college online is perfect for working adults because it provides the ability to tailor the pace of the learning to the students’ schedules. For instance, most college courses have lectures than can be “attended” anytime and anywhere with an internet connection. Online college also allows students to take as many (or as few) courses as they like to most effectively balance life, school and work.

Returning to School Checklist

So you’ve decided to head back to college, but where do you start? It begins with making sure the time and money it will take to get a college degree is worth it.

1. Confirm why you need a college degree.
Will the degree significantly improve your chances for professional advancement? Is it for a career change you truly want? What sort of increase in income can you expect after you finish your degree? Depending on your answers, it may be best not to return to college just yet, or perhaps change your intended area of study to make it more worth your time.
2. Assess your time.
If you’re an adult who must work full-time or take care of a young child in college, you’ll need to consider schools with part-time or online programs which offer the flexibility to balance your non-academic responsibilities.
3. Calculate any college credits you already have.
One of the biggest misconceptions about returning to college after an extended hiatus is that you’ll have to start with no college credits already under your belt. You can avoid this by getting college credit for prior college classes and work experience.
4. Research colleges you would like to attend.
A variety of factors must be considered, such as location, program availability, cost of attendance, availability of school-specific financial aid, academic reputation, quality of professors, post-graduation job prospects and campus feel.
5. Identify application requirements.
Once you’ve selected the schools you intend to apply to, you’ll need to figure out what’s required to apply. The typical application will include a form, transcripts, standardized test scores, an essay and letters of recommendation. Some schools will require an interview as well.
6. Complete standardized testing, if necessary.
If you’ve already been to college and are returning after a relatively short period of time (less than five years), you may be able to reuse your prior SAT or ACT test scores. If you need to retake either of these tests, you’ll need to plan to have your scores sent to the schools you’re applying to.
7. Get your transcripts ready.
You’ll need an official copy of your high school transcript included with your college application. And if you’ve attended another college or university, you’ll need to have them send a copy of your transcript too, especially if you’re looking to have some earlier college credits transferred to your new school.
8. Find people to write letters of recommendation.
Most college applications require letters of recommendation. Depending on your situation, it may take a while to find someone suitable for this task. And when you do, you’ll need to provide them ample time to write your letter of recommendation and still allow you to submit your application on time.
9. Apply to colleges.
Now you need to sit down and complete those applications. Many schools allow you to apply online. There’s also the Common Application, a universal application that works for multiple schools, thus saving you time. If you are returning to the same school you previously attended, meet with an academic advisor to discuss your application process.
10. Apply for financial aid.
To be eligible for federal financial aid, as well as most state and school-based aid, you’ll need to complete the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. There are also private scholarships and grants available through a variety of corporations and non-profit organizations.

Education and Lifetime Earnings Comparison

According to the College Board, in 2015, the median income for a full-time worker aged 25 years or older with a bachelor’s degree was $24,600 higher than the same adult who only had a high school degree. The statistics make it very clear: the more education you have, the more money you make. This chart clearly shows the connection between the level of education achieved and median earnings.

Associate Degree$819
Bachelor’s Degree$1,156
Doctoral Degree$1,664
High School Diploma$692
Less than High School$504

Getting Ahead:
Applying Credits and Experience Toward a Degree

When you’re starting over with college, it doesn’t mean you automatically have to restart your college credits. Through the transfer profess as well as the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, entering students can potentially start their first day of class with several college credits already on their transcript.

  • College Board’s College-Level Examination Program (CLEP)

    College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP, is a special program run by the College Board (well-known for administering the SAT). CLEP is accepted by 2,900 colleges and universities and allows students to test out of introductory college subject areas.

    Who uses CLEP?
    Anyone who attends a college or university that accepts CLEP may receive college credits through CLEP. CLEP is popular with students who desire getting a degree more quickly, especially adult students returning to college.

    Why might CLEP be a good option?
    Instead of taking a class over a semester, you can get credit for it in a few hours of testing. This is particularly useful for subjects you already know and understand, but need to take a course on to meet your school’s program requirements.

    How does it work?
    You begin by registering for a CLEP exam online. Then you can choose a nearby test center and schedule your exam. Lastly, you’ll need to make arrangements to have your CLEP test scores sent to your current school.

    What does it cost?
    A CLEP exams costs $85.00, although some testing centers may charge an additional administration fee.

    How do you know if your school accepts CLEP?
    To know for sure if your school accepts CLEP, you’ll need to speak with someone at your school. A faculty advisor is a good person to start with, as is an admissions officer. Even if a school accepts CLEP, they will have their own unique policies concerning minimum scores needed to obtain credit and limitations on how many college credits may be obtained through CLEP.

  • Transferring Earned Credits

    If you’ve taken college courses in the past, there’s a good chance you can still receive credit for those prior courses at your new school. Variables such as what grade you made in the course, the course subject and how long ago you took the course can determine whether you get credit and if so, how much credit you will receive.

    CALL-OUT: Transferring past college course credits to your current institution is one of the most common ways to avoid completely starting over your college career. How it works and its availability will depend on your current school’s transfer policies.

  • Using Work Experience to Earn College Credits

    Another option for starting college without starting over is to turn some of your work experience into college credits. The process of turning professional work experience into degree requirements will vary on each school’s own policies.

    For example, some schools will still require students to register for the class they have work experience in, but allow students to take their exams when they believe they are ready. This can allow students to complete a course in just a few weeks.

    In other schools, the students don’t need to register for the course, but instead formally apply to receive college credits for work experience. They must submit information that demonstrates what the student actually learned while working and how their on-the-job education is the equivalent of a course they would take in college.

Additional Resources

Returning to college is a big decision. Luckily, there are a variety of resources available to help with the process.

  • BigFuture
    The College Board’s comprehensive college planning resource, including choosing a school and paying for college.
  • CLEP
    The College Board’s official website for the CLEP exam, with tons of information on how it works, including figuring out if a school accepts CLEP.
  • College for Adults
    Funded through the Verizon Foundation, this website contains planning information for adults looking to enroll in college.
  • Dr. Mom’s Guide to College
    A website with plenty of advice for those attending college for the first time, especially on campus. Some of the advice won’t be applicable to adult learners living off campus or attending school online, but many of the basic principles will still be applicable.
    The official FAFSA website where students can begin their financial aid application process.
  • Federal Student Aid
    Part of the U.S. Department of Education, this website provides an unbiased and detailed explanation as to the financial aid process for college students.
  • National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA)
    A professional organization designed to support student financial aid assistance professionals. Its website contains great information on financial aid for college students.
  • The Princeton Review
    This is a test prep company, but they have an excellent College Advice section with useful information and guides on how to make the most of college.
  • U.S. Department of Education – Accreditation
    An online search tool from the Office of Postsecondary Education that allows users to find out if a particular school is accredited.
  • U.S. News & World Report
    Most well-known for its college rankings, U.S. News & World Report is an excellent source of college and university information, such as application fee, average test scores, school location, cost of attendance, etc.

Expert Interview

Portrait of Dr. Natalie Brown

Dr. Natalie Brown

Dr. Natalie Brown has been working in higher education for over ten years and particularly enjoys working with students from diverse backgrounds and cultures. She oversees the Academic Advisement office and the International Services team at Truckee Meadows Community College and is committed to helping students identify their interests and achieve their academic and personal goals.


Truckee Meadows Community College

What are some of your best tips for students who are considering going back to school?

When considering going back to school, there are a number of things to consider depending on each individual student’s circumstance. Some questions I have my students ask themselves when thinking about going back to school are:

  1. Are you in a position to move if the program you want to study is outside of your locale?
  2. Does the local community college offer the program you are looking for? Each community college has a Transfer Center you can connect with to ensure that all of your credits will transfer smoothly, if your end goal is a bachelor’s degree.
  3. Meet with an academic advisor even before applying to go over the steps to apply, programs of study, and what to expect. Most Academic Advisement offices are happy to meet with prospective students–don’t feel the need to apply first!

Where do students tend to get “tripped up” when they start the process of going back to school, and how can they avoid those pitfalls?

I think that many students get “tripped up” on the required courses for general education, specifically English and math requirements. Most students want to jump right in to classes they are more interested in, but those gateway courses in math and English are often prerequisites for other classes and students really need to think about taking these classes early on so that they don’t get hung up on completing a degree.

Generally, I hear about students who weren’t sure where to start but there are always people willing to help. Reach out to the Academic Advisement office to schedule a time (in-person, online, or over the phone) to talk about any questions you have and make sure you don’t get “tripped up.” That is what offices like myself are here to do–get students started on a path to goal attainment, whatever that goal may be.

Anything else you might like to add about going back to school?

Education opens so many doors. Don’t let hesitation and fear hold you back from at least speaking to someone about the many opportunities that are out there. This can mean speaking to an Academic Advisor, faculty member, or Financial Aid advisor. Get all the information you can before deciding that it just isn’t for you! Particularly at the local community colleges, we believe in accessibility at all levels. Get in touch with someone today.

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