Going Back to School as a Nontraditional Student

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When I graduated high school in 2006, not going straight to college was not considered an option in my family. Off I went to a private four-year university. I had battled with my mental health throughout high school, and it only got worse in college. I hopped from a private to public university before settling into community college. The only thing that changed more was my major.

Tired of going to school, and no closer to having a goal in life, I asked my advisor what degree I could graduate with. I ended my school career with an Associate of Arts in Liberal Arts and nearly $24,000 in student loans.

I eventually settled into working at an emergency veterinary clinic in client services. What woke me up to going back to school was when a former coworker came back a couple years later as a veterinarian. In the time I had spent working in a job that provided very little growth or advancement, she had gone and finished her doctorate. She was slightly younger than me but not by much and I thought — why not go back to school? What’s a couple years of work, if it meant tripling my current salary?

I did my research. I knew myself better than I had a decade ago, when I originally went to school. I knew my strengths and weaknesses. (How can we expect 18-year-olds to make a career path decision that will dictate the rest of their lives?) My mental health was doing better; maybe a mix of medication, therapy, and different life circumstances. I had worked in the real world to see what employers were looking for. I also knew what I didn’t want out of a job and what I did want. Knowing what you don’t want in a job may be more important simply because it can be the basis to drive you forward. I enrolled back into the community college that I had gotten my AA in and started attending classes as a nontraditional student.

What is a nontraditional student? Generally, nontraditional students fulfill at least one of the following qualifications:

  • over 25 years old
  • attends postsecondary at least part-time
  • works full-time
  • financially independent (not supported by parents)
  • has dependents
  • did not graduate high school

When I first started college in 2006, there was often an older adult auditing the classes in the back of the room. I was convinced they were more interested in arguing with the professor than actually learning the material. Now, my classes are peppered with nontraditional students. The National Center for Education Statistics saw nontraditional student enrollment grow by 13 percent between 2005–2015. The actual growth is assumed to be higher because the NCES only measures adult students in degree programs, not those going for additional job training or certifications.

Attending college as an adult is harder than it was when I was 18. I have a husband, a job, responsibilities, and bills to consider. We had to look into our personal finances, including our savings, and figure out where and how we could trim our budget. Eventually, my husband and I decided I would quit my job to focus on school and open myself up to internship opportunities. At my community college, in-person classes were also far cheaper than online.

If you’re wondering how you could pay for college, there are options available that do not involve loans.

If you went to college previously, you probably remember the annoyance of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). I remember attending a FAFSA seminar with my mom and going through all the hassle to only find out my parents made too much money for me to qualify. Being financially independent actually made filling it out easier. You can even connect your FAFSA to the appropriate IRS tax return to save time on the application process, if you’re comfortable with that. By filling out the FAFSA, you can also find out if you’re qualified for the federal Pell grant which can be as much as $6,095 for the 2018-2019 school year if you meet the grant’s criteria. This is all “free” money that does not need to be paid back.

Of course, there are also scholarships. The college or university you apply to will probably have some scholarships of their own, but you can also search the internet for them. Perhaps the company you work for also has scholarships or incentives available for returning students. While these require more work (normally writing an essay, local volunteer work, or meeting with a board), it is still money that you will not have to pay back. Some scholarships are reoccurring as long as you match their criteria, which means you’ll get the money every semester or year you’re enrolled.

There’s also the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which you can receive for up to four years (these years do not need to be consecutive!). If you are attending an accredited university, they can provide you with the 1098-T form required to claim the credit. While this doesn’t help you when you’re paying that first semester’s tuition, it’ll help reduce your tax burden the next spring.

These are all options to exhaust before going down the rabbit hole of student loans.

There’s one big benefit to going back to school as an adult: I can concentrate better on my studies. I’m not distracted as easily; or if I am distracted, the distractions are normally warranted such as cooking dinner or changing the laundry. I also take my classes more seriously. I used to put the “pro” in procrastination when I was younger. I can’t tell you how many times I told my parents I needed supplies for a project that was due the next day when I’d already had a week to work on it. Now, doing well is the priority. I don’t simply want to pass the class, I want to truly learn and understand the material. That means giving myself time to ask questions if issues arise.

It does get frustrating to be with younger students who may not be taking the same priority with their studies. I now roll my eyes at the students who try to get the teacher off track to postpone tests or paper due dates.

So far, I have found only one negative of going to school as an adult: namely, the dreaded backpack. I have trouble embracing ebooks as textbooks because I like being able to flip back and forth when looking for answers. This caused a problem on my first day of classes when dragging around all of my books — I pulled a muscle in my shoulder that took about a week of heating pads to feel better. Then, of course, I tweaked it again when cleaning the house and spent another couple days with the heating pad. Most textbooks offer an ebook alternative, either with or without the print edition. For the sake of our aging backs, embrace the technology and leave the book at home!

Karina Masih-Hudson is a 30-year-old college student pursuing her degree in Data Analytics. She lives in Ohio with her husband, five cats, and two rabbits.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

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