• Though returning to college can seem daunting, readers can seek help from admissions advisors to navigate the application process.
  • Readers should carefully consider their financial aid options before applying and look into loans, scholarships, and grants.
  • Readers should research transfer credit policies to determine if colleges will accept their previously earned credits.
  • Potential students can explore online degree options, which are often more flexible and less expensive.

People drop out of college for many reasons: family emergencies, financial concerns, academic issues, or a desire to change paths. About 40% of students drop out of college, with about 30% of first-year learners dropping out before their sophomore year. About 13% of dropouts went back to college within five years.

Going back to college after dropping out can help professionals change careers or earn a higher salary. Some students going back to college complete their degrees online to take advantage of flexible scheduling and cheaper tuition.

This page will help readers learn how to go back to college and answer the question, "should I go back to college?"

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it too late to go back to college?

Professionals can go back to college at any time, as long as they have the financial means and time available to complete their classwork. For those hesitant about the campus experience, an online degree program can be an attractive alternative; these programs offer greater flexibility and, in some cases, cheaper tuition.

Can I go back to college if I dropped out?

Dropping out of college does not automatically disqualify students from re-enrolling. Potential students can reapply to their original school or find a new school that better suits their needs. Admissions departments examine all applications on a case-by-case basis. Applicants should always research the specific requirements at each school for reapplying.

How do I start going back to college?

Will Brown, the executive director of recruitment and admissions at Clayton State University says, "Students should begin by doing research on the myriad of options and establishing contact with institutions of interest. … The earlier that students are able to start with the application process for admission to an institution, the more time they'll have before deadlines."

Do college credits expire?

"Students returning to college should prepare to have official transcripts of their previous coursework sent to the institution … Some institutions may only request previous coursework from a smaller time window, and others will request any and all transcripts, no matter how far back they may date," Black explains.

Should I Go Back to College?

Going back to school in your 30s — or at any age — requires serious consideration and research. Potential returners need to understand that institutional changes at colleges over the years may impact their experience and defy their expectations.

“Higher education today may be different than when a student previously enrolled earlier in their lives, but don’t let the complexity of the processes intimidate or scare you away from furthering your education.”

— Will Brown

Will Brown says, "Whether enrolling part time or full time, there are certainly adjustments to prepare for. The course instruction may be different than what students are previously used to, or it may not be what they expected. Oftentimes, it moves at a faster pace, with greater time commitments to studying and assignments outside of the classroom than initially anticipated."

However, readers determined to finish their degree can find a way. Online degree programs and part-time study options can help professionals earn a degree while maintaining work obligations. Colleges also offer helpful resources — both online and on campus — for students who need help navigating the system and choosing their courses.

What Are My Career Goals?

Earning a bachelor's degree can help professionals advance in their current careers or change to a new one. Professionals who dropped out of college earn an average of $1 less per hour than a two-year degree-holder, and $5 less per hour than a four-year degree-holder.

Going back to college after dropping out can seem daunting, but colleges offer more options than ever for degree completion. For example, students can pursue an online degree — sometimes at a lower cost than an on-campus program. Online degree programs usually provide flexible scheduling, asynchronous learning options, and the ability to study part time while still working.

Most colleges feature online programs, though not every school may offer the specific program a student needs. Readers should always research various degree program options before choosing a college.

Will I Be Able to Afford Going Back to College?

Going back to college typically costs a significant amount of money, and aspiring students must decide how they will afford tuition fees. While some professionals use their savings to meet tuition costs, others need some form of financial aid. Students may use federal or state loans, scholarships and grants, and/or other means of financial assistance to help cover their tuition.

Though students can use loans to pay for any part of their college expenses, they will need to repay the amount they borrowed — plus interest — at a later date. Scholarships and grants feature more stringent qualification requirements, but students need not repay these awards.

Readers can learn more about their financial aid options here.

Online students may qualify for targeted financial aid options. With this guide, readers can learn more about how to choose an online program, how to balance work and school, and how to find financial aid for online education. Readers should also note that some online programs may feature hidden costs or fees.

Am I Able to Manage School Along With My Other Responsibilities?

It can be challenging for full-time students to hold full-time jobs and meet the demands of their schoolwork. Because of this, many professionals who keep their jobs choose to study on a part-time basis. Even then, students must carefully budget their time and maintain open communication with their professors and their employers.

Many working students choose online degree programs because they offer increased schedule flexibility. Additionally, advisors can help students find the right classes and programs and establish a manageable graduation timeline.

Alternatives to Going Back to College Full Time

Readers can also explore other options for continuing education besides returning to college full or part time.

If professionals do not want to commit the time and money needed to earn a two-year or four-year degree, many colleges also offer certificate programs. Certificates provide career-specific training that students can complete in a year or less. Schools offer on-campus and online certificate program options, both of which usually cost less than earning a degree.

Readers can also explore options for continuing education units and free online courses. Many continuing education courses take place online and some, like massive open online courses, do not charge tuition. These classes may offer a certificate of completion, but do not lead to a degree.

How to Go Back to College

In the following sections, readers can learn more about how to go back to college. These steps provide a general overview of the process many returnees go through. However, readers should always conduct their own research and make sure they meet the specific requirements of their target programs.

Research and Apply

Choose a Program

Readers must first research colleges and determine what program best suits their needs. Not every college offers the same programs or concentrations, so readers need to cast a wide net at the beginning of their search. Prospective students should look into the difference between associate degree and bachelor's degree requirements. Associate degrees take less time and often cost less money, but bachelor's degrees can usually take professionals further in their careers.

Determine Admission Requirements

Every school features different admission requirements. First, readers need to determine if their past credits will transfer to their new university. Some colleges place time limits on transferable credits, while others do not. Potential applicants can look on a program's website or reach out to the college's admissions department with specific questions about their credits. Another step is to find out if they need to take placement tests or send transcripts from previous institutions.

Talk to an Admissions Counselor

Admissions counselors help candidates through every step of the application process. Applicants should make use of their knowledge and ask counselors questions about the programs, financial aid offerings, and admission requirements at a school. Admissions counselors may also help prospective students tour the campus and determine if they have found the right school for their academic needs.

Gather Materials and Apply

General application requirements include documents like official transcripts from previously attended postsecondary institutions, standardized test scores or placement exam scores, and financial information. Applicants should always keep track of deadlines — not all schools follow the same schedule. Almost every school offers an online application form that students must fill out and submit before the deadline. It may take several weeks to fully complete an application and gather all the necessary documentation.

“Every institution has professional staff members well educated on these steps for students. We're all here to help break down these barriers to enrollment and assist with students finding their best educational fit.”

— Will Brown

Prepare

Talk to an Advisor

Advisors can help students navigate the application processes for different types of financial aid, including student loans, scholarships, grants, and tuition plans. Students need not struggle through financial aid applications alone. Advisors also understand how to transfer credit, and will help wade through paperwork during the admissions process.

Apply for Financial Aid

Every type of financial aid requires an application. To qualify for federal aid, students must fill out the FAFSA. Many colleges also require FAFSA results, which are used to make determinations about how to disburse the institution's tuition assistance to students in need. Readers should also look into scholarships and grants, particularly those for adult learners and/or online students. Students do not need to repay scholarships or grants, which make them preferable to loans.

Transfer Credits

Transfer credits can come from many different places, including previous coursework, life or work experience, and professional training. Students should first determine whether their previous coursework will transfer, and if so, how much. Readers can ask an advisor or research the school's policy online. However, readers should also ask about earning credit through work experience, particularly if they plan to earn a degree in an area where they hold prior professional experience.

“Some institutions may only request previous coursework from a smaller time window, and others will request any and all transcripts, no matter how far back they may date.”

— Will Brown

Stay Organized

Create a Schedule

All students — but especially those who intend to continue working while attending school — should create a schedule to manage their time and course loads. Students on synchronous class schedules must track their class times and homework deadlines. Students following asynchronous schedules need to make time to take their classes to avoid falling behind. Keeping a schedule can help students develop a manageable routine, and staying organized should make studying and working easier for returning college students.

Stick to a Budget

Budgeting can help students stay in control of their finances and successfully pay for tuition. After factoring in financial aid, students should determine how much they must spend each semester on books, tuition, and other supplies. Students need to make sure they can meet these costs each semester. For more information on budgeting, readers can explore this link.

Use Your Resources

Returning students should take advantage of all the resources their college offers. Readers should always explore the academic and personal services — such as tutoring, counseling, and career advising — that schools provide to students. Additionally, don't be afraid to regularly communicate with your professors and ask them questions. Students can find information about their school's resources on the college's website or by asking an advisor.

Interview With a College Recruitment and Admissions Professional

Will Brown
Will Brown

Will Brown


Will Brown is finishing his 11th year in college admissions. Brown currently serves as the executive director of recruitment and admissions at Clayton State University. In his current role, Brown oversees recruitment and admission efforts for new dual-enrollment, undergraduate, and graduate students. He has previous experience at public and private universities, institutions in Georgia and in the Midwest, large and small colleges, and liberal arts and research universities.

What challenges do students face when going back to college?

Whether enrolling part time or full time, there are certainly adjustments to prepare for. The course instruction may be different than what students are previously used to, or it may not be what they expected. Oftentimes, it moves at a faster pace, with greater time commitments to studying and assignments outside of the classroom than initially anticipated.

In your experience, what are the main questions and concerns held by students who are returning to college?

Many returning students today are unsure about the financial aid process, as there are certainly yearly changes to applications, requirements, and state/federal award amounts. Many will also ask about who they'll be in a classroom with. Depending upon the institution and the degree program, there's a chance that there will be mostly traditional-aged (18-22 years old) students in the classroom, or it could be a more diverse setting with students of a wide range of ages and generations.

Do you see a large number of students returning to college to complete their degree? Do they end up finishing the degree they started or do they typically choose a new major/path?

Yes, at Clayton State we enroll a significant number of adult students each year in both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Some may change their major/path based on how their credits from previous institutions transfer in towards our various degrees, but many students have a good idea as to what they want to study based on their professional careers at these stages in their lives.

How does the process of transferring old college credits work?

Each institution is different when it comes to the awarding of previously earned college credits from other institutions. Students returning to college should prepare to have official transcripts of their previous coursework sent to the institution in order to determine the options for where in the degree program they should resume their education. Some institutions may only request previous coursework from a smaller time window, and others will request any and all transcripts, no matter how far back they may date.

How can students prepare to go back to college? What steps should they take?

Students should begin by doing research on the myriad of options and establishing contact with institutions of interest. Many colleges differ in cost, course instruction methods (on-campus, online, or hybrid classes), course times (daytime, evening, or weekend), and admission requirements.

The earlier that students are able to start with the application process for admission to an institution, the more time they'll have before other deadlines (financial aid, registration and academic advising, new student orientation, and more).

What are some mistakes you see students make when going back to college?

While there are many great institutions that are able to process documents to enroll a new student on an on-going basis, many have set deadlines that allow for enough time for the processing of all required documentation. These deadlines can vary from a few weeks before a term starts, to months in advance. The earlier you can get ahead of an application deadline, the better!

Anything else students should know about going back to college?

Higher education today may be different than when a student previously enrolled earlier in their lives, but don't let the complexity of the processes intimidate or scare you away from furthering your education. Every institution has professional staff members well educated on these steps for students. We're all here to help break down these barriers to enrollment and assist with students finding their best educational fit.

Student Stories in Continuing Education

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