Attending College as a Non-Traditional Student


Recently Michelle shared that W was returning to school, and asked for some tips for non-traditional students. I recently graduated, and now my fiance is going to college for the first time.

We’re about as non-traditional as it gets, both being far beyond “traditional” college age, and having children. So I’ve got a plethora of tips that have been helping us get through this stage in our lives. And Michelle was kind enough to let me share them in a post.

Work as Little As Possible

I know that sounds crazy. As a non-traditional student, you’ve got very grown-up bills to pay. But trust me. If you’re serious about your degree, trimming down your work schedule will help not just your grades, but your overall mental health. I am not suggesting you go into debt in order to go back to school. (Both my fiance and I are doing this without any loans.)

What I am suggesting is that you sit down and look at your monthly budget. Look at your bills, how much you’ll need to be contributing to your emergency fund, how much you’ll need for other essentials such as gas and groceries, and a realistic entertainment category (though it might not be a bad idea to trim it down a little bit if you can).

Figure out the lowest number you’re willing to commit to (be realistic about this) for your overall monthly budget.


Now, figure out the minimum number of hours you’d have to work in order to meet that number. The next step is having a conversation with your boss about lowering the amount of hours you are working every week as you return back to school.

I was really lucky when I decided to go back to school. I was able to not work at all. Granted, part of that was because I was having a child at the beginning of my return to my education, and daycare costs would have been more than my working salary at the time.

My fiance supported me through the completion of my degree, and for that I am so thankful. But I did things to contribute to our combined coffers, too. And it’s something you can do if you don’t have someone there to help you out with the bills:

Apply for Scholarships

I know this sounds obvious. But so many people don’t apply because they think they won’t qualify. Or they won’t be able to write a perfect essay. Or a million other reasons. Just do it.

Start with the scholarships at your school and branch out from there. (I wouldn’t necessarily apply at sites such as FastWeb….your odds are so low when there’s so many people competing.)

When you’re applying, first look for any scholarships you can get your hands on; they all cover tuition. But once you have your tuition fully-funded, look for scholarships that cover tuition and other educational costs. With these, your school with cut you a check for every penny that’s paid above and beyond your tuition.

For example, if your tuition is $5,000/semester and you get $6,000 funded via scholarships, the school would cut you a check for $1,000 that semester. That $1,000 (or however much over you earn in scholarships) can then be used for things like books, rent, groceries, etc. Depending on how much you earn you may find that you’re able to stop working and focus completely on school, too.

Get Involved Without Over-Committing

A great way to kick-start your career is to be involved in a fraternity, national club, or some other scholarly organization pertaining to your field. Doing so can also increase your networking power when you’re looking for a job after graduation. So join. Something. Get involved. But be incredibly aware of your constraints.

Are you working? Then don’t promise to volunteer as a full-time “job.” Do you have kids? Then don’t say you can serve as club president when the weekly meetings are held when you need to be getting the kids off the bus.

Make a Schedule

Scheduling is so incredibly important. Make sure you schedule for things like

  1. class

  2. work

  3. study hours

  4. socializing/relaxation

  5. school organizations

If you’re in a relationship, have kids, or other people that depend on you, there’s even more you have to schedule for, and it’s incredibly important:

  1. date nights

  2. time to talk and catch up with each other

  3. time to spend with your kids/whoever else may depend on you

The task can seem daunting. It can even be tempting to eliminate things on that list. But remember, you’re in this for about four years. Can you really go four years without socializing? Maybe. But you’d probably be hating life. Can you skip the talks with the girlfriend? Probably. But only if you’re trying to kill your relationship. And the studying? It’s necessary if you want to be any kind of good in the the field you’re entering. Schedule purposefully, and live life accordingly.

Spread It Out

If you’ve done the fall semester full-time and it’s just way too stressful or your grades are suffering, instead of giving up try going half-time in spring. Then you can go half-time in summer, too, and not be behind on your classes.

Most of the classes offered in summer are general electives that a lot of people need to take, so keep that in mind. If you’re receiving financial aid such as a Pell Grant or state aid, if you go half-time you’re only awarded half of your grant.

The other half that you qualify for can be applied to the summer semester and completely cover it the same as if you had gone full-time in the spring. So you’re not losing any money. At least that’s how it worked at my school.

Double-check with your financial aid office. And if you’re concerned about not having a summer break, don’t worry. Most schools have a 3-4 week break between Spring and Summer semesters, and then another 2-4 week break between Summer and Fall.

Think Ahead

If you’re going to do something like an internship at the end of your course of study, think about that now. How will that work out with work? If you have kids, how will childcare work?

Talk with your boss about it early so that they know to expect it and you all have time to work out a viable solution to give you the time you need to complete that internship (without bidding your current employer a premature adieu.) Give yourself years to figure out the whole childcare debacle instead of just weeks or months.

You Will Be Stressed.

And that’s okay. That’s normal.

That’s why scheduling things such as socialization, relaxation, and date nights are important. If you’re in a relationship with someone who is going back to school, it’s going to change your status quo. There will be stress, and stress usually leads to fights.

You will most likely fight. But that doesn’t mean that your relationship is crap. It means you’re stressed out, and you both need to find ways to cope better. Which is why scheduling time to talk and connect is so important.

Going back to school as an adult who isn’t fresh out of high school comes with a complex set of challenges.

Family responsibilities, work responsibilities, and just general grown-up bills and concerns can weigh you down. But don’t let them hold you back. Those few stressful years are so worth it. And you can hold your head a little higher than those younger kids when you walk at commencement, because you know that you had to work a little harder to hold that degree in your hand. But you didit.

What tips do you have for someone going back to college as an adult? How was your experience?

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