College Prep for Adult Learners

You've been at your job for several years and things are going well. You receive regular raises and are offered upcoming projects first.

Over time, however, you've begun to notice that some of your co-workers are given first choice of the high-profile projects. The announcement of bonuses does not include your name. Often, discussions with co-workers lead to the question, "What is your alma mater and what was your major?"

The question is simple enough to answer -- you did not graduate from a college. When you joined the workforce, a high school diploma coupled with previous job experience was often enough to land a good job.

Today, employers are more selective. The stakes are higher for companies to remain competitive in a global marketplace. Therefore, they are looking for the best and brightest to fill their positions -- people with specialized skills usually obtained through higher or continued education. This increases the pressure on many working people.

Since you are not ready for retirement and want to maintain an adequate income in an interesting career, it's time to take a personal inventory and determine the steps you need to take towards enhancing your value to a current or potential employer. During your personal skills inventory, it may become evident that you must enroll in college and pursue an associate's or bachelor's degree to remain a successful competitor in today's global job market.

For an adult worker, acknowledging the need to go to college again, or for the first time, brings a flood of emotion and questions. These "non-traditional" students -- employed, maintaining a family, and with other adult responsibilities -- must balance a full life with a return to education. They may also worry about fitting in as freshmen in a class of students who may be the same age as their children.

The U.S. Department of Education article, Hidden in Plain Sight: Adult Learners Forge a New Tradition in Higher Education, suggests that there may be misconceptions about the average age of American college students. The article points out that 18- to 22-year-old undergraduate students residing on campus (usually considered "traditional students") account for only 16 percent of higher education enrollments. In fact, the vast majority of college and university students are "non-traditional" -- largely working adults balancing jobs, families and education.

Non-traditional adult learners are therefore very common. Moreover, they can make a valuable contribution to the overall learning experience in a college course. They can share their work and life experience with other students. As well, their knowledge of the real-life applications of the material may help them in their studies. Once you overcome the fear that you will be the oldest student on campus, there are special considerations for adult learners. Adult students' academic needs are usually different from those of the 18- to 22-year-old freshman, according to Jennifer Nordstrom, director of undergraduate admissions, and Kerry Fink, director of recruiting, at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois.

"The adult learner looks for flexibility and convenience when returning to college and, more often than not, many adult learners are holding down full-time jobs and have a family," say Nordstrom and Fink. "Those who can cut back on working full time and attend school full time can expect to take anywhere from 12 to 17 hours of college credit.... Some non-traditional students are looking for degree programs that are fulfilling a need, offering flexibility and speed. Many accelerated programs meet this need."

As a direct result of the number of adult learners entering college for the first time, many options are available to accommodate this growing group of college students. Many community colleges, four-year colleges and universities offer a variety of programs to assist working students. There are evening classes that meet once a week for 16 weeks, weekend classes and accelerated classes that meet several times a week for eight to 10 weeks. The college admissions officer can provide information and explain the various types of programs available.

Online courses and distance learning programs are a terrific option for adult students. They are offered by accredited colleges and universities worldwide. Such courses and programs are well-suited to those who are still employed full-time or have other limitations to attending classes on campus.

These options are not new, but their popularity has risen in recent years. In part, it is that technology has become more sophisticated while the cost of computers and software has dropped.

Colleges and universities are also aware that with the rising costs of operating their facilities, the corresponding rise in tuition makes conventional academic studies difficult for many potential students. Online and distance learning allows educational institutions to increase their student population without the extra cost of new buildings, new staff, etc.

The benefits of online courses and distance learning are therefore a win-win for the potential adult learner and academic institutions. The University of Phoenix, the University of California and Harvard University are just some of the well-known universities offering distance learning.

You can consult reference books at the public library for full listings of colleges offering distance learning options. The Internet is also an efficient way to find appropriate accredited educational institutions.

It's essential to make sure that the institution you select is accredited and credible in the job marketplace. There are some unscrupulous online "diploma mills" that charge high fees for worthless diplomas granted with minimal or no academic work. To obtain a degree from a diploma mill and present it as a legitimate credential is considered fraud. Check with the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to determine if an educational institution is legitimate before signing up and paying any money.

Even if it is online or at a distance, the financial cost of a college degree may still be prohibitive for the adult learner with other obligations. Keep in mind that there are several ways to finance a college education.

Check with your employer to see if your company offers any educational benefits. Some companies pay for courses outright while others have tuition reimbursement programs that refund your tuition costs when you have successfully completed a course. Make an appointment with the financial aid officer at the college. They have a wealth of information regarding scholarships, grants and loans.

"More and more adult learners show a high level of dedication and commitment to the pursuit of [their] degree and, in addition, understand the importance of time management," say Fink and Nordstrom of Rockford College. "Combining a college degree and professional experience may provide the adult learner a competitive edge when pursuing a career."