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Going Back to CollegeGoing Back to College: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is a Re-entry or Adult Student?
Re-entry or adult students (also called non-traditional students) are generally age 25 or over, with ages ranging from 25 to 69 at many colleges and universities. Re-entry students are often female; but men are returning to college in record numbers to update professional skills and further career advancement. Some may never have attended college or started college and then stopped because of personal, financial, or other reasons. Many have spent time in the workforce, the the military, or in raising a family, and want to go back to fulfill lifelong dreams or potential. Some are retired while others are single parents looking to achieve a better life. (The Department of Education recently reported that 13 percent of students now enrolled in college were single parents, up from 7.6 percent in 1993.) Economic reasons are a strong factor: students want to change careers or update professional credentials. Some adult students continue to work while returning to school while others attend part-time. It is never too late to go back to school. You may be just starting a degree program, returning to finish a degree, seeking a second degree or an advanced degree, or taking courses for occupational or personal enrichment.

Should I Go Back to College?
Millions of adult students successfully return to college to obtain a degree. However, they often have numerous responsibilities to consider when making the decision. These responsibilities can include marriage, children, work, community obligations, or care of elderly parents. The time and commitment needed to complete a degree program and balance these responsibilities can be a challenge.

Adults can also be concerned about fitting in with the younger, "traditional" students, or that they may be "too old." However, so many adults are returning to college that they are no longer being considered "non-traditional" students. Recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show that adult students are the fastest growing educational demographic, and these numbers are steadily increasing. In 1970, 28 percent of all college students were 25 years of age or older. In 1998 the number of adult learners had increased to 41 percent. The number of students age 35 and older in degree-granting institutions has soared from about 823,000 in 1970 to an estimated 2.9 million in 2001 — doubling from 9.6% of total students to 19.2%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Institute for Higher Education Policy reports that students aged 40 and older increased by 235 percent from 1970 to 1993. (Life After Forty: A New Portrait of Today's - and Tomorrow's - Postsecondary Students.) The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE) reports that students who are over 25 make up 47 percent of the new and returning student population on many of today's college campuses.

With increased longevity and an unstable economic future, more adults 55 to 79 are determing what they want to do in the upcoming years. The American Council on Education report, Framing New Terrain: Older Adults & Higher Education, shows more older adults are starting to return to college, pursue new career directions, start new businesses, and realize lifelong dreams. (For more inspiring information on these trends, please see our Special Reports section.)

The good news is, going back to college has never been easier. Many colleges and universities offer re-entry student services and campus childcare centers, and flexible course scheduling with classes one night per week, on the weekends, or in accelerated format. Students can now complete their degree program online on the Internet or through computer multi-media, broadcast television or correspondence courses. Statistics from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) show nearly four million students taking college courses through distance education. (For more information, see Online Education Gets Accolades, How Do Employers View Online Degrees, Tackling Online Degree Programs, and Should You Get Your Degree Through Distance Learning, which includes tips on how to choose a distance learning program.)

Do I Really Need a College Degree?
That would depend on personal career goals, but in general the higher the education, the higher the salary, and the better the career options and security. According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median annual income for employees with a high school diploma was only $27,915; for a bachelorís degree $51,206. Individuals with only a high school diploma were twice as likely to be unemployed as those holding bachelorís degrees. Those without a high school diploma averaged a yearly income of just $18,734.

Individuals who earn a master's or doctoral degree received an annual average of $74,602 or more. Over a lifetime, the gap in earning potential between the high school graduate and those holding a bachelor's degree or higher exceeds $1 million, according to the College Board.

Statistics project that 75 percent of future positions are expected to require at least some type of certification or licensure, and professions that require a bachelorís degree are projected to grow nearly twice as fast as the national average, making a college degree a good investment. Many adults find they need a college degree to enter their career of choice or for increased earning potential or advancement. Others are in career transition or find themselves back in the workforce because of divorce or economic conditions. With advancing technology and changing economic and employment conditions, many adults are experiencing an increasing demand to develop or update their knowledge and skills. (For more information on employment projections, see Career Planning.)

It is important to note that not all adults need to pursue a college degree. Certificate programs and vocational training can often provide the necessary professional training and expertise.

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