Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ask the Administrator: Going Back to College

An adult reader emailed me a few days ago to ask for advice on how to go back to college.  I’m thinking this might be one of those times when all of us are smarter than any of us, so I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers will chime in.

From the email, I got the sense that she was at least in her mid-twenties.  She didn’t mention kids, so I don’t know.  So I’ll just work with “twentysomething working adult who wants to return to college.”  I’ll focus on the community college sector, though much of it would apply elsewhere, too.  So, here goes.

I’d start by doing a little research.  What’s nearby?  Most people live within a shortish drive of a community college, and the lucky ones live within a reasonable bus or train ride to one.  A fair number of community colleges have small locations separate from their main campuses, specifically to reduce driving time.  Sometimes the college website will tell you that, but Google Maps can be useful, too.  If there’s a location near you, whether it’s the main one or not, I’d start with that.

Check the college’s website for its list of programs.  (It’s usually under “Academics.”)  Not every college has every program.  If you know that you want, say, automotive tech, it’s worth looking; some community colleges have it and some don’t.  If yours doesn’t, and it’s what you want, don’t despair; just call the admissions office and ask for the nearest alternative.

I’d strongly, strongly, strongly advise to start with either community or state colleges.  Some for-profits are very good at targeting working adults, but -- with exceptions -- they tend to generate much more debt and much worse employment outcomes. Some of them aren’t even accredited, meaning that their courses won’t transfer anywhere.  Look for a college with the word “community,” “county,” or “state” in the name.  It’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s a good first-level one.  When you talk to someone in admissions, ask if it’s public.  If they get evasive, run away.

If you were in college before, it may be worth getting a copy of your transcript from your previous place and bringing it to the new one to see which credits you might be able to transfer.  Community colleges are known for transferring credits up the food chain, but they also accept credits either laterally or from four-year schools.  If you had a decent semester or two earlier before walking away, you probably won’t have to start over from scratch.  That can save time and money.  Don’t worry about grades; either you’ll get transfer credit or you won’t.  Either way, transfer credits don’t count towards your new GPA.  If it’s a community college, it won’t turn you away if your previous college career was spotty.  If it’s the same college where you crashed and burned years before -- if that applies -- many colleges have something like “academic bankruptcy” that will allow you to wipe the slate clean.  Don’t worry about a shaky academic past being held against you.  It won’t be.

If you have to take “placement tests,” ask for study materials or sample tests beforehand, and get some practice before taking the tests.  You may save yourself a semester or two, and quite a bit of money.  Math learned long ago can come back quickly once you shake off the rust, so do that before sitting down for the exam.  

If they offer “new student orientation,” go to it, even if it’s not required.  You’ll pick up good information here, like where the tutoring center is and how to get your parking pass.  If the college has online tutoring, as mine does, you’ll get a password and learn how to access that.  When you’re doing homework at night, that can be a lifeline.  The cost is included with tuition, so use it.

In the first few weeks, try to get to know somebody who works at the college.  It could be a counselor, a professor, someone on staff, or whomever.  These folks are helpful when you don’t know what you don’t know.  They’ll be able to connect you to resources, or to give you a helpful heads-up on things that might not be obvious.  (“The cafeteria closes early on Wednesdays, so bring something to eat…”)  This is an argument for not taking an entirely online schedule, especially at the beginning.  If you have to, you have to, but if you have a choice, try to get to campus at least once or twice a week.  It helps with a sense of belonging, which encourages completion.

This will sound absurd, but it’s true.  Better to take out modest loans than to overextend yourself working too much for pay while going to college.  Yes, debt sucks, and there are limits.  But you’ll need conscious, waking time to focus on reading and thinking.  If you’re too wiped out to do that, you’ll wind up either flunking out or dropping out, and be right back where you started.  If some modest borrowing allows you to reduce your work hours enough to be a dedicated student, you will reap the benefits after you graduate.  You probably hear a lot about student debt, and understandably so, but the real issue with debt is with college dropouts.  Students who graduate tend to be able to repay without much issue.  Make sure you graduate.

Some colleges -- not as many as would be ideal, but still -- offer onsite childcare.  Some have deals with local bus lines so your student ID works as a bus pass.  Most offer free or deeply discounted gym membership to students.  It can’t hurt to ask.

As far as books go, yes, they’re expensive.  Some classes will have Open Educational Resources instead of books, meaning the materials are free; seek those out.  For the ones that don’t, get the books before the first day of class, but don’t open anything shrink-wrapped until you get verification from the professor that you’ll need it.  If you open something with a software code only to discover that you don’t need it, its resale value is shot.

Finally, don’t worry at all about being surrounded by younger people.  Nationally, more community college students are over 25 than under it; you won’t stand out nearly as much as you think, and you’ll find a lot of people rooting for you.  It’s not high school again.  It’s a whole different thing.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add, suggest, or change?