Going Back to School as an Adult Learner

A degree may open the door to a variety of opportunities and diverse career paths. The degree programs offered at AIU will not necessarily lead to the featured careers. This collection of articles is intended to help inform and guide you through the process of determining which level of degree and types of certifications align with your desired career path.

Millions of adults in the United States are going back to school. In fall 2021, total enrollment in U.S. postsecondary institutions was 19,036,612, and 6,418,366 of those students were age 25 and over—meaning that adult learners made up about 33.7 percent of the postsecondary student body.1

But returning to college as an older student can come with its own set of challenges. Many adults have responsibilities—like family, a career, or a family and a career—that can’t be put to the side as they pursue their academic goals. Adult learners need flexibility, and distance learning programs could offer a lot more flexibility than traditional, in-person programs. But flexible scheduling is just one of a few considerations adult learners must face.

If you’re feeling unsure or stressed about going back to school as an adult, the first thing you should remember is that you’re not alone (a third of college students are adult learners, remember?). Take a deep breath and keep reading as we explore some other questions you might be having, such as “What should I go back to school for?” or “What are the steps for going back to college at this stage of my life?”

Going Back to College as an Adult

There tends to be an assumption that the path to college is “supposed” to go like this: graduate from high school, have summer break and then start college classes in the fall. And for many adults who are thinking about going or preparing to go back to school, that might even be how your academic journey began—you may have started college but just didn’t finish. But now that you’re older, have more life experience and possibly a full-time job, you may want to go back and complete the degree you started.

But spouses, children and full-time jobs don’t always fit into a traditional full-time college student schedule. If you have these types of responsibilities, then online classes that make it possible to study on your own time and without having to commute anywhere aren’t just a nice option, they’re a necessity for going back to college.

American InterContinental University offers flexible, fully online degree programs designed to address some of the challenges of returning to school as adult. In addition, we offer various ways for you to earn prior learning credit, which can reduce the number of courses you have to take and even reduce your time to degree completion. With AIU Accelerate,, you have the opportunity to earn college credit for past experience, including:*

  • Professional or work experience, including industry trainings and evaluated non-college programs
  • Professional or industry certifications
  • Standardized tests, like AP, CLEP, DSST and Excelsior
  • Individualized assessments, including portfolios or experiential essays
  • AIU challenge exam scores to test out of courses

*Prior learning, including transfer credits, are evaluated on an individual basis. Not all credits are eligible to transfer. See the University Catalog for transfer credit policies.

What Is Adult Learning?

If you’re an adult who has any experience with children, you might know that children and adults learn differently, even if you don’t necessarily understand why. According to Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory model,2 there are six adult learning principles, which are essentially six general assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners, which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Need to Know. Adult learners need to know why they should learn something, i.e., why it’s valuable.
  2. Learning from Experience. Adult learners learn through and from personal/prior experience.
  3. Self-Concept. Adult learners want to have control over their learning.
  4. Readiness to Learn. Adult learners want learning to be immediately relevant or applicable.
  5. Orientation to Learning. Adult learners want to learn knowledge or skills that help them solve a problem.
  6. Intrinsically Motivated. Adult learners are motivated by internal factors (e.g., wanting to succeed) more than external pressures (e.g., wanting to please the instructor).

Though these adult learning principles are helpful in understanding how to teach adult learners, they could also be helpful in understanding your own motivations. Think about it—if you’re mid-career or juggling family obligations and are thinking about going back to school, it’s probably because you see value in studying a certain topic and pursuing a degree (after all, you’ll have less time to dedicate to yourself and your existing obligations—which means you’ve determined that the additional time commitment is “worth it”).

As an adult learner, you also likely want the ability to control when and how you work (taking online classes when it’s most convenient versus in-person classes that happen at a set time) and to be able to apply the skills you’re studying in your professional endeavors. Your prior learning experiences and prior life experiences may be relevant to your education and potentially count toward college credit, and you may also be able to apply what you’ve learned through those experiences to new concepts being presented in your courses.

And last but not least, as an adult learner going back to school, you’re motivated to pursue your chosen degree program because you want something specific out of it—to potentially help you advance in your current career, help you prepare to pursue a new career path or finish something you already started (for example, if you have some college experience but never completed a degree program).

How to Go Back to School as an Adult

Preparing to go back to school as an adult differs in some ways from preparing to go to college straight out of high school. To start with, aspiring adult learners don’t have guidance counselors to help them navigate the college application process. You’ll need to investigate various pre-admission requirements yourself—for example, what standardized test scores are needed (if any) and whether your chosen program mandates certain licensing requirements (particularly relevant in education and nursing programs, for example). It’s also up to you to explore various financial aid options and ways to earn credit (to help you save money on tuition and time to degree completion).

How to go back to school as an adult might also involve more “schedule juggling” than it would if you were an unemployed young adult pursuing a degree in a full-time program. If you have a spouse or partner and/or children, you might have to ask them to take on additional responsibilities while you’re pursuing your degree so that you have more time for studying. Maybe an older child can help with meal preparation, or maybe your spouse or partner could drive your children to activities or shop for groceries to free up some of your time. You might need to become even more organized—maybe that means planning out your activities further in advance than you’re used to or utilizing a shared calendar (whether a calendar app or a calendar you post in the kitchen or other shared space) so everyone is on the same page as to your availability.

What Should I Go Back to College For?

Once you’ve decided that you want to go back to school, the next step is to think hard about what to go to college for. What are your goals? Are you content with your career path and want to pursue a degree program to help you become more knowledgeable in your field and potentially seek advancement opportunities? Do you want to switch focus and study an entirely new field? Or when there is more than one option—for example, maybe you have a choice between pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology (IT) degree program or a Bachelor of Business Administration with a specialization in Technology Management — how do you know which one better suits your goals?

Reflecting on why you’re going back to school, doing your research to determine which degree program best aligns with your career path aspirations and talking to friends and family could all be beneficial in helping you ultimately decide what degree program to pursue.

Prepare for the Challenges of Going Back to College as an Adult

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing some of the realities and considerations that are unique to adult learners, and maybe you—as an adult learner yourself—are still feeling a bit overwhelmed. If that’s the case, you can try to regain your focus by remembering the following advice for adults going back to college:

  1. Focus on schools that tailor their degree programs to adult learners and which offer flexibility via fully online degree programs—this can make it easier to fit your class schedule into your life instead of adjusting your life to fit around your class schedule.
  2. Make sure you understand the financial commitment that going back to school entails and investigate all potential financial aid options.
  3. Determine your reasons for going back to school and choose to pursue a degree program that you feel best matches your goals.
  4. Enlist the support of friends and family whenever and however possible.
  5. Stay organized—use a calendar to keep track of work and family obligations and utilize a shared calendar whenever possible so that everyone is on the same page.

Ready to learn more? Check out our Student Admissions Process page for more information.

1 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, “Student Enrollment: How many students ages 25 and over enroll in postsecondary institutions in the fall?,” https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/TrendGenerator/app/answer/2/8 (last visited 8/14/2023).
2 See Malcolm S. Knowles, Andragogy in Action: Applying Modern Principles of Adult Learning (Wiley, 1984).

American InterContinental University cannot guarantee employment, salary, or career advancement. Not all programs are available to residents of all states. Financial aid is available for those who qualify. REQ1963879 9/2023

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