Getting college right the second time around
November 22, 2008 10:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I get college right a very belated second time around?

My college experience sucked. I chose a very small, church-affiliated college for all the wrong reasons and it was a terrible fit for me, largely because I was 16 years old and had no business on any college campus, especially not one 800 miles from home. Anxiety, homesickness and a sense of not belonging led to mediocre grades, poor social connections and I lasted through an academic year, took a year off, stupidly went back to that same school for a semester, then gave up and dropped out in defeat.

Fast forward. It's now (a shameful) 17 years later. I took one semester of classes at the local community college about 12 years ago. That was my last experience in a classroom. I'm now 35 years old, single and working as an administrative assistant, not my life goal. I want to go back to school, do it right this time, get a degree, actually accomplish something. I know what I want to pursue, but I'm not any more sure how to find a school which is a good fit for me now as I was back then.

Beyond the academics, what should I be looking for in a school? I won't be living on campus this time around so my "needs" are quite different, but I'm honestly not sure what my needs are. Do I need a specific "non-traditional students" program? I have a mobility-limiting handicap, should I look for a school with the most accessible campus/best services for students with disabilities?

I know which schools are my first to look at (because they're all local and I won't have to move) but I'm at a complete loss as to what I'm supposed to be assessing. Ultimately, I'd like not only earn a BA, but also a Masters and a professional certification, and I don't want to get derailed and messed up again. How do I avoid that?
posted by anonymous to Education (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I just returned to school after a 6 year hiatus, and honestly the reason I went back was that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I approached an advisor in the school I was interested in and talked to him about all my options as far as classes, creating a graduation plan, etc.

I chose the big flagship land grant university mainly because that is where I began school, and secondly because it was easy to return to in terms of applying for classes.

As far as the non-traditional student thing goes, in my experience, most schools will be very accommodating.

I think that doing well in classes and avoiding the 'burnout' problem is easy if you know exactly what you want. Before I dropped out my GPA barely hovered over 2.0, and now I'm averaging barely under a 4.0.
posted by schyler523 at 10:58 PM on November 22, 2008

I'm sorry your first attempt sucked, and I hope the second time makes up for it. I'm a fairly recent college grad, so you might take my comments with a grain of salt as I haven't been in your position. However: I highly doubt you'll need a specific "non-traditional students" program. For personal social comfort, you may want a place that draws a diverse range of students in terms of age and background just so you're not stuck in classes that are 100% snotty 18-year-olds. What came to my mind first was a school with a significant number of students coming in after military service (they'll be older and the mix of backgrounds in the student body will be greater). Also think about schools that have flexibility in terms of undergrads taking graduate level courses--that'll allow you to mix with a broader range of people. I say all this simply because I assume being in class with all 18-year-olds straight out of high school would be annoying, not because you as a student would have trouble succeeding in such a class.

The mobility issue is something to think about, and I know there are some schools that are really great about accommodating students with disabilities. But I would think that you should prioritize the school(s) with the best program(s) in your desired field and then discuss your mobility needs with the appropriate office before making a final decision.

Generally speaking, I think the first thing to assess is the quality of any given university's program available in your field, then your ability to get around campus (or whatever your handicap concern would be), then your comfort level with the campus and students. Based on my (admittedly limited) interaction with older students in college, you have an advantage (you're going to college because you're serious about getting the degree, not because your mom made you do it) rather than a disadvantage. So absolutely assess the schools you're looking at--just think of it as an actual assessment: "Do I want to pay these people tuition and get my degree here?" rather than "Will this place put up with me even though I couldn't handle college 17 years ago?"
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:08 PM on November 22, 2008

Oh wait--the thing about the non-traditional students program. I had assumed you would be taking classes full time. If that's not the case and you need evening classes or need to put all your classes on two days per week, then a school with a specific program would be good.
posted by Meg_Murry at 11:11 PM on November 22, 2008

Have you looked into something like Goddard College in Vermont? They have a limited residency program that depending on what you want to study, might be ideal. You spend about a week a semester on their campus and the rest of the time you work from home and they specialize in adult students. I bet that they'd also be pretty amenable to working with you on mobility issues for the time that you're there as well.
posted by youcancallmeal at 11:36 PM on November 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm an ex-admin assistant, 5 classes short of my Bachelor of Multimedia Studies with a near perfect GPA. I'm 41, and this is my third attempt. I can't give you any tips about schools to choose because I'm in Australia, but in terms of study:

+Schedule it - write up a calendar and stick to it. Try to get ahead of requirements. It's harder to do an all-nighter at this age to turn a piece of work in because you had the flu all last week.

+Be incredibly organised
* in keeping your notes
* when researching assignments
* when submitting
as this will save you time and make your work look far more presentable than many of your younger peers.

I'm studying through distance education, a popular option in Australia because of the size of our nation compared to our population. It's much more flexible than having to turn up to classes scheduled by the school and means I get pretty much a semester's worth of material in the week before classes start - really convenient.

Good luck.
posted by b33j at 11:53 PM on November 22, 2008

Oh I feel for you. I dropped out of three colleges (and prior to that, I dropped out of high school). I absolutely love learning, but I couldn't handle the structured academic environment of school/college. My advice to you would be to spend time observing classes at your chosen school and see if you feel comfortable. Now that you're an adult and you're going to college because you want to, I think it will feel way more positive for you. Good luck!
posted by amyms at 11:57 PM on November 22, 2008

There's nothing whatsoever that's "shameful" in going back 17 years later. It's awesome! You could sit around and complain and wish that things had gone differently before .. or you could actually do something about it and it's great that you're doing this. I think you'll find that your age, work and life experience, and desire to achieve will be terrific assets as you complete your degree.

As the others have said, visit the schools in your area. Call ahead and make appointments to meet with someone in admissions, and ask for a tour of the school. Talk to them about your career goals, your mobility issues, and don't forget to ask if any of your old credits might transfer, or if you can get any academic credit for your work experience. It never hurts to ask! Good luck - and good for you.
posted by Kangaroo at 4:53 AM on November 23, 2008

I have a mobility-limiting handicap, should I look for a school with the most accessible campus/best services for students with disabilities?

Yes. Older buildings may not be ADA compliant, and even when they are renovated and brought into ADA compliance it may be quite minimal -- an elevator around the back corner or something. And some schools just don't take access seriously -- do they leave piles of snow on the ramps in the winter, for example? So I think you are being really smart to think about access and services; the best way to get a handle on each campus's climate for this would be to talk with students with disabilities at each place -- trust them, not what the administration will tell you.

A lot of your decisions will hinge on whether you are going to be continuing to work full- (or mostly full-) time while going to school. If so, you need a school that offers lots of classes around your schedule, that small liberal arts college probably won't work out as well as that big land-grant university. It can take a lot longer to finish a program if you can only take classes from 4pm onward, but half the required classes are offered earlier in the day.

And in many states, there are real advantages to doing the first two years at a community college (where class sizes are relatively small and there are lots of support services for people returning to school after long breaks; sometimes cheaper, too) and then transferring to a nearby large state university.

Unless you are independently wealthy, apply often and early for scholarships and grants. The applications are a real bear, and it will take hours and hours of your time, and when you are told "no" it's kind of depressing. But the payoff can be really good, both in money and in status. Don't limit yourself to just the FAFSA and need-based financial aid -- go in to the scholarships/grants office at each place you are considering applying and meet with them about what you might qualify for. If they aren't helpful, that's a big black mark against that school, compared to one that matches you up with five fellowships.

And like Kangaroo mentions, push hard on getting some of your old credits to transfer (unless you failed all your classes, I guess) -- even if they just transfer as unspecific credits, that will free you up from some classes so you can focus on your major classes. And like B33J says, organization will be the key to success once you start. When you are 18, you can muscle through on sheer energy and confidence. Later in life, when you need to sleep at night, you compensate by being tightly organized, working on assignments incrementally, and taking advantage of every piece of support the school offers (eg study sessions, office hours, tutoring, etc).
posted by Forktine at 5:21 AM on November 23, 2008

Not knowing where you are or what it is you want to pursue via your future degrees I can still offer a few suggestions for criteria. Some may seem simple, such as big school/small school, large campus/compact (especially given your mobility limitations), private/public, and so on. If money is a significant issue--as it usually is--I would heartily second Forktine's advice above regarding grants etc. Sometimes small private schools have all kinds of things to offer that vastly outweigh the cheaper sticker prices at public universities. Also, find out how many students at each prospective school are "returning," "reentering," or whatever term is used for just plain older. Would you be more comfortable among a mixture of ages, or might it be inspiring for you to be surrounded by the young'uns living in dorms while you are a "grownup"? This is a matter of your personal preference and temperament.

All the best to you and Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. On a personal note, I plowed through college beginning at 17 and obtained the prestigious sheepskin at a bewildered 21. I have nothing against education for its own sake, whether its arts or sciences, but I had no clue what I was doing. I truly admire people who carefully consider their educations. If I were to go back, well, I would have studied a vastly different array of subjects. The most significant aspect of your current pursuit seems to me to be your awareness and certainty of what exactly it is you want to achieve in seeking further credentials. That all but guarantees your success. Good luck.
posted by emhutchinson at 5:54 AM on November 23, 2008

Find out what their policy is toward earning credit through life experience, testing out, and via CLEP exam. Example here. I was once able to test out of an "Intro to Computers" course for a fraction of the cost and save myself the time of taking a class. I'd already registered and gotten the book, and upon skimming the textbook realized I knew this stuff already. Got most of my money back and was able to turn the book in for a full refund and go onto the next course in the series.

Definitely agree with looking at a community college transfer program. Most community colleges are set up for returning students and are tons cheaper than universities. You'll find yourself with all age groups and a more relaxed atmosphere, which can be less intimidating. Good luck!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:48 AM on November 23, 2008

I have a friend who, working full-time, after raising two children alone, put herself through college to get a business degree. She enrolled in a college that had online classes. She graduated and was able to get a much better job thanks to that degree. Maybe thanks to that. What struck me about her was her absolute determination to stick to her goals. She raised those children. She took those courses. She did the homework. She graduated. I think she got hired at the better job because her employers saw somebody who finished what she started. They may have been more impressed by that than by the degree from the online college. So find the best college you can, a place you can enjoy and will give you a good education, but give yourself some credit for being a rare kind of person. Good luck.
posted by acrasis at 7:56 AM on November 23, 2008

You should look into an Aliss Grant. If you haven't taken a college class in over 7 years, the Aliss Grant will pay for your tuition and books for the first class you take-- whatever school you sign up for, contact their financial aid department and see if that's available.
posted by baphomet at 8:27 AM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lots of good specific advice already but I want to be another voice asking you not to look at your last seventeen years away from school as something to be ashamed of. Be excited to bring your life experiences into the classroom whether you attend full-time, part-time, days, nights, whatever. "Older" students are awesome and no one will look askance at you for starting over. This time around you know what you want and you understand the value of your education and the degrees you'll earn.

The main piece of more practical advice I'd give is to meet your professors more than halfway. Be the student who shows up at office hours, asks questions, clarifies issues immediately, follows through, asks questions, and asks questions. Make use of the resources available to you, maintain organization and a positive attitude, and you'll do great. And have fun. College is fun. Difficult sometimes, but fun. Good luck!
posted by Neofelis at 8:48 AM on November 23, 2008

Are you planning to keep working while you're in school? If so, I would recommend trying to get an administrative job on campus to offset (or cover) your tuition. Colleges and universities are almost always hiring support staff, you have experience in this area, and you minimize your debt. It's also less stressful than working somewhere else and then making a mad dash to make your class. You get tuition discounted or waived, and there's a good chance you could even take a break in the middle of the day to go to a class. Different schools have different policies on staff taking classes, but it's worth looking into.
posted by lunasol at 9:17 AM on November 23, 2008

You can be more of a peer to the teacher than the traditional-age college students can. As such, you can set an example to the other students of how to behave in class, and in doing so, you can elevate the intellectual level of the class.

One of the most irritating things about teaching these days (I used to teach in community college) is the consumer mentality of students (a class must be rip-roaringly entertaining, or else the teacher sucks), the blatant focus on "what's going to be on the exam," and the attitude that anything not readily memorizable in bite-sized chunks is too difficult. Older students rarely had these attitudes. Older students had more understanding of the purpose of education and therefore more appreciation for what teachers were trying to do. By just being conscientious, engaged, and polite, you will be a standout in a class of numbskulls.

I went to college where there were quite a few older students, and they were often the most "together" students in the class. They would often organize study groups and really take stuff seriously. Whenever there was a study group organized by an older student, I went.
posted by jayder at 9:29 AM on November 23, 2008

I'm going back after 12 years. So so much easier this time. I want to be there, I know how to learn things now. I'm going to community college right now, and it's pretty ok. Socially it's not what it used to be but I'm not totally there for that (wouldn't mind but whatever). I'm just not cool with getting crappy grades this time around. In the past it didn't really matter to me that much. So I'm getting 91+ on all my tests and one class haven't had a grade lower than 100 yet. This was not the case when I was young.

I like my community college quite a bit (will be transferring to another school when I get enough prereqs but this is good for now).

Good luck!
posted by sully75 at 11:24 AM on November 23, 2008

The advantage of a non-trad students-type program is that you're not going to have to sit in class with a bunch of 18 year olds to whom this is a gigantic waste of time. You're going to be in a class with people who have already seen a bit of life. My MBA program was designed specifically for people who had been working for a while and realized they needed additional skills. No one messed around in that program, except for the dozen or so students who came in straight after undergrad.

In a non-trad students situation, you are going to have other people like you who are going to be there with the same mindset. You can't expect an 18 year old to necessarily understand or appreciate what you've been through to get to where you are right now. It could be discouraging or just a plain old drag to be surrounded by people who think you're just plain old (even though you're nowhere near it).

You should look around for programs that specifically cater to people who are working and/or have been working. In NYC there are a lot of those. I would guess that night programs in other large cities would be full of people who are there by the grace of various deities and need or very much want the education they are getting. when you're there on your own dollar or your own time, it makes you waste a lot less time.

I am going to get another Master's in another subject, and the open house that made me feel the worst was the one where they had their selection of current students up there talking about why they love the program, and one of them went on and on and on about how she has a friend who was, omg, 37 and DIVORCED, could you actually BELIEVE that she would have a friend like that. Given that I'm older than that, I spent a lot of time talking with the professors to try to get a sense of the actual student body. But that's an example of the kind of thing that a non-trad program will get out of your hair.

I also want to say: good for you! Seriously, fantastic for you!
posted by micawber at 11:59 AM on November 23, 2008

I strongly suggest you visit schools before deciding, and even spend some time going between classes and around campus. I have a friend who also has some mobility limitations, and the fact that the school he attends is lax about ADA compliance has made his life miserable :(
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:14 PM on November 23, 2008

From the original asker:
Thank you to everyone for your recommendations and encouragement. I'm changing my whole life and it's a daunting thing, and it's good to know that people don't think I'll be making a fool of myself despite being twice the age of the typical freshman.

But especially thank you to youcancallmeal for reminding me of Goddard College. I'd heard of it once before and thought "wouldn't that be nice?" In looking at it now, I'm seeing that they have a program that is geared almost exactly toward what I've been thinking that I want, and would have to kludge together with a program from a more traditional school. I'm pretty excited about the idea, and excitement in this process is actually new for me. I'd never have known had you not mentioned the school, so thank you again.
posted by mathowie at 12:48 PM on November 23, 2008

I got my BA at age 34 and my MA at age 50.

During undergrad, my mother died suddenly, and also I lost my job. (I paid out of pocket for a private college, and thus was without tuition funds on top of the rent-food-etc. money.)

In the middle of grad school, my father died suddenly, and I also had to have emergency surgery.

But I graduated, and you can and will as well.
posted by jgirl at 12:58 PM on November 23, 2008

I strongly suggest you visit schools before deciding, and even spend some time going between classes and around campus. I have a friend who also has some mobility limitations, and the fact that the school he attends is lax about ADA compliance has made his life miserable :(

That's me Salvor is talking about. (I assume.) Thing is, *all* schools are lax about compliance, which sucks. But it hasn't ruined my life - really - even though it makes me angry. And ghettoizing ourselves to a few places that are better than the others does nothing to ensure our equality now or in the future. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere", and all that.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:48 PM on November 23, 2008

Er, what I didn't say there is that I actually really love this school, despite being angry about the lack of compliance. Commented too fast.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:48 PM on November 23, 2008

Spaceman-spiff makes a good point. It would be very unfortunate if mobility problems limited your scope of potential schools, both for you, and for the people who are trying to improve access at those schools! I hope you pick the school that is the best fit for your intellectually - I'm certainly glad spaceman-spiff didn't let compliance issues deter him - I wouldn't have met him otherwise (I was referring to him)!

PS: I'll also throw my hat in with the others - you shouldn't feel ashamed in any way about your "alternate timeline" for college!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 9:06 PM on November 23, 2008

« Older How Does My American System Work?   |   jazz theory resources online Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.