There are hundreds of books about picking the best college. But let's face it: Most of them are written for high schoolers. In reality, 40 percent of college students are 25 or older — well out of high school — and many have kids, full-time jobs or both. (We've written about this before.)
Now, a new book by Rebecca Klein-Collins offers advice and guidance for the adult student looking to go to college.
"There are hundreds if not thousands of colleges out there that are really not designed for the adult learner," Klein-Collins says. "So someone who is a busy working person shouldn't really waste a moment looking at those kinds of colleges."
But there are schools that do a great job educating older adults, she explains in Never Too Late. The book offers answers to persistent questions, like, "What do I do if it's been ages since I took algebra?" or "I have a few college classes under my belt — how do I get those credits to count?"
Klein-Collins spoke to NPR about the logistical hurdles adults face in college, and how to overcome anxieties around going back to school. The following interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Who are these adults looking to go to college?
They're people who might have started college right after high school, but never finished. They might have had a lot of really great work experience and can't afford to quit their jobs in order to go back to school. They might have military service. Maybe they've received some technical training and leadership experience. Maybe they are raising a family.
These are all people who are really good candidates for going back to school. And these are the kinds of people you see in classrooms these days. It's not that unusual.
What are some of the logistical hurdles these folks face?
If you're a working adult, you're not going to quit your job to go back to school. Of course, some people can and that's great, but a lot of people can't. So you need to find a college that has flexible programs that offer classes after hours or on weekends; or a school that offers blended learning — online and face-to-face — that you can fit into your busy work life. There are other colleges that have shorter terms or terms that start at different points of the traditional school year, so it allows a lot more flexibility for taking on courses when they fit into your life.
Adults are really on their own in trying to figure this whole thing out because there isn't a system in place that's helping them make these decisions. They can't go back to their high school and get advice from their old guidance counselor or their kids' guidance counselor. So even though there's a lot of lip service paid to the importance of lifelong learning and it's a no-brainer to go back to school and to get a degree, the real amazing thing is that we don't have a system that's set up to help people make good decisions about going back to school.
In an ideal world, we would have a whole network of career and education advisors available to every American. And that's something that's really needed, but we don't have that right now. The more ways we can provide adults with guides or tips or resources to help with their decision-making, the better — because it's so important to avoid costly mistakes.
What do adults starting this process need to know?
First thing I want them to know: Even though a family member might have gone to a certain college or university, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be the right choice for them. Certainly ask people you know for their guidance, but keep in mind that you need to do your own research.
No. 2: Find a place that acknowledges who you are at this stage in your life. And that can manifest itself in a number of different ways. It can mean that a school is not expecting you to drop everything and go to school full-time; they understand that you have work and family obligations and they help design a program that's going to fit into your busy lifestyle. It could also mean a program that really acknowledges the diverse experiences that students are bringing to the classroom — so instructors are not just assuming that you're coming right out of high school, but that you have learned from your own life — and they see that experience has relevance in the classroom that can contribute to the class in a very unique way.
Third, look for places that have something called a "prior learning assessment." This is a method for evaluating a student's [knowledge] that they've acquired from work or life or military experience. Some colleges use tests, like the CLEP, to award college credit; others have faculty members create a special exam based on a course; while other schools have a student put together a portfolio of their learning with documentation, and have that evaluated by a faculty member for college credit. It's really important for somebody who has had a lot of work experience or has had a lot of military training; it can really help you finish your degree a whole lot faster and a whole lot cheaper.
What are your tips for helping adults overcoming their anxieties around going back to school?
A lot of people are nervous about it and are envisioning being the oldest person in the class. This is a totally normal thing to be feeling, but it's OK, you're gonna be fine, and there are colleges that will help you succeed.
The book offers some tips for how to build support at home for what you're trying to do. It includes some exercises to help you recognize all the skills that you already have — this includes time management, attention to detail, things like that.
The other important thing to do is to help adults identify why they want to go back to school. If you can identify what it is that's motivating you, then that can be your rallying cry when you're starting to feel discouraged or anxious about starting school.
So in addition to really helping adults ask the right questions about what kind of college is going to support me and be a good fit for me, it's also helping them really understand why it is they are doing this.