The New Career Path: A Return to College
Statistics are clear: workers with degrees or advanced degrees enjoy larger incomes and more job security. Today, working adults who return to school represent the largest enrollment trend in the nation. These nontraditional students have returned in overwhelming numbers to advance their current careers or to launch a new one. Fortunately, a degree has never been more attainable than today.
Here’s what you need to know as a working adult to pursue a primary or secondary degree.
1. Take the First Step
Ryan Michaud knows that anxious feeling firsthand. A 14-year military veteran, Ryan recently enrolled as a chemistry major at the University of Southern Maine (USM). “When I started school at USM, everything surprised me,” he admits. “Because I had been out of school for so long, it was an eye-opening experience. But on a day-to-day basis I realize that I can do this.”
2. Prepare to Be Surprised
Ryan didn’t anticipate he would be working in a lab on a $488,514 study assessing craft beer quality, but he has embraced his role in the landmark study. “Not only are we going to gain knowledge and experience from the… experimentation that we’re doing, but we’re providing a service for the brewers. To be one of the inaugural members is kind of a big deal for me.”
3. Take Your Time
Returning to college will likely put a strain on your time and your income over the short term. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly. USM premed student Annika Treyball first sampled classes before full matriculation. “I took classes for the first year. It went really well. I was really happy with the quality of my courses and professors so, that next summer, I applied to the post-baccalaureate program and transferred those credits in.”
4. Never Too Old to Intern
Internships remain an excellent option for acquiring hands-on experience in the field of your choice. For Annika, who already possessed an art history degree, the sooner she could get working, the better. She received a one-year paid internship at Maine Medical Center Research Institute. “This experience has really given me a clear idea of what the research path would look like,” she says.
5. Financial Aid Isn’t Just for Teenagers
Many schools have programs specifically designed for nontraditional students. For example, USM provides a Student Financial Services counselor to guide prospective non-traditional students through potential grants, loans, work study, and scholarships. As a result, 72 percent of working adult students receive financial aid, according to a recent USM survey.
6. Knowledge Transfers
Many institutions offer work/life experience credits for returning and non-traditional students. At USM, adult students work with the Office of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) to assess potential credit for previous career/work, military service, and community engagement.
7. You Are Not Alone
Gone are the days when the nontraditional adult student stood out. According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, 78 percent of U.S. students can be categorized as nontraditional. At USM, for example, 40 percent of the student body is made up of adults like Ngonidzaishe Ditma, an occupational therapy student, and the percentages continue to grow throughout the U.S. Like many contemporary programs that have adjusted to older students, Ngonidzaishe’s department emphasizes fieldwork, including an intensive off-site program supervised by a practicing occupational therapist.
8. Online Courses: A Given
Considered a novelty just a few years back, online studies have become a vital resource for students looking to return to school. Online courses prove especially helpful for adults in career transition, as they provide an opportunity to acquire credits while working full-time or managing a family. Once thought of only in a supplementary role, today many schools offer complete online undergraduate degrees. USM, for example, provides seven complete undergraduate degree programs, four graduate programs, and over 650 online courses.
Working adults often consider their new degree a means to an end; specifically, the opportunity to advance or change careers as efficiently as possible. Many schools have adapted to the non-traditional student by offering intensive academic programs over a shorter time period. Patrick Martin, a USM master’s candidate in the Extended Teacher Education Program (ETEP), will attain a teacher certification and a master’s in education in just nine months. “We have to have the coursework going simultaneously with the internship. You’re able to go from school as teacher to class where you can say, ‘this is what happened teaching school today’ … then learn some new things to do and then the very next day go and apply those things in your class.”
10. Prepare to Network
Universities have always been major networking hubs, but the connections often remained on campus. Today’s students spend much more time off campus, especially working, non-traditional students. Hillary Fotter, a doctoral student in psychology at USM, considers these connections a key asset of her academic tenure. “You can, as a student, work in concert with different organizations, and I have… found those experiences to be amazing as far as building connections that are going to help propel me to make this into a viable career for myself.”
To learn more about your new career visit us at usm.maine.edu.