James Madison University
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Photo taken at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Pennsylvania

In today's classrooms you'll find a far more age diversified student population than you might have a few decades ago. With so many adult students going back to either obtain a college degree or become knowledgeable in another subject in order to make a career change, the traditional teen and twenty-something students no longer dominate the classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2009) in 2007, 38 percent of the 18 million college students were aged 25 years and older.  1, 2

While it is true some adult college students have some unique challenges that traditional younger students do not experience, there are also many advantages non-traditionals get to enjoy. Making the decision to go back to school isn't always an easy one and, if you are an adult looking to make the leap, like with other big decisions in life, it is always a good idea to first weigh the pros and cons. This way you have a realistic idea of what to expect.

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Going back to college, either to start a degree, or finish a program that had been started years earlier, is a big decision to make for most adults. When weighing out pros and cons, it's also important to consider the reasons why you want to go back.

If you can maximize the benefits, this provides a great framework for being able to reduce, or eliminate completely, any of the drawbacks.

Pros of Going Back to School as an Adult

Life experience is probably one of the most valuable attributes you can bring into the classroom. Having journeyed through the many paths life tends to take us, these distinctive perspectives that have been achieved through experience can enrich a college experience. The ability to apply life's lessons to the things learned in academic studies often offer valuable insight in addition to having something to share in the classroom with classmates.

Non-traditional students also tend to be more focused on goals. This is not to say their younger counterparts are not; it is just older students are typically in school because they choose to be. This is not to say younger students do not choose college, but there is a percentage of them that are forced by their parents to go and they may not necessarily want to be there at this place and time in their lives.

In addition, adult college students often have the benefit of having gone through life and often have a better grasp on what their ideal goals and objectives are. Younger students are just beginning their journey to adulthood and likely aren't as sure of what they want to do with the rest of their lives. It is common they find their goals and dreams changing once, if not several, times throughout the course of their college career.

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Older students often have the advantage of having a good idea of where they want to be in their careers. 

Adult students also have the advantage of time management skills. Most non-traditional students are juggling jobs, families and/or other adult responsibilities. These students typically have the ability to manage multiple things at once - and this skill proves to be valuable one when adding college coursework to the mix.

Another important plus is that older students have experienced bureaucracy and understand how to grease the squeaky wheel; anyone who's waded through the admissions, registrar and financial aid processes can appreciate the ability to get things moving.

Cons to Going Back to School as an Adult

While there are many pros, as an adult college student it is important to understand there will be some drawbacks as well. Many older students lack self-confidence when they return to the classroom and, as a result, this can dominate their ability to succeed if it becomes too much of an obstacle. The mindset of being "too old" and out of practice can get in the way of success. Additionally, some adult students may have feelings of insecurity and a worry they can't do it - this can end up being a liability if these nervous feelings dominate. When I worked in an admissions/registrar office at a community college, I met a lot of adults who had these fears (and I experienced some myself when I returned to school). It's a normal feeling to experience, but it's important not to let these worries dominate.

Being out of practice can be a drawback as well. Math skills get rusty, science and technology changes (and these days at a very rapid pace). Lost or forgotten skills can also be a significant hurdle to cross. Adult students often find themselves needing to take pre-requisite math or English and literature classes to refresh, practice and recollect knowledge and/or skills that have been muddied over the years that have passed.

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Over the past couple of decades, techology has greatly changed and, as a result, most classrooms look very different than they did years before. Being thrust into the modern classroom can be overwhelming for some adult students.

Additionally, new theories have developed in multiple subjects and being rusty means there is some relearning and possibly some new learning that must take place in order to "catch up". For those subjects that have really changed in what may be many years, or even decades, this can be difficult for the older student to adapt to.

None of these reasons should be a discouragement from attending class, instead they should be viewed as a reason to consider going back to school. Fear is often a big obstacle for adult students but, once this is overcome, they can then focus on the more positive aspects of going back to college.

There are many pros and cons of being an adult college student. While the cons can be frustrating or filled with anxiety, the benefits and rewarding feelings that come with the positive aspects of finally earning that college degree make it all worthwhile.

[ Related Reading: Ways to Support Adult College Students ]

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Making the decision to go back to college isn't always an easy one - however, accomplishing the hard work it takes to get to graduation is a great feeling in the end.