Tips for Non-Traditional Students Returning to College

Bashar Hanna
4 min readFeb 28


Are you considering applying for college? If it’s been several years, or longer, since you left high school, you fit the definition of a non-traditional student. In other words, you’re not a traditional pupil heading directly for college after graduating from high school.

Younger students represent the norm but, rest assured, if you’re a mature student you’re certainly in good company; there are many others just like you. Here are a few tips to help make your college experience as a non-traditional student a resounding success.

Decide on your goals

Going back to school when you’ve been away from an educational environment for a while takes some thought. Go over your reasons for getting a college degree. What prompted this idea in the first place? Have you gone as far as you can in your employment without a higher education? Do you regret missing out on the college experience?

Decide what you want to accomplish by returning to college and what it will mean for your goals in life. Think long-range and try to map out what you want to do with your new qualifications after you graduate. The time and finances you’re going to devote to this endeavor deserve some strategic thinking.

Explore college programs

There are an endless number of choices in terms of what you can study. Of course, you’ll have some natural talent in certain areas and have likely built competencies that may fit well with many sectors.

When it comes to what program you want to apply for and the specific courses you’d like to take, you may already have a good idea of what you’d like to pursue. Nevertheless, enjoy exploring what the possibilities are at the colleges within commuting distance and, if you’re open to going out-of-state, see what’s available elsewhere, too. In addition, it’s helpful to look closely at ratings and reviews for different programs before you settle on one.

Consider your lifestyle and obligations

Embarking on a college education as a non-traditional student needs to match with your personal obligations, as well as your lifestyle. For example, are you currently the breadwinner for your family? Do you enjoy traveling regularly during your leisure time? Taking on these studies will result in adjustments and you must make sure that you’re ready for them.

Assess how much time you can devote to your schoolwork. Look at how your classes will align with your job and family time. If you intend to stay employed, going to school on a part-time basis is always an option. Taking into account your responsibilities and what else is important to you, look for a way you can attend college and maintain a reasonable balance in your life. This will involve being willing to shift your priorities where it makes sense to achieve your dream of attaining a degree.

Set a realistic budget

College can be costly. Plus, if you’ve been working for a while, you’ll have gotten used to a particular standard of living. Maybe you have other commitments such as a car loan or have even started to put aside money for your eventual retirement. Review your expenses, determine where you can cut costs, assess the funds needed for college, and see how the math adds up.

Remember that having to be more frugal is short-term pain for long-term gain, as the saying goes. Any career coach will tell you that one of the best investments you can make is a higher education. Not only will it increase your earnings potential and open up more career opportunities for you, but it will bring you greater life satisfaction, as well.

Learn about financial aid

Some non-traditional students will be forced to take on more debt to pay for their college education and perhaps to replace lost income during their studies. This is where financial aid can really assist you. Find out what option there are for someone in your position.

You can contact your chosen college and ask about the availability of grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial assistance. The school can walk you through the application process and direct you to related resources.

It’s also a great idea to approach your employer to ask if they have a program where they’ll reimburse the cost of your tuition or provide some other type of assistance. Companies generally want to encourage higher learning and keep the best staff, so they may offer these types of benefits.

Finally, find the guidance you need

Connect with the admissions coordinator at your school of choice and get all the information you can about how they can assist mature students. They want to help all students succeed, and they’ll have excellent insight and resources, information that you can definitely use.

After all, even if you know what you want to study, have figured out how school will fit with your current life situation, and have sorted out a workable budget, there’s still a wealth of beneficial knowledge that the admissions coordinator can impart.



Bashar Hanna

Dr. Bashar Hanna has spent nearly four years as the president and chief executive officer of Pennsylvania’s Bloomsburg University.