How to successfully return to education after a break

Are you thinking about going back to school?

You may have taken some time out to travel, or perhaps you got a job right out of high school and stayed there for a number of years. 

Perhaps you decided to delay your degree until you’d saved enough money or until your kids had left home. Maybe other family or personal matters prevented you from going any further with your education until now.

Alternatively, you may have already landed a job in your dream industry, but you just need a few more qualifications to get that promotion you’ve been chasing.

Regardless of your motivation, if you’re wondering whether to go back to school after any kind of break from education, there are several ways in which you can do it realistically.

Let’s discover the diverse range of qualifications you may be able to achieve – both in person and online – as a “mature student”.

We’ll also go through the things you’ll need to consider before jumping back into education after time away in order to keep everything as manageable as possible and to help you to avoid any costly mistakes or excessive stress levels!

Should I go back to school?

The first thing you should do before you get started is to make sure that going back into education is the best use of your time, energy, and finances. Don’t forget to consider whether it is genuinely what you want for yourself.

Before you look into the various types of courses and qualifications available to you, you should ask yourself why you want to get back into education.

The most common answer is to earn more money. Certain types of degrees and certifications will make you more likely to bring home a higher paycheck, although this isn’t always assured.

While the number of well-paying jobs in your chosen field and the level of competition for those jobs are bound to affect how easily you’ll climb the ladder in a financial sense, a good degree will set you above a significant percentage of other candidates.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that you are very likely to earn a much higher wage if you have achieved a bachelor’s degree or a more advanced qualification compared to sticking with your diploma from high school or completing some college classes.

However, this is very much a case of “playing the long game”, as certain courses can be extremely expensive and may deplete your funds in the short term. 

You need to consider whether going back into education is truly something you can afford right now without it causing you financial trouble elsewhere.

Of course, you may be able to get state funding or a federal or private loan to help you pay for your studies. Many universities and colleges also have support packages and scholarships available.

If you are taking out a loan, it’s vital that you look into its repayment terms before you commit and make sure that you can afford them.

There is also the question of your available time and other commitments. If you need to continue to work full-time to support yourself or your family, this may limit your options when choosing where and how to study. However, it will not necessarily prevent you from pursuing higher education.

Part-time, remote and flexible study options are available, and as long as you are able to manage your time and balance your other responsibilities well, you can still work toward a new qualification.

Finally, will it be good for you personally? Studying can be tiring and mentally draining, and having too much on your plate may lead to severe stress. It’s important to have enough time to yourself to relax, socialize, stay on top of daily errands and maintain a general level of balance.

However, the sense of achievement and the fulfillment of ambition that you will enjoy once you have that qualification may make everything worth it.

If you’re confident that the challenge of managing your education alongside your day-to-day life and responsibilities will not be too significant, now may be the ideal time to go back to school.

What are your options? Let’s explore a few of the best routes you can take when heading back into education after a break.

Get your GED

If you did not earn your high school diploma, you can apply to complete your GED. To pass, you will need to take tests in language (including reading and writing skills), social studies, science, and mathematics.

While it is possible to prepare for your GED independently at home, certain libraries and educational institutions may also offer resources to help you. There are plenty of online and night classes available, too.

You must then sign up to take your test at a GED testing center. Once you have received your GED, you will have attained the same level of qualification as a high school graduate, and you’ll be able to apply for opportunities accordingly.

Community college

Many community colleges accept mature students. They are more affordable than studying at a typical four-year college – with many offering financial aid to attendees – and most courses take two years or less.

They represent an excellent potential gateway into university education with the final aim of achieving a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Many community colleges offer dual admissions programs that see the candidate receiving a conditional offer of a place at a certain college or university as long as they achieve particular grades as part of the associate’s degree for which they are currently studying.

Evening classes

If you are not currently free to study full time or if you have certain responsibilities and demands on your time throughout the day, an evening class or night school may be a preferable option for you.

It is possible to work toward a huge array of qualifications in evening classes, such as a full high school diploma, individual grades in subjects such as math and English, and even a professional degree in certain vocations like cooking. You can also attend evening classes to prepare for your GED.

These classes are available from a range of establishments, including community colleges and four-year schools. Their timetables vary, so it’s important to select a course that fits in with your schedule and doesn’t demand a level of attendance that you will not be able to manage easily.

You will likely find that, in addition to being far easier to fit around a full-time job or daily duties, night school is among the more affordable options for those returning to education.

Mature students

If you haven’t yet attended college or university, you will certainly still be able to enroll in an undergraduate degree course a few years down the line, as long as you have the necessary availability and access to the right financial arrangements.

In order to get onto a four-year undergraduate course, you’ll need to have your GED or your high school diploma. You may then need to attend community college for two years. 

If you graduated from high school more than five years ago, you probably won’t need your diploma in order to be admitted into community college, but you’ll be required to take a test.

As long as you then achieve the right grades in your associate’s degree, you’ll be able to attend a university to pursue your bachelor’s degree.

Professional degrees

You can take a similar route in order to be accepted onto an undergraduate professional degree if you are interested in gaining a more practice-based qualification. 

Once you have your GED or high school diploma, you may decide to attend community college for two years to get your associate’s degree. You can then apply for professional degrees at a college, university, or specialist vocational school.

Depending on your chosen type of course, you may need to study for anywhere from one to five years in order to receive your professional qualification.

There are both undergraduate and postgraduate professional degree courses available. Your level of education will determine where you will be accepted.

Postgraduate degrees

If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you may decide that you wish to pursue a master’s degree. In fact, it is possible to do this directly from an associate’s degree, although this is an ambitious undertaking and many find that achieving their bachelor’s degree in between serves to prepare them more effectively.

Research different colleges around the country to find out whether you have the qualifications required to apply for a postgraduate degree such as a master’s or a doctorate.

If not, you may need to take some of the approaches above to access advanced courses of this kind.

Vocational courses

There is a range of specialist colleges in operation throughout the nation that provides their students with qualifications designed to prepare them for specific jobs. 

These are often manual roles such as agriculture, construction, and plumbing, although other courses may help students to enter the fields of hospitality, fitness, medicine, engineering, media, law, and art.

If you have a particular career in mind, find out whether there are any specialist schools or colleges operating that may suit your requirements.

Many of these institutions offer evening classes and remote or flexible learning to ensure that opportunities to achieve qualifications of this kind are as accessible as possible.

The level of education required for these studies differs between courses, and the cost of courses at these institutions will also vary depending on the length of the course and the level of qualification earned at the end, so it’s important to do your research before you apply.

Online learning

Online courses – also referred to as “distance learning courses” – are among the most practical, affordable, and flexible options available to students of all ages. 

As remote working has become more and more of an accepted approach in our professional lives, digital courses have become an increasingly viable option for those wishing to pursue, bolster or further their education.

From studying for your GED to completing online nursing degree programs to move from a bachelor’s degree graduate in any field to a registered nurse qualification, the remote option is often the best.

These courses offer the potential for a considerable amount of flexibility for students who:

  • Are currently working in their desired field but require an additional qualification to get promoted
  • Are unable to travel to attend a college or university in person
  • Have to retain full-time jobs
  • Care for children or elderly relatives
  • Live with physical or mental conditions that restrict their ability to learn in person
  • Cannot currently afford to attend a four-year school
  • Wish to achieve qualifications as quickly as possible

While some online courses follow a similar program to their in-person undergraduate or postgraduate counterparts with a semester-based pattern, others enable attendees to spread their study out over a period that suits them.

Many charge per credit hour, which improves flexibility and affordability.

There are online courses that include either optional or mandatory “contact time” or “residencies”. When this is mandatory, it is usually because the course requires an element of hands-on practice, which is often the case in a more manual, scientific, or medical subject.

The range of qualifications available purely via online learning is impressive. Students can work remotely to gain any of the following – and more – in a huge range of subject areas:

  • High school qualifications in math, English, science, computer skills, languages, and more
  • Associate’s degree
  • GED
  • BSc
  • MSc
  • MBA
  • PHD
  • A range of vocational courses

How to prepare to return to education

Getting ready to go back to school can be very exciting but also daunting. It’s something you need to approach with a good amount of care as things can get overwhelming quickly if you are not prepared.

We suggest that you take the following steps to get ready for your next period of study:

  • Carefully research the courses in which you are interested. You need to make yourself aware of the time you’ll be expected to invest and the flexibility of the course, including specific hours of remote and in-person contact.
  • Take a close look at your budget and the costs involved in different types of study. There may be additional costs if the course in which you are interested offers a placement or residency.
  • Consider your current lifestyle and responsibilities and have a clear plan. If you have children, do you know someone who is willing to watch them while you attend night school? Will you be able to keep the same hours at your job and attend school at the times stipulated? If not, can you request to change your working hours, or is there a more flexible course available?
  • Determine whether you will be able to enjoy any downtime. Burnout is a major problem, and if you have too much on your plate, you may find yourself struggling. Be honest with yourself, make sure that you are not spreading yourself too thin, and be sure to take things gradually.
  • Find out if you have any friends who are currently studying or planning to return to education. If you’re able to create your own study group, it will be easier to stay on track and feel supported. You can even test each other on your separate subject areas and celebrate good results together

Perhaps most importantly, you should consider how you feel about going back to school? If you’ve had a few years away from education in the world of work or as a stay-at-home parent, it can be easy to feel daunted, overwhelmed, or even as though you’ve forgotten how to study.

Of course, it’s usually easy to get back into the swing of things, but it may be worth preparing by easing yourself in – perhaps by taking a couple of standalone night classes or chatting to someone you know who has recently gone back to school.

It’s likely that you’ll quickly feel reassured and completely ready to take on the upcoming challenge.

Don’t forget that you don’t have to jump in right now if things aren’t lining up. If necessary, spend a few months planning and getting yourself organized. Then, once you’re certain that everything is in order, you can apply to your chosen courses and institutions with confidence.

There are many great options if you are planning to re-enter education after a period away. Whether you intend to start studying immediately or you’re just testing the waters to see what’s out there, it should be clear that dropping out of school doesn’t spell an end to your capacity to earn qualifications and improve your employability.

As long as you are well-prepared and willing to undertake some research, there is nowhere your ambition can’t take you thanks to the sheer range of online and in-person options available to you throughout the country.

Natasha M. McKnight

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