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College Tips for Nontraditional Students

Balancing school and family as an adult student can be tough.

Kathleen Carmichael, Ph.D.

April 21, 2009

College Tips for Nontraditional Students

You've decided to continue your formal education. But how can you make college a success while still meeting work and family obligations? Check out these expert tips to help you during that all-important first term:

Begin with classes that you feel confident about. Sure, it's good to get requirements out of the way. But don't feel you must tackle the most challenging subjects first. "Students should begin by taking something they enjoy," says Hilary Ward Schnadt, associate dean for curricular affairs at Mundelein College. "That way they can acclimate themselves to the college environment before they undertake more challenging areas of study."

Get wired. Make sure you have access to e-mail and the Internet when you begin taking classes. This will give you easy access to many library databases and allow you to do online research. You'll also be able to communicate quickly with professors and other students. Some professors may allow you to submit assignments via e-mail if you can't attend class.

Try online courses. Taking all or a part of your coursework online will give you a more flexible schedule and save you a commute. Online courses allow you to study around your work and family obligations. Everything from GEDs to doctoral degrees is offered online. This option is becoming increasingly popular. Online enrollment increased by 18.2 percent from 2003 to 2004 with an estimated 2.35 million students taking courses online, according to a 2005 study by the Sloane Consortium. Resources like MonsterLearning help students search for online programs.

Schedule a campus resources tour. These tours help orient new students to facilities and services available both on and off campus. What you learn can save you time later, when you have class projects to complete.

Take time to prepare for unfamiliar fields. Need to take differential calculus but haven't had math in years? "If students want to refresh their knowledge of certain subject areas, they should consider taking appropriate introductory courses at a local community college," Schnadt says. "That keeps costs down and helps them become more fluent in the basic knowledge they'll need when they tackle more advanced courses."

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Know your time frame. Map out your schedule for completing the degree to help yourself set realistic goals and budget your time efficiently. A typical bachelor's program may require that you complete 120 semester hours, between 30 and 40 courses. For a full-time student, that works out to about four years. Part-time students face a different schedule - if you take an average of five classes per year it'll take about eight years to finish the degree.

Make sure your work schedule can accommodate your class schedule. This is especially important if you receive tuition assistance from your workplace. Since the assistance is usually tied to your grades, a single "minus" can cost you thousands of dollars in tuition. If you miss class because you have to work late, discuss your situation with your professor and employer. Chances are, you can negotiate a compromise that won't affect your grades.

Know your drop deadlines and book return policies. It pays - literally - to be aware of your school's drop deadlines. Many schools will not refund your tuition, or will refund only a percentage, if you drop a course more than one or two weeks into the term. And many bookstores will not accept returns after a certain date.

Consider taking summer classes - but schedule carefully. Most summer terms are compressed, so it's wise to take fewer classes than you would in a standard term. And don't forget to save some time for vacation.

Check out alumni networking services. Don't wait until you graduate! These degreed professionals can give you the advice you need to smooth your path to graduation.

The key to college success is to give yourself time to get comfortable in the new environment. Schnadt says, "Our office has a motto: 'Festina lente,' 'Make haste slowly.' Don't overburden yourself by trying to do too much too quickly. The most satisfied students are those who take time to enjoy their work in college."

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