Despite the soaring cost of higher education, older adult students are apparently still keen on finishing their degrees. A recent survey showed that more than 8 million non-traditional students -- defined as those 23 and older -- are now enrolled in the nation's colleges.
However, far too many of them won't complete their courses of study and derive the benefits that come along with having earned a degree, which include a lifetime of higher earnings and greater self esteem.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that just slightly more than a quarter -- 28 percent -- of full-time and a mere 5 percent of part-time older students go on to finish their college studies.
What's holding them back? As the chart below shows, more than two-thirds of the nearly 4,500 non-traditional students surveyed by the Apollo Research Institute expressed concern about college-related expenses as a big contributor to dropping out.
About two-thirds of all college students borrow money to obtain a bachelor's degree, according to a survey of 2007-08 graduates by the Department of Education. Of those, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently reported (via The New York Times). Tuition costs vary, but averaged $21,447 during the 2011-12 school year at public colleges, while private colleges charged an average of $42,224.
Having a plan to deal with these sources of stress can go a long way toward helping older students finish college, says Caroline Molina-Ray, executive director of research at Apollo, which recently published a study that examined the factors that inhibit adult college students' ability to finish degrees.
The study focused not so much on the rate of completion, she says, but on what kinds of issues adult students face, and how different generations of students cope. It may sound cliched, but Molina-Ray says that it pays to keep "your eyes on the prize," and to remember that "there's a big personal and likely financial reward for going to school."
With that in mind, she offers these tips for a nontraditional student planning to pursue an associate, bachelor's or other degree:
- Recognize that going back to school is a major life decision and takes commitment, similar to losing weight or getting married or looking for a job.
- Make a plan for all of your resources -- finances, time, energy, family and friends. Once you know which resources you have and need, you can develop a strategy during the coming weeks and months to use those resources wisely.
- Engage your family and friends in your effort to return to school, by making it meaningful and valuable for them, too. That may mean, for example, taking children to the library with you when doing research; doing your homework in the same space as your kids; and sharing what you've learned.
- Learn which resources your college offers. Those include such things as tutorial services, online study aids and other resources, such as day care, that can help adult students better manage competing commitments to school, work and family.
- Check to see if your school has online chat rooms that allow you to communicate with faculty.
- Don't isolate yourself. Build a support network of classmates or co-workers who are also returning to school. Use social media sites, such as LinkedIn groups, to connect with others and share experiences and support.
"People are willing to help and are willing to serve as sounding boards," Molina-Ray says, "especially those who are going through the same experiences."
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