There’s a growing number of senior citizens heading to college during their golden years. Having a college degree is increasingly important whether you’re 22 or 62. Nine out of every 10 new U.S. jobs now go to college-educated candidates. The Lumina Foundation found that bachelor’s degree holders are 2.2 times less likely to be unemployed. Bachelor’s grads are 3.5 times less likely to fall below the federal poverty line. After all, undergraduate education adds an average $32,000 to worker’s annual salary. Finishing college increases median earnings by nearly 135 percent! Post-secondary education even extends your lifespan by an average seven years. Heading to college is clearly beneficial for people at any age. In 2007, Nola Ochs broke the world record by graduating from Fort Hays State University at 95 years old. It’s never too late learn a new trade and pursue your lifelong passions.
Are you a bold baby boomer considering a brave trip back to school? You’re not alone! Forbes reported that 60 percent of adults without a bachelor’s would like to return to school. Many older and wiser Americans want to launch a second career after age 55. Attending college courses can make the transition into a new profession or industry easier. Perhaps you’re chasing a career dream that got sidetracked by marriage, kids, and tight finances. Maybe you’re simply looking for a more advanced degree to gain upward mobility in your current job. Degrees combined with work experience are often the recipe for successful promotions. Taking on new roles and responsibilities will also increase the value of your paycheck. Whatever your reason may be, heading back to college can be frightening. Therefore, we’ve devoted this article to highlighting 15 tips for senior citizens to enroll in college courses.
1. Look for Accredited, Adult-Friendly Colleges
Choosing from the wide variety of U.S. higher education options is tough for anyone. The NCES College Navigator has indexed 1,579 two-year and 3,004 four-year schools nationwide. The majority of these 4,583 institutions are still geared toward traditional students though. Returning adults should look for colleges that are used to accommodating nontraditional learners. Adult schools, such as Bellevue University, Regis University, and Excelsior College, have a more flexible structure. You won’t be pressured to take five or more campus-based courses each semester. Instead, the college will offer self-directed learning on your schedule in shorter sessions. Adult colleges may provide free degrees for seniors. There’s even a free law school for senior citizens available. Use your favorite search engine to locate adult-oriented universities. However, watch out for diploma mills that often prey on senior citizens. Always check a school’s accreditation status on the U.S. Department of Education website. If colleges aren’t accredited by regional or national agencies, stay away. Unaccredited degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
2. Research Free College Tuition for Seniors Discounts
What colleges have free tuition for senior citizens? More than you might think! All 50 states offer some kind of “free college for seniors” initiative. For example, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education waives general in-state student fees for anyone age 60 or older. The California State University System doesn’t charge senior citizens tuition or fees at 23 CSU campuses. The “Peach State” makes life peachier after age 62 by allowing free University System of Georgia attendance. New Englanders who are at least 60 years old can take one free three-credit course in the University of Massachusetts system. Certain schools, such as Central Connecticut State University and Lone Star College, also have their own tuition-free policies. The World Wide Web makes it simple to locate free online degrees for senior citizens. That’s extremely helpful because the average cost of tuition has skyrocketed 213 percent since the 1970s. CNBC reports mean tuition rates of $9,970 at public and $34,740 at private colleges! Don’t let sticker shock scare you though. Abundant senior discounts make learning accessible regardless of your income.
3. Make Your Returning Adult College Application Shine
Have you narrowed down your college choices? Good job! Now’s the time to start applying. Even some free university courses for seniors will require an admission application. Degree-seeking seniors will definitely need to create an account ID and file the college’s returning adult application by the deadline. Most applications begin by asking biographical information, including your previous schooling. If possible, contact former college registrars to ask for official transcripts. Copies of diplomas or GED certificates might be sufficient though. The majority of universities waive ACT/SAT score requirements for adults over age 25. Graduate schools often still require taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). If you’ve already taken this four-hour, computer-based $205 test, you’ll need to retake it because scores only remain valid for five years. Adult programs usually require a resume or detailed work history. Luckily, senior citizens can dazzle admissions committees with extensive experience most college students lack. Getting reference letters from recent employers and supervisors could also boost your acceptance chances.
4. File the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
Finding free online degrees for seniors is the best case scenario. However, if your chosen program does charge tuition, there’s still hope for financial help. Submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) then becomes essential. Each year, this online form helps more than 13 million college students receive upwards of $120 billion total. The FAFSA is open from October 1st through June 30th to determine your federal aid qualifications. To apply, you’ll need a permanent U.S. address and citizenship or eligible non-citizenship status. Carefully answer all questions, including your social security number, to avoid rejections. Select the “Retrieve IRS Data” option to automatically input your tax return information. Double check for any errors before signing your virtual signature. Once processed, the FAFSA determines your amount for the Federal Pell Grant up to $6,195 per year. The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant is another need-based option offering up to $4,000 annually. Seniors going back to college for education degrees also pursue the TEACH Grant. This $4,000 program helps low-income learners entering K-12 shortage areas from science to foreign language with a 24-month service agreement.
5. Avoid Taking Out Interest-Incurring Student Loans
Completing the FAFSA makes you eligible for a slew of federal student loans. The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program has four different borrowing options. For instance, the Direct Subsidized Loan gives up to $12,500 each year in return for 5.05 percent fixed interest. The Graduate PLUS Loan provides a maximum $20,500 annually for bigger 7.6 percent interest. Of course, those taking free online college courses for senior citizens don’t have to worry. But, everyone else might be drawn to these student loans for quick cash. That’s how student loan debt has surpassed $1.6 trillion, according to CNN. Senior citizens need to be especially careful about borrowing these loans. You don’t want big loan payments to suck up all of your income growth. You don’t want debt to wipe out your savings and derail your retirement plans. Tapping into home equity loans and reverse mortgages is also too risky. If absolutely necessary, be a responsible student loan borrower and trim your budget to pay off the balance quicker. Research repayment alternatives like the Public Service and Health Professions Loan Forgiveness programs too.
6. Find Scholarships for Seniors Going Back to College
Scholarships are another way to reduce out-of-pocket costs on online degrees for senior citizens. Scholarships are free financial aid gifts funded by altruistic donors that don’t require repayment. They’re typically awarded based on academic merit, unmet need, or professional talent. Most scholarships don’t have an age limit, so apply for every one you qualify for. Shop for scholarships via community foundations, nonprofit organizations, professional associations, churches, and businesses. Ask about your college’s scholarships for older returning adults. Google can transport you to long lists of scholarships for senior citizens. For example, the Jeannette Rankin Foundation has a February 29th deadline for low-income women age 35 or older who enroll at accredited colleges. Since 1972, the AAUW Career Development Grant has provided $2,000 to $12,000 annually to adults returning to college after 5 or more years. The EWI Adult Students in Scholastic Transition Scholarship offers up to $10,000 to non-traditional single parents who pursue college education. Modern Woodmen of America randomly selects 10 $1,000 scholarship recipients age 25 or older each Spring. Also check out the Daniels Fund Boundless Opportunity Scholarship.
7. Register for Flexible Evening or Online Study Options
Once you’ve been accepted and paid any enrollment fees, you’re free to start registering. Keep in mind your work and family schedule when doing so. It’s best to find courses with fully online or blended evening formats after 5PM. One exception is for senior citizens who work night shifts and would benefit from daytime learning. The best online degrees for seniors fortunately let you access course content anytime 24/7. Online courses are widely available in diverse subjects from human resources to animal science. The National Center for Education Statistics counts 6.65 million college students who currently study online. Distance adult education lets you attend schools faraway right at home while wearing pajamas. That’s great if free college courses aren’t offered in your location. The internet and basic computer skills are all you need to begin learning. Each online course has an associate or adjunct professor who can offer guidance by web conferencing. Online courses still integrate recorded lectures, textbook readings, peer discussions, tests, and more. Three-fourths of adult students report being satisfied in online classes.
8. Pick the Perfect Major for Your Chosen Career Change
Some 18-year-olds spend semesters or years in college with an undeclared major. Yet, adult students usually don’t have time to waste trying out every major. What are the best online degrees for seniors? That depends on your own individual talents and interests. It’s important to pick a career change major that excites you and makes you happy. Of course, considering the economic value of the major also matters. In 2019, the U.S. News & World Report ranked petroleum engineering the #1 top-paying major with a $96,544 average starting wage. The most popular majors are in business, health science, social science, and biological science disciplines. Each year, 20 percent of the 1.92 million graduates earn business degrees. Use the Bureau of Labor Statistics website to find majors with good job prospects. In-demand majors include computer science, marketing, mathematics, and nursing. Also consider which majors suit adult learning needs best. For instance, Bachelor of Liberal Studies degrees help non-traditional students graduate fast by maximizing credit transfers. Accelerated BSN programs are ideal for returning adults to earn second bachelor’s degrees and become registered nurses. Above all, listen to your heart and follow your calling.
9. Transfer Your Previous Credits Into Senior Citizen Programs
Have you attended college before but dropped out? Don’t feel ashamed because sometimes life sidetracks us. National Public Radio reported a six-year degree completion rate of 58.3 percent. Nearly half of freshmen don’t graduate on time or at all. But, those previous courses can come in handy now. Transfer credits will make online degrees for senior citizens much faster. Most four-year colleges let undergrads transfer up to 90 credits for a 120-credit bachelor’s. At the two-year associate level, up to 45 credits can be transferred. Keep in mind transfer credits are usually only accepted from regionally accredited or foreign equivalent institutions. Find colleges with transfer articulation agreements that automatically accept courses from partner schools. Every transferred course must be passed with a “C” grade or better. Some colleges might only count credits from the last 10 years, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. File for a transfer evaluation to see which previous courses are permitted. Most transfer assessments take three to four weeks. Once you’re notified, review the credit transfers and talk to admission staff if you’re displeased.
10. Take Advantage of the Prior Learning Assessments
Another way to accelerate free degrees for seniors is by using prior learning assessments. Thousands of U.S. and abroad colleges now recognize PLAs for transfer credit. Prior learning assessments can be any evaluation process that tests your mastery of a certain course subject. For example, the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) provides 34 different exams of 90-120 questions each to determine prior knowledge. Approximately 2,000 College Board centers provide these tests for $89 apiece to help skip core education credits. The DANTES Subject Standardized Tests are similar $85 credit-bearing exams in six disciplines: business, humanities, mathematics, physical science, social science, and technology. Many adult colleges accept prior learning portfolios to award credit based on work/life experiences. Former members of the Armed Forces may qualify for credits through the American Council on Education. Veterans simply have to submit their Joint Services Transcript (JST) and DD-214 Form for military credits. Some online schools, such as Western Governors University, have competency-based education too.
11. Speak One-on-One with College Enrollment Advisors
Traditional freshmen entering college can get advice from high school guidance counselors. Senior citizens who likely graduated more than 35 years ago don’t have this luxury. That doesn’t mean adult students have to be on their own though. Each college employs a fleet of enrollment advisors to assist with the transition. Good continuing education departments have enough advisors to provide one-on-one attention. If your chosen college is close by, schedule a face-to-face appointment or attend walk-in office hours. If you’re studying online, introduce yourself to the enrollment services team by email or virtual chat. Advisors are there to counsel you through whatever questions and challenges you have. Don’t be shy in asking for an explanation on things you’re unfamiliar with. Utilize other resources, including free online tutoring and 24/7 tech assistance. You’re never too old to find a mentor either. CNBC reported that nine in 10 workers with mentors are satisfied with their careers. Your faculty advisors, professors, internship supervisors, career services staff, and peers could be great mentors who lead you to success.
12. Develop a Conducive Learning Environment at Home
Despite popular belief, online courses aren’t easier than traditional campus-based ones. The best free online courses for retirees are cheap but not simple. Online learners basically have to teach themselves the course content. Expect lots of reading, writing, and working on projects before the intensive final exams. You’re solely responsible for getting assignments done on time. Studying online requires strong time management skills and self-discipline. Forbes found that 71 percent of people report frequent work interruptions in the office. Now imagine how high the percentage would be at home. Our houses are usually loud places with family talking, dogs barking, TVs blaring, and doorbells ringing. It’s easy for online students to get distracted and lose precious study time. Putting your books aside to do chores or visit Facebook will be appealing. Therefore, choose a study environment that lets you focus. This might involve barricading yourself in the home office or studying when the kids go to bed. It may even mean traveling to your local library for some quiet. Saying no to temptations is essential to find online course success.
13. Get Involved in Campus Clubs with Other Senior Citizens
When most people think of college campus life, drunken fraternity parties and wild intramural sports matches come to mind. Mature adult students may feel there’s no hope of fitting in. Seniors might fear they’ll look more like professors than students. Even fun college classes for senior citizens online can feel isolating. Online courses don’t require the same level of social interaction as campus programs. Getting involved and making friends is a big advantage to attending college though. Many universities have fortunately launched clubs for the older crowd. For example, the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE) has more than 40 chapters nationwide for adults who pay the $35 membership fee to connect. Founded in 1945, the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society currently has 292 chapters for adult students with 24 or more college credits and minimum 3.2 GPAs. Community service organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity and Boys & Girls Club, always welcome new members. Professional associations like Business Professionals of America and Garden Club of America are also available at any age.
14. Maintain a Healthy Balance Between Work, School, and Life
Chances are you’ve got a lot on your plate. Finding time to fit college courses into your other responsibilities can be hard. It’s recommended that students devote at least 9-12 hours per week to each course. Online courses still need to meet the 135-hour requirement to provide credit. If you’re working full-time, these hours will likely have to occur during evenings and weekends. Spreading yourself too thin can have a negative impact though. Keeping your nose in a book or on the screen too long can strain your eyes. Taking on too much work can leave you feeling overwhelmed and stressed. In 2018, a Gallup poll found that 44 percent of people suffer from burnout. Getting burned out drains your energy and hurts your mental health. Thus, create a schedule that budgets time for your job, school, family time, and enough sleep. Establish clear boundaries between the office, classroom, and your home. Don’t forget to let yourself rest and engage in pleasurable hobbies. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise your body like mind is. Recharging your batteries will ensure you’re ready to learn when you log into online courses for seniors.
15. Update Your Resume After Finishing Free Classes for Seniors
Completing low-cost or free degrees for senior citizens is a big accomplishment. More employers in today’s $21.44 trillion economy want to hire workers with degrees. Once you reach graduation, your new degree should be posted front and center on your resume. Update the education section of your resume to show HR staff your earned credentials. You should include the school’s name, your major, and the year you graduated. If you achieved an excellent GPA above 3.5, feel free to brag about it. Tailoring the resume to the job you’re applying for is smart. List campus or online courses you passed that relate to the position’s responsibilities. For instance, mentioning a course titled “Digital Marketing” would be great for social media jobs. Briefly include any extra-curricular activities or awards you won. Inc. magazine found 85 percent of job applicants lie on their resume so don’t be one. Recruiters want to hire genuine people who are openly honest. Refresh the skills section of your resume to detail new abilities you’ve honed. Remember to keep your resume short with one page of relevant experiences in bullet-point format.
Overall, the student demographics at American colleges are changing drastically. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that only 55 percent of U.S. college students are under 21 years. Nearly 40 percent are nontraditional adults returning at age 25 or older. Sixty-two percent of undergrads currently work full-time or part-time outside class too. Gone are the stereotypes that define what college students should look like. It’s perfectly okay to not fit the 18-year-old, fresh-faced freshman mold. Adults and seniors can now take their seat at the higher education table without judgment. Finding free college courses for senior citizens is easier than ever to jumpstart a new career. Affordable online colleges can equip you with the knowledge and skills to pursue your dreams later in life. Don’t keep putting your own aspirations on the back burner and working a stressful job you hate. Use these 15 tips for senior citizens heading to college to create a step-by-step plan that gets you successfully through graduation.
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