While this post is mainly targeted towards nontraditional college students, this information can really help anyone who is in college and struggling in regards to making progress towards completing their degree.
In my opinion, there are 5 main barriers that seem to be the most common in regards to preventing people from earning their college degrees. They are: logistics, finances, academics, social issues, and losing sight of your goals. The following tips will address these issues specifically; and then I’ll go on to bring up some other points that I think are important.
#1 – Logistics. Basically, life happens. Traditionally, a bachelor degree takes 4 years to earn. For many people, it takes even longer. Many people experience serious life changes during this timeframe; whether it be having a child, experiencing a serious health issue, family issues, etc. These things can prevent you from attending class, being able to study, or even force you to leave the college campus altogether.
Solution – As soon as you recognize the potential for your college studies to be affected, you should meet with your advisor. Explain to them the anticipated worse case scenario, however “unlikely” you think it is, and get your advisor’s feedback on how this will affect your progress in your program. Trust me, the sooner you get this information the better. Assuming things as a college student can be very costly in terms of time and money. Also, if you do need to put your college studies on hiatus, check in with your advisor or department before you return. Insure that the program requirements haven’t changed. If they have, verify a new plan of study if it applies.
#2 – Financial. No student, receiving financial aid or not, should assume that their financial situation will remain constant all throughout their college career. Colleges run their fiscal years July-June, so you always need to be looking ahead to find out about tuition rate increases as well as changes in financial aid packages or requirements.
Solution – You should plan ahead at least a year and honestly assess how you plan to fund your college studies. Make sure to consider the cost of not only tuition, but books, fees and living expenses. Identify several back-up plans. Make sure to meet all deadlines, and complete applications as directed. If you do have a problem, make an appointment (in-person preferably) to see a financial aid counselor.
True story – One year, I filled out my FAFSA as directed; however I was laid-off in the year that I was to attend school (the FAFSA is populated with income & asset information from the previous year). Well my Student Aid Report (SAR) had a pretty high EFC on it; much higher than I would be able to deal with. However I made an appointment to meet with the financial aid officer at my school…where I explained the situation and brought documentation that I was collecting unemployment and that my financial situation had drastically changed. I then had a much lower EFC and became eligible for a Pell Grant. Problem solved! 😀
Other factors to consider – If you are concerned with the overall cost of college (and many people are…because it is daunting), find out if your local community college has a transfer or articulation agreement with other 4-year schools. In almost all cases, community college tuition is significantly cheaper than anyplace else. But this is not an option for every major…so be sure to verify these programs not only at your local community college, but also with the 4-year school that you are planning to transfer to. And finally many colleges and universities have tuition payment plans. The bursar’s office at the school should be able to tell you about those, if they are available.
#3 – Academics. Some people may disagree with me, but it is better to be a degree holder of an “easy” major, like basket weaving; than to be a college dropout from the rocket science program (unless you got hired by NASA directly…and yes, I just made those majors up)!
Solution – Be honest with yourself first and foremost. In spite of what anyone says in regards to what is a good major and what is a bad major; and even those who say that you need a college degree to get ahead (you don’t), you have to know what your strengths and limitations are. Not everyone is college material…and that’s just a fact. It is better that you assess academic issues early on…because again, assuming and denying cost a lot of time and money in college.
Other factors to consider – However if it is just an issue of a particular class, or if you have a learning disability, utilize any resources that are available on campus to help get you through it. Just about every college has tutoring centers (and usually they are subject specific). Additionally accommodations can be made if you have a disability. Also don’t be afraid to communicate your struggles with your professors (preferably, before mid-terms and/or the drop date deadline). Most professors do want to help their students succeed. If you are not getting anywhere that way, then try to take the course, alone, during the summer session. Or if possible, at another college (ensure that it will transfer…also be advised that you usually can’t use your financial aid outside your home school). But last but not least, don’t allow yourself to quit. A typical bachelor’s degree consists of 120-132 credit hours. To let 3 or 6 or 9 credits deter you from your goal…well, that’s just a crying shame!
#3 – Social. College, no matter how you choose to pursue it, comes with a slew of social challenges. Most likely, you will be dealing with others in a different manner than you have ever dealt with them before…or since. Additionally, you may have had expectations about college that did not manifest themselves in the least.
Solution – Here again, an honest assessment of your comfort zone is in order. Can you be fine, preferably happy in a rural environment if you are from the big city? Can you be away from your boyfriend/girlfriend for weeks or months on end? Can you deal with all of the rules and regulations that come from living in a dorm? Will you be bothered being a 40-year old in a classroom full of 18-21 year olds? Yes, a college degree is important. But you need to find out if it is absolutely necessary for you to be miserable while earning one. Usually, it’s not. If you are absolutely stuck at the college, then create social outlets that are independent from your college life. In the end, your happiness and attitude are key factors to consider when considering your chances for success.
Other factors to consider – Befriend other students who are success-oriented. Hanging around students who do not take their studies seriously will most likely effect you (and not for the better).
# Goals. And finally the most important issue overall — do you know what your goals are? Why do you need a college degree? I don’t mean just in terms of career…but also what it is that you are trying to take away from the experience. Don’t worry about your major and which degree is the best; apparently, only 60% of college graduates are working in the field that they studied in college anyway.
Solution – Identify your goals early, but revisit them on a regular basis. You should always be refining your path in life, whether it be academic, professional, or personal…and looking for ways to improve. Identify and learn about “successful” people. Many times, when you look at their background, you’ll be surprised at the choices that they made to get where they are. Be flexible. And last, but not least, do not let others steer your ship and confuse their goals/opinions up with yours.
On a final note – I personally know what it is like to be a college dropout. To want to go back to college, but not fully understand how to make it to the commencement stage. The best thing I can suggest is to research. Look into every option…even those that seem impossible. Gather together your old transcripts and catalogs, and find out what it will take to get the degree that you want. Talk to real life people…preferably in the department that houses the degree that you want. Don’t assume that just because you heard something discouraging at one school, that the next school will say the same thing.
And please, please be smart about your choices. Talk to others for guidance and keep your finger on the facts. Be very, very weary of life experience degrees. The vast majority of them are not worth the paper that they are written on. Instead, if a particular major is not needed, you should turn to your local public university and ask them about degree completion or general studies programs.
Any comments or additional tips are welcome; especially from other non-traditional students who have “been there, & done that”. 🙂