There’s no shame in dropping out or flunking out of college. It happens all the time. Just in the United States, roughly 30 percent of college students drop out before they complete their freshman year. Whatever your reason for leaving school, and however you feel about it now, trust that you’re in good company.
Even so, the prospect of going back to college after dropping out can be daunting. Nagging feelings of self-doubt can drag down your renewed sense of purpose, and all that time spent away from campus can make you feel too old, too tired, or too rusty. College didn’t exactly support you the first time around, so why put yourself through it again?
Such concerns are normal. At the same time, knowing what the process entails can do wonders to ease your anxiety. With a bit of introspection and some research, you can decide whether to go back and finish your degree, pursue a whole new bachelor’s degree program, or find an onramp to vocational education that you haven’t even considered yet.
We’re here to help you see the path more clearly. Use the following prompts and guidelines to take control of your collegiate future.
Why Do You Want to Return to College?
Before doing anything else, you should strive to understand your motivation for going back. You don’t have to become an expert in human psychology to think long and hard about your situation, your underlying drives, and your overarching goals. By leveling with yourself, you’ll gain clarity about the journey ahead and be in a better position to finish what you started.
Resist the urge to skip this step. One big reason why so many folks fresh out of high school end up dropping out is that they aren’t attending college on their own terms, at least not completely. Our culture tends to put higher education on a pedestal, with the result that scores of young people are conditioned to view college through rose-colored glasses.
Now that you’re older and wiser, you can take college down a peg. Articulate what specific skill, kernel of knowledge, or step on the career ladder has brought you to the threshold of returning to school, and use that internal source of motivation as your new north star.
How to Decide Where to Go
The next piece to consider is whether to return to your original college. Depending on how close you live and how many credits you have left, picking up where you left off may be less of a hassle than researching new degree programs. But if you and your former school parted ways on less than amicable terms, the thought of going back might make you queasy.
Besides, your goals have probably changed quite a bit. Maybe your old major is no longer relevant to you. And maybe your old college, even if the administration doesn’t force you to jump through hoops to re-enroll, won’t be able to offer you the financial and scheduling flexibility you need to manage a college course load in the context of your current life.
Whatever the case, there are plenty of alternatives that can accommodate your re-entry into higher education. Between the great community colleges from coast to coast, the emergence of online community college as an option worth considering, and the oodles of respectable online degrees and online colleges, you don’t have to limit your scope.
Navigating the College Re-Entry Process
Once you decide whether to stay or transfer, you still have to make it work. Because let’s face it. College can be a drain on your time, your money, your emotions, your stamina, and your relationships. To succeed, you must have a plan for navigating everything from pre-enrollment to graduation and then persevere through every stage.
Let’s take a look at the three big items on your to-do list.
Find Your Support System
Now more than ever, you need your loved ones in your corner. You’re not 18 anymore, and they need to understand that it will take you some time to adjust to your new role as a non-traditional student. Juggling adult responsibilities with the rigors of a college course load can be overwhelming, and you can’t do it alone.
Your support system should consist of people whom you trust, who understand your reasons for going back to college, and who believe in you. Let them cheer you on now and have your back when things get hard. You can always return the favor.
Figure Out Admissions and Enrollment
When you went through this rigmarole the first time, your slate was clean. Now you have all these tracks to cover, and all this red tape to cut through, just to be a student again. The first thing to do is breathe. The next thing to do is follow these three steps.
- Seek academic advising. Most colleges reserve a special branch of their advising services for non-traditional students, which you should seek out at your school of choice. If you want to go back to the same college, but were subject to academic dismissal for too many failed classes, ask them how you can renew your eligibility and even get those failing grades expunged.
- Turn your old transcripts into transfer credits. You may not be eager to look at your old GPA again, but chances are that old transcript of yours is a treasure trove of transfer credits. With these in hand, your new program can tell you what general education classes and other prerequisites are okay to skip.
- Map out your path to completion. In consultation with your support system, set a target date for your graduation, and take on a manageable course load every term until you’re done. Decide whether an online, in-person, or hybrid method of instruction works best for your schedule. Finally, figure out how to pay for it.
Secure Financial Aid
The search for financial aid in the United States should always begin with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will assess your need and determine your eligibility for various types of federal funds. But it shouldn’t stop there. Leave no stone unturned in your quest for aid, and be on the lookout for each of these types.
- Grants and Scholarships. Both of these types come with no strings attached. Whereas grants are need-based, scholarships are merit-based. Filling out your FAFSA may get you the former, but not the latter.
- Loans. In FAFSA terms, low-interest loans are offered to students with some need, with federal grants typically reserved for applicants with the highest need. If you’re wary about taking out a loan, that’s totally understandable. Some loans, though certainly not all, can be forgiven under certain circumstances.
- Tuition Reimbursement Programs. Because your return to school may benefit your current employer, you can leverage your standing to ask them to pay for part of it. Some companies proudly publicize the existence of such programs.
- Other options. Many financial aid programs cater specifically to veterans of the military. If that doesn’t apply to you, try looking for funding specific to your state.
Conclusion: Are You Ready to Return to School?
It’s a marathon, as the saying goes, not a sprint. If you start worrying about how long it will take to finish your bachelor’s, you will lose sight of what’s motivating you to go back. And your personal reasons for returning are only as strong as your support system and your path to re-enrollment and completion.
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