Big decision: Going back to school

Returning to college as an adult can be challenging, but it offers rewards beyond just receiving a…

Georgia (Apr 14, 2014)Returning to college as an adult can be challenging, but it offers rewards beyond just receiving a diploma.


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by Kevin Moreau for the AJC

   Schneider had spent a couple of years enrolled at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1980s, but ended up leaving for financial reasons.

   “I kind of went to college knowing that I wasn’t going to graduate,” he said. “My family wasn’t doing well financially. My mother had a terminal illness, and about halfway through, I ran out of money.”

   So he dropped out of school and started working. “And then life happened for about two and a half decades,” he said. Very often for people in his situation, “what happens is, you start living your life and you’re doing okay — you’re not wealthy, but you have control over your life. It doesn’t feel like you need to go back to school.”

]   Things changed when Schneider lost his job in the distribution department of a nonprofit senior services company. He spent six months doing odd jobs to make ends meet, watching as his bills continued to pile up.

   “And then a friend of mine said to me, ‘You should go back to school,’” he said. “I’d heard that a thousand times, and I always had an excuse for why it couldn’t happen. This time, though, I said, ‘You know what? Maybe I should.’”

   Becoming tech savvy

   And so earlier this year, Schneider enrolled at Georgia State University, joining an estimated 4 million adults over the age of 35 enrolled in a degree-granting institution, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

   Schneider, whose goal is to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree in graphic design, said that returning to school after such a long absence has definitely taken some getting used to.

   Perhaps the biggest adjustment, Schneider said, is the many ways technology has changed the college experience. Some are fairly intuitive, like hardback textbooks being replaced by online materials.    And some of the changes have been a little more surprising — like the film professor who informed Schneider he’d need to open a Twitter account to take the class.

   “He gives Twitter assignments,” Schneider said. “He’ll pick a topic and everyone is supposed to tweet something about Soviet montage cinema or German expressionism or something, and hashtag his class in the tweet, so he can look it up and see whether you did the assignment. That was strange.”

   “You do have to be a lot more tech savvy,” said Cheryl Hunter, who enrolled at Kennesaw State University two years ago to complete a bachelor’s degree in communications , after dropping out of Georgia Perimeter College in 2000 to raise a family. “Everything is done online, from registering for classes and setting up meetings with your advisers to the way you submit completed assignments.”

   Adjusting to the technology itself has been relatively easy for both students. “When I went to college before, there was a West Germany, and there was no Internet,” Schneider said. “It used to be if you needed to write a term paper, you had to go to the library and get out 16 books and find the specific quotation you were looking for. Things are massively easier on that level.”

   Culture shock

   Adapting to the habits and work ethic of students who were weaned on that technology, on the other hand, has taken a little more work.

   “Some of my classmates take their schoolwork very seriously,” said Schneider.

   “But some of them, you look across a lecture hall and somebody’s playing Angry Birds, or somebody’s answering something on Facebook. There’s definitely a culture shock involved.”

   “Being an older, mature student, I tend to recognize their youthfulness,” Hunter said. “They tend to be more relaxed, no sense of urgency about things. When you’re working together on a group project, that can be a problem sometimes, because they’re laid back, they’re in party mode, doing what young people do. Whereas I’m like, ‘Hey, chop-chop! We have a deadline. Let’s do this!’”

   “I live in a world designed for and populated by people who are two decades younger than me, and have a completely different way of looking at the world,” Schneider said. “When you come back to school after 20, 25 years, you come to it as if it’s a job.”

   For Hunter, 50, a working mother, college is one of three full-time jobs she juggles on a daily basis.

   She arrives at her day job as a contract control specialist for Granite Services at 7 a.m., and leaves at 4 p.m. for a full load of evening classes at Kennesaw. In between, she stays in touch with her 12-year-old daughter, making sure she stays on top of her schoolwork.

   “You still have to be very much involved,” she said. “I can’t let her fall short because of what I’m doing. And you definitely have to have a support system in place,” she said. “With me having a minor child, her grandparents have been a life-saver.”

   Hunter, a junior on track to graduate at the end of 2015, takes classes every semester, including during the summer. To do so, she spends a good chunk of time researching financial aid options, including grants and scholarships specifically aimed at older students, single parents, and other groups.

   It’s a lot of work, she said, but it’s worth it. Returning to school “has actually enhanced my self-confidence, even in the workforce,” she said. “Speaking in public or in front of a large group, I’m more comfortable doing that now, because of the many projects and presentations we’ve had to do at school.”

   Resources and support

   Gail McCain, who works in the Learning and Tutoring Center (LTC) at the Dunwoody campus of Georgia Perimeter College, said that Hunter’s drive and self-assurance are common in older adults who return to college.

   “One of the great joys of my job is watching people transform from nervous apprehension to triumphant confidence,” she said. “Older students most often are the most determined and focused students in a classroom. They have a specific goal in mind, and they resolve to work long and hard to achieve that goal.”

   Georgia Perimeter helps them achieve those goals, McCain said, by providing extended hours for working adults, and by offering a series of preparation classes called GPC C.A.R.E. (Compass Academic Review and Enrichment) especially for applicants who’ve been out of school for some time. “We give these students a refresher course two nights a week to help them increase their scores when they retest for entry into the college,” she said.

   Similarly, Kennesaw State University’s Lifelong Learning Center provides programs and other resources for “nontraditional” and adult learners who are either returning to school or starting later in life. “They offer a wide range of things,” Hunter said. “Resources to tell you where you can get tutoring, help with papers, even a support group.”

   Hunter enjoys the wealth of helpful resources and the added confidence she’s gained at work. But what she really enjoys about her back-to-school experience, she said, is the sense of accomplishment.

   “It’s been a great experience,” she said. “Each semester you progress, just being successful and passing the class, it just propels you that much further to push through it.”

   For Schneider, the best thing about returning to school has been the chance to change his life.

   “Ultimately, what led me back to school was the notion that … when you find yourself in a corner, you find a way to reinvent yourself, to find a new direction for your life to go in,” he said. “Chances are, it’ll lead you somewhere better than you’ve been.”


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit