New Directions

Going Back to College


I’ve been teaching at universities for over 30 years now. I started my career by teaching first-year composition classes as a graduate student. Since then, I’ve earned three graduate degrees and taught a pretty wide array of classes. I’ve taught in windowless basement classrooms, on military bases, and in the freezing cold portable building behind a potato-processing factory. I’ve had students who were 18 years old and straight out of high school, some who were in their 20’s or 30’s, with kids and without. And I’ve had a number of students who went back to college much later in life.

There are any number of circumstances that lead students to drop out of college the first time around. In many cases, that student just doesn’t have the maturity to defer more immediate desires (like the money that comes from working full-time.) Other situations–like becoming a parent–make going to college so difficult that it just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

But the students I’ve worked with who made a successful return to college seem to have a few things in common.

Their personal lives are manageable.

Life happens on its own schedule. If you’re halfway through a semester when your spouse decides to end your marriage, there’s nothing you can do but cope. Going back to college in the wake of such an upheaval, however, is a mistake it’s best to avoid when you can.

I know it seems like a logical choice: your spouse is gone, you’re left to build a new life of your own–better get busy and finish that degree. The missing part of this equation, though, is the emotional toll big transitions exact on us.  If you have the luxury of waiting until everyone involved has a chance to make peace with their new normal, take advantage of that. If you don’t–and many women don’t–then take the transition slowly. You’ll make up for lost time later. Initially, your only goal should be to keep things manageable. That will give you the confidence to move forward at a faster pace.

They’re ready to explore.

I started college as a Marketing major. It took me less than one full semester to figure out this was not the right path for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t know which path was. But I did have a good friend who pointed out that college is where you go to figure this out. So I gave myself some time to wander–and I still managed to graduate in 3.5 years.

I don’t think it’s important to know exactly where you’re headed when you start college. I think it’s a very bad idea to defer your college education until you have a specific plan in mind. That level of confidence has the potential to lead to huge disappointments when you discover the major you’ve chosen is either 1.) not interesting enough to motivate you, or 2.) beyond your present capabilities–or your willingness to stretch them. I’ve seen many excellent students drop out simply because their original plan wasn’t the right one.

Successful students understand that education, in general, is beneficial. Because they recognize this, they also understand than any major will benefit them in the long run, as long as it’s something they find exciting. Committing to a narrow path–and then giving up when that path gets rocky–isn’t a useful strategy. Being prepared to scout for new paths when the going gets too rough makes a lot more sense.

They’re going to college for the right reasons. 

The only good reason to pay for a college education is the desire to get an education.  The person who goes back to college because they’ve run into a wall–they can’t get promoted at work without a degree, for instance–is very rarely a good student. They see the degree as a hurdle. Their only goal is to get over that hurdle with as little effort as possible.

While one can, of course, get a degree with a C average, the student who works hard is doing more than putting together an impressive transcript or resume. That student is learning how to learn. And if you don’t know how to do that–how to put aside your ego and admit that you don’t know everything–then you aren’t likely to go very far in any field, even with a degree in hand. If your lack of knowledge doesn’t get in the way, your arrogance certainly will.


I’ve watched older students do well in my classes in spite of very difficult circumstances–unexpected health problems, bitter custody battles, even sudden homelessness. I’ve also watched students with every advantage give up because college was just too difficult. The bottom line is that if you’re committed to going back to college, you’ll succeed. The right attitude is far more powerful than perfect timing.

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