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Practical Tips for Students

Practical Tips: Going to College at 50

Whether you've never been to college before, or are returning after decades away, it's an exciting time in your life when you decide to go to college. Here's a few tips to help.

  • Find your local community college. Visit the Community College Finder online at the American Association of Community Colleges to locate a college near you.

  • Do online research. Look at your local community college's Web site. Look at the Admissions page. What are the admissions requirements? When do you need to apply? What types of programs and courses are offered? Some colleges offer programs and courses tailored to plus 50 adults, and many of them have their own web pages within the college's site.

  • Visit the campus. Go to the college campus and walk around. Make some observations. Who do you see? How do they look? Where is the library? Student advising office? Career center?

  • Observe a class. You may need to make arrangements ahead of time with the office of admissions, but you may find it helpful to sit in on a class. If the class has a description online in the course catalog, read it ahead of time. Make observations during the class. Could you learn in this type of setting? Talk to the instructor after the class. Ask if you can see the course syllabus and other course materials.

  • Decide what interests you. What are you hoping to get out of your time at community college? Training for a career switch? Upgraded computer skills? A boost in self-confidence and knowledge? Deciding what interests you – and it's ok if you don't know – can give you some direction when faced with a large course catalog loaded with options.

  • Don't feel like you have to go full-time. Many adults go to college part-time, or only take 1-2 courses during a semester or quarter. If you want to take a full or half-time course load, more financial aid options may be available to you. Consider what type of course load will work with your schedule.

  • Get advice. Confused about how to register or what to sign up for? If your college has a plus 50 program, the staff are often very helpful and able to answer your questions. The student advising office is another campus resource that can help.

  • Talk to a student. Meet another student on campus, or ask the student advising office to recommend a student you can talk to who is close to your age. Ask what he or she found easy about college, and what he or she finds challenging. Ask what resources, study habits, and offices on campus have been helpful.

  • Find supporters close to home. Your family and friends may be an important support for you while you are in community college. Talk with them about your plans, and ask for their support and encouragement. Remember to update them on your progress and plans.

  • Before signing up for a course, look at the details. After you've identified a course you want to take, look at the details. Are pre-requisites required? Will the scheduled meeting time fit within your schedule? Will this course qualify to fulfill a long-term educational goal for a degree or certificate for you? What books or supplies will be required? Will you need regular computer access to complete homework and other assignments?

  • Look at your calendar. Block on your calendar the time needed to get to campus and find the classroom for the courses you are taking. Classroom time is only part of the true "time cost" of going to college. You may need time to complete homework, work on group assignments, participate in an online discussion, or read materials for class. Estimate how much time you may need. If you are not sure, plan to budget 2-4 extra hours per week in your schedule, on top of classroom time.

  • Get technology access. From fee payments to course registration, community colleges today do many things online. If you own a computer, is it able to get online in a reasonable amount of time and handle the tasks you need to complete? Free access is often available through public libraries and college libraries, but may come with time limitations. If you don't have a computer and need one, ask your friends and family to help you find access to one, or ask for contributions to your college expenses fund in lieu of a birthday or holiday gift.

  • Investigate financial aid options. There are many financial aid and scholarship options available, especially if you are out-of-work or recently laid-off. Your college's financial aid office may have more information and suggestions. Any student requesting federal financial aid must complete a FAFSA form, which typically has a June 30 application deadline. There are also programs like the Lifetime Learning Credit program, which allow you to deduct the cost of your education expenses from your taxes. See our practical tips on financial aid for more information

  • Craft a mission statement for your time at community college. It may be as simple as: "I want to learn how to write a novel" or "I want to try going back to school" or "I want to understand Microsoft Excel better" or "I want to get a certificate in pesticide application so I can get a new job." Whatever your mission statement says, it's uniquely yours.

  • Realize that defining a long-term educational goal may take a little time. Many people go to community college to explore new career options, update their skills, or re-visit a topic they enjoyed decades earlier. Some start their courses without a definite degree or certificate in mind. Sometimes taking 1 or 2 courses, meeting instructors, and talking with a student advisor, can help you hammer out a plan. Don't beat yourself up if you don't have an educational goal right away.

  • Get your books and supplies. Some people buy their books at the college bookstore before the class's first meeting with the instructor. Others order them online. Used books often are cheaper, and it can be worthwhile to shop around and check online bookstore sites. However, when buying textbooks online, always consider the delivery time. A savings of a couple of dollars, may not be worth it if the book does not arrive until two weeks after you.