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Top 5 Challenges Older College Students Face

WVU Online | Wednesday, March 6, 2024

In the ever-changing world of education, one noticeable trend is the increasing number of adults making their way back to college. Whether it's to pursue a lifelong passion, advance in their careers, or fulfill a personal goal, adult learners are embracing higher education like never before.

However, this journey is not without its challenges. In this article, we'll dive into the unique obstacles older college students face and provide valuable insights on overcoming them, ensuring a successful academic experience.

The Rise of the Older College Student

In recent years, there has been a significant rise in the number of older individuals pursuing higher education, with 37% of college students being 25 and older, according to recent data from the Lumina Foundation.

Adult learners are returning to school for several reasons: staying competitive in the evolving job market, seeking new career paths, and fulfilling lifelong passions. These non-traditional students bring diverse life experiences and perspectives to the classroom, contributing to a trend toward lifelong learning and career advancement.

However, older college students encounter distinct challenges compared to their younger classmates. Colleges and universities are recognizing the unique needs of adult learners, implementing tailored support services and flexible learning options to support their educational journey.

5 Common Challenges Older College Students Face

If you're a non-traditional student considering going back to school, it's important to know ahead of time some common challenges you may face. In this section, we'll cover five common obstacles they often encounter. From managing multiple responsibilities to navigating the financial aspects of education, understanding and addressing these challenges are key to success as an adult learner.

Balancing Work, Family, and School

Returning to school as an adult can mean juggling multiple responsibilities, from work obligations to family commitments. Unlike traditional students, adult learners often have to balance full-time jobs and familial duties with their academic pursuits. This balancing act can result in added stress and limited time for studying and other school activities.


One of the primary hurdles for adult students is the accessibility of classes. With packed schedules due to work or family responsibilities, attending classes during regular school hours may not always be possible. This obstacle not only hinders academic success but may deter individuals from pursuing further education at all.


The financial burden of education is another concern for adult learners. Tuition fees, textbooks, and other expenses can add up quickly, especially with costs like childcare or housing on top of it. Many people will shy away from returning to school because the cost feels like it’s too much to add to the other necessary expenses in their lives.

Returning After a Long Hiatus

Re-entering an academic environment after a break can bring doubts and uncertainties. Adult learners may question their ability to keep up with coursework, recall academic skills, or integrate into student communities. Overcoming these concerns is essential to combat imposter syndrome and ensure academic success.

Navigating the Initial Steps

Going back to school as an adult can be exciting, but the idea can feel big and intimidating. Questions about the feasibility of change, the value of investing time and resources, and the ability to balance competing priorities can loom large. When beginning this journey, it's essential to take things one step at a time and seek support and guidance along the way.

Exploring Your Options as an Older College Student

Online Learning

Thanks to its flexibility and diverse degree options equally respected by employers, online education has become a go-to for adults returning to school. You can have the flexibility needed to tailor your school schedule around work, family, or military service. From associate to doctoral degrees, you can earn your qualifications from the comfort of your home.

When choosing an online program, keep in mind the format that would be the best fit for you. Some programs are all online, while others take a hybrid approach and offer both online and in-person classes, allowing you to collaborate face-to-face with other students and professors. Both have advantages, but you want to choose the option that fits your learning style and lifestyle.

But how does it work?

Online learning maintains the same structure as on-campus courses but grants you more flexibility in managing your time. Once logged in, you'll find announcements, course content, and learning modules. Typical coursework includes assignments, blog posts, group projects, discussion boards, reading materials, essays, and journaling. Just like in traditional classes, engaging with teachers and classmates is vital in online learning. You'll communicate through discussion groups, email, social media, and video chats.


As an older college student, you're not limited to traditional, in-person education and pursuing a four-year degree. In today's educational landscape, there are options available for all types of needs and preferences.

From certificate programs to the newer option of micro-credentials, exploring alternative pathways can offer flexibility and opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Micro-credentials stand out for their efficiency and affordability compared to traditional degrees or certificates. They're smaller in scope, take less time to complete, and are laser-focused on specific skills.

According to Forbes magazine, a survey of employers reported that 95% think it’s a good thing if their employees are earning micro-credentials. While commonly available online, they can also be in-person or a mix of both, accommodating various learning preferences.

Offered mainly by universities and educational institutions, micro-credentials help individuals gain targeted skills that enhance their expertise. They are also less expensive than a degree or certificate.

Tips for Overcoming Common Challenges and Succeeding as an Adult Learner

Navigating college as an adult learner comes with unique challenges, but you can enhance your chances of success with strategic approaches. Here are some valuable tips to help you overcome common obstacles and thrive in your academic journey:

Prioritize time management

Balancing coursework, work responsibilities, and personal commitments requires effective time management. Create a detailed schedule and utilize tools like online calendars or task management apps to allocate time for studying, attending classes, and completing assignments.

Utilize support services

Take advantage of support services your college or university offers, such as academic advisors, tutors, and career development programs. These resources can guide and assist you when addressing challenges and maximizing your potential for success.

Apply for financial aid

A benefit to online learning is the affordability, but financial aid options are also available for additional help with costs. Online students can apply for loans, grants, and scholarships using the FAFSA application for federal aid.

Embrace flexibility

Online learning offers flexibility, allowing you to adapt your study schedule to accommodate your lifestyle and any unexpected events that may arise. Leverage this advantage by adapting your study schedule and being open to adjusting your approach when necessary.

Communicate effectively

Maintain open lines of communication with professors, classmates, and support staff. Ask questions, get assistance when needed, and seek feedback to improve your academic performance and build stronger relationships.

Establish clear goals

Set specific, achievable goals for your academic journey to stay focused and motivated. Break down goals into smaller milestones and celebrate achievements along the way. Regularly reassess and adjust goals to align with evolving aspirations and circumstances.

How WVU Online Supports Adult Learners

WVU Online understands that adult learners face specific challenges. Hear from our Academic Coaches about how WVU Online is prepared to support you on your educational journey.

Q: What support services are available for adult learners before and after beginning their program?

We are here to support adult learners returning to school at WVU! We offer access to a team of WVU Online Admissions Coaches who can talk adult learners through each step of their process through virtual admissions coaching sessions via Zoom.

We also offer several resources in the admissions and enrollment phases, including virtual program information sessions, online student readiness orientation, admitted student checklists, virtual open houses, and connecting students with other academic support units as needed.

After enrolling in an online degree program, students can access:

  • Career services
  • Accessibility services
  • Tutoring
  • Mental health services
  • WVU libraries
  • The technology service desk
  • StudentLingo

Q. How do academic coaches help adult learners? How easily can adult learners access academic advisors or support staff when they need assistance?

We understand that many adult learners didn't attend college following high school or didn't complete their undergraduate degrees years ago. People often associate college with youth and fear they'll be out of place. As coaches, we can help ease those fears, discuss academic requirements, and recommend programs that align with their career goals.

Coaches can provide step-by-step instructions for the admission process, guidance on choosing a program that will work for their specific situation and goals, address any concerns they might have about returning to/starting school, suggest additional student resources, and connect them with other departments at WVU if needed. Adult learners can also call or email coaches, advisors, and support staff directly or set up specific times for virtual meetings that fit their schedule.

Our WVU Online Admission Coaches are available to answer questions and connect prospective students at any age with faculty and staff in the academic programs of interest.

Q. How does WVU provide flexibility for adult learners with work or family commitments?

The online learning environment offers flexibility for working professionals, allowing them to set their study time. The intent is to make learning as accessible and convenient as possible.

As admission coaches, we have scheduling links so they can view our availability to find a day and time that works for them to meet virtually. If needed, we can adjust our hours to meet outside our regular business hours. We understand that life comes with responsibilities and commitments outside of school, so we can be accommodating to support the academic success of our adult learners.

Interested in Going Back To School? Connect with WVU Online!

Ready to take the next step toward your educational goals? WVU Online offers accredited and affordable degrees and certificates and experienced academic coaches to help you achieve your goals and aspirations. Whether you're considering returning to school to advance your career or pursue a new passion, we're here to support you every step of the way.

We're here for you.

Call us, write us, or fill out the request information form. Whichever communication style you prefer, there will be someone from WVU Online on the other end waiting to help.

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