03/05/2014 12:01 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

College Is Not Just for Kids Anymore

People think of education as something the young engage in, but education is right at any age. Obviously, kindergarten through high school are years of education for the young. College years can be a time of transition between adolescence and adulthood, especially if you're between the ages of 17 and 21. However, changes in the workplace landscape have meant that the skills once adequate from a high school degree are no longer the skills that will allow for advancement today. Employers are looking for those with college degrees. That means that more people than ever are entering college -- as adults. That could be you.

You would be in the category of adult learner. You may be older than the traditional student and have family and home responsibilities to manage. Your time is precious. At some point you realized that to progress in your work or to move to a more lucrative field, you need a college degree or more specific training in a specific arena. Perhaps you felt long ago that you weren't ready for or did not need college, or now you're dead-ended in a career and need to develop new skills. You are part of a large and growing group for whom increasing resources are available.

It has been noted that returning students are more focused and harder working and often do better, so many colleges are coming to value them greatly. In some ways I was an adult learner myself. I had a college degree and a successful corporate career but when I made the decision to move to higher education I was 40 and needed to earn a doctorate to advance in my field. So at age 40 I was the oldest kid in my graduate school class. But I also had a family and a job.

Part of what worked for me was having a clear sense of why I was doing what I was doing. That is part of the challenge for students going back to school. You do not want to feel you are wasting time and want to get what you need and then get on with it. But the reality is that you may not recognize that the skills that you need will come disguised in many forms. You may need specific skills such as financial management if that is the field you seek. But you will also need broad skills that will carry you to and through the many opportunities you could have along the way. The broad skills are communications (written and verbal), critical thinking/problem-solving, research and the ability to work well with others. Those skills emerge in the classes many think are a waste. They will be found in English (think communications), Philosophy (think about thinking), History (think about research) or Social Science classes (think about human behavior). They will be found in the papers you research and write for any class or the team projects you have to do. They are the skills employers are seeking.

The reason to focus on skills is that advancement often moves people from one job and job category to another. Or the economic landscape changes and you need to switch gears but not go back to school every time. Or there is a new field that emerges that you can slide into because you have those broad skills. So if you approach every class in the spirit of understanding what skill you are learning it will seem more purposeful. You could actually end up enjoying the subject matter along the way.

Once you have the right mindset you need to choose a major that both aligns with your goals and also will give you enjoyment. If you find that you don't like what you are studying and if it represents the field you want to enter, you may not have a good career fit. Stop there and regroup. You are also more likely to excel in a subject area you enjoy. Employers do not want to see GPAs much below 3.0. There are exceptions but they are looking for really smart people. If your back story is also a challenging one then the value of the higher GPA goes up even more. So if you are working and taking care of kids and getting a 3.4 GPA then you must be a very well-organized, focused and determined person. That is someone worth hiring.

Your family needs to understand that while you do this there will be sacrifices -- usually of your time with them -- but they will all benefit in the end. Be sure to build family time into your weekly game plan. Friends can be supportive, but if they are not then you need to let those friends go. Those who are supportive will be the ones who encourage you when things get tough. Some of the best can be the new friends you make in college... maybe others like yourself. I have seen students volunteer to babysit for classmates' children when things were tight and papers due.

If you are working too then time management will be one of the most essential things you have to do. Your planner or diary will be your new best friend. The right school can also make that easier. Take one course to get your feet wet and assure this is the right fit if you have been away for a while. It will also help in getting back into a student frame of mind. Most universities now offer some mix of online and on site courses. Public universities and schools in urban centers are often more attuned to the needs of the adult learner. Community colleges can be excellent choices, as they are more flexible in scheduling and can offer courses specific to certain career goals. Some schools give credit for life experience or allow you to use your work as part of your learning experience. Many schools offer courses in the evenings or on weekends, or special programs designed for the working student. It is a challenging situation, for instance, when your curriculum requires lab time, which is not readily available other than in the daytime, when most of the faculty are present. But some schools now even offer labs on the weekend. But you have to do the research to find the ones that will work for you.

You obviously have to also do research to see where your money will be best spent. It would seem that some of the private online colleges would be best for adult learners but if you Google them you will see articles that suggest that they may be expensive and may not always deliver on what they advertise. I would suggest caution here. Be a smart consumer and be sure any school is accredited, does not have problems with the Better Business Bureau if it is a for-profit school, and delivers what it promises before you give them your money. Look at graduation rates and evidence regarding post-graduate employment. Look to your local state or city colleges and universities for the best return on your investment. Build up your savings now for books and any expenses not covered by financial aid. Sometimes your employer will have a tuition reimbursement plan. Sometimes private colleges will have scholarships that make them viable as long as the courses you need are offered at times you need them.

One of the things that will be important will be to network while in college. That is where the real career action is. Careers are built on relationships. This can take many forms. You will need to get to know your classmates. You can help and support each other. But also if others are adult learners too they may be good professional connections. Your faculty may know people in your field of interest but certainly will be good as references. So cultivate them. That helps your grades too. Get to know your deans or advisers as often opportunities come their way and it helps to be on their radar screens. One of my students recently found an internship through one of my undergraduate college connections and now has a job offer for after graduation.

If you can manage it, take part in some activity on or off campus that shows your heart, leadership and skills in a non-classroom context so you can enrich both your resume and your network. While it may take more time in your life it can also fast track your career.

The bottom line is that you can finish college whenever and wherever suits you best. Age is not a barrier. My best grad student assistant was 70 and some of the best undergrads I have known have been returners. One especially inspiring student was a widowed mother of two teens -- and she was blind. She graduated at the top of her class as a math major and went on to graduate work to become a math teacher.

You can do this.

Dr. Cantarella is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide ( and a consultant on higher education, access and success. ( Information on finding the right college fit at any age can be found in Chapter 1 of I CAN Finish College For other valuable resources or to buy the book visit