When you’re in high school, or college if you go the traditional route of enrolling right out of high school, living on campus, and taking all in-person classes, school can feel like the world. Whether that’s a good experience or a bad one depends on your school and your place in it, but either way, it can feel like your whole life.
Going to college after age twenty-five, going to college online, and/or going to college part-time while we also focus on our family, paid work, music gigs, acting, or writing can feel like a completely different world. And like traditional college and its urban legends, nontraditional college comes with its own set of myths and misconceptions.
Note: for the purpose of this article, the term “adult education” will be used to refer to any of the nontraditional situations described above. It is a common term used to differentiate nontraditional students from more traditional higher education situations, and is in no way meant to imply that a student who is eighteen or over, taking all of their classes offline, and living on or computing daily to campus is not an adult.
Myth: It’s going to be you and a bunch of eighteen year-olds who have never done anything but attend high school.
Reality: This may turn out to be true at some schools. However, people are increasingly delaying college, going back to college to prepare for second careers, or taking other, less traditional routes to their degree. If you do not want to feel like the only person who did not head off to college right after high school and then settle into your permanent career, it is entirely possible to narrow your list of prospective schools down to those with a high percentage of students who fall into similar categories as you. According to the U.S. News and World Report online rankings for 2022, Peirce College in Philadelphia, UMass Global, and our own Empire State College right here in New York boast a student body that is over 80% “aged twenty-five and older.”
Myth: The instructor is going to expect you to know more about the subject because you’re older, or you’re “out in the world” more
Reality: Most instructors expect students to enter the class at the level of expertise and skill one would expect of anyone taking the class. Anyone who doesn’t is being unfair. Regardless of the subject, everyone was a beginner at some point, and that includes adults studying that subject for the first time. You will not be expected to have any skills or insight anyone else taking the class would not be expected to have.
Myth: You will never really be a part of campus life.
Reality: Like the issue of feeling surrounded by people barely out of high school, this one seems to be less of a problem as nontraditional students become more and more the norm. Where once you might visit a university webpage and find “Young Democrats,” or “Young Republicans,” as the only offerings for those interested in politics, “College Democrats (or Republicans)” groups are increasingly common. Groups for people of specific ethnic backgrounds, general interests, and career interests welcome all students. Many schools even have distinct groups for students who do not reside on campus or are otherwise “nontraditional.”
Myth: You are going to be your instructor’s equal, especially if you’re close in age or older than them.
Reality: Your instructor is the person teaching the class and you are the student, regardless of your age, life experience, or any other details about either of you. If you truly know more than the teacher, you need to drop the class and take one at a much higher level. Other details about your life do not matter in class. An instructor with an earned doctorate is still “Dr.” and his or her last name. Those teaching with a Master’s degree, or who hold a terminal Master’s degree are “Mr,” “Ms.” or “Mrs.” (or whatever they introduce themselves using) and their last name, unless they ask the class to call them by their first name. And regardless of your age, past education, or professional experience, it is best to ask the teacher what they wish to be called if they do not let you know in the syllabus or other introductory materials.
Myth: The instructor is going to offer you special treatment because of your age, employment status, or family status.
Reality: This myth began circulating around the internet as early as 2009, and took hold thanks to a now defunct “college advice” website boasting more than one rather questionable gem. Never assume that you are going to be graded more leniently, allowed to turn things in late, or given extra time on a test simply because you have a job, kids, a spouse, a house full of pets, or bills to pay. Each instructor’s policy on late work, grading, and other class issues may vary, but they will apply to everyone, not just you.
Myth: Your instructor will have a degree, or at least some training in adult education and will be especially attuned to the needs of adult education students.
Reality: This particular myth has been put forth by a certain well-known online university that offers doctorate degrees in adult education. Visitors to the “chat with us” area of their website are urged to enroll right away, and the line “Yeah, in order to teach at a college you pretty much need a doctorate in Adult Education” is one they have used. This is neither true, nor is it a tactic used by all schools that offer this degree, because it simply is not true. Your instructor will have an advanced degree, at least a Master’s degree, in their field.
Myth: College teachers have to announce they treat everyone the same. If I take them aside and have a little chat with them, they’ll give me an extension when I have to work an extra shift that week or take my kids to practice.
Reality: Approaching anyone supervising any of your work, whether paid or academic, with a reason why you deserve special treatment is making an excuse. Some instructors happily accept excuses. Others accept none. But either way, what you’re doing is nothing more than making an excuse. And that is not a good habit to develop in college…or at work.
If you’re headed back to school, or thinking of going back to school at an age that feels older than everyone else, or you feel like you’ve had more or different life experiences than most college students and won’t be able to relate to anyone else, don’t let those fears discourage you. Higher education is more friendly to those who didn’t take the traditional route than ever.
by Jess Szabo originally published on Artist Cafe Utica www.artistcafeutica.com