Returning to School

The numbers of nontraditional students over age 25 is rapidly growing in the United States thanks to the advent of online programs, flexible degrees, and credit for prior learning assessments. Adult students experience many benefits and challenges when returning to school as older students. They often become mentors to their younger counterparts, maintain good work habits, and earn excellent grades due to their focus on clear goals. Adult students' motivations for going back to school vary. Some are seeking a new skill set for career advancement. Others want to find a job in a new industry. And a few -- usually older adults -- are studying exclusively for personal enrichment. Many nontraditional students majoring in psychology want to advance their careers by earning a degree that provides knowledge and skills in human behavior.

A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that younger students welcome the expertise and applied knowledge that their nontraditional peers bring to class. Furthermore, most adult students have developed effective stress management and coping mechanisms that help them show resilience in their studies. Still, financials can be a particular challenge for students who shoulder the burden of caring for a household without parental support. However, returning to school for a psychology degree can offer significant financial and career benefits. Not only do practicing counselors and psychologists work in a fast-growing field with salaries that exceed the national average, but a psychology major is useful in any occupation requiring research skills and predictive knowledge of human behavior. This guide gives an overview of credit transfers, prior learning assessments, online degrees, and financial aid for students returning to school.

A psychology degree equips graduates with marketable skills in the field of psychology and increases their chances of securing a well-paid position in related fields. Earning a psychology degree enables students to conduct experiments on the reasons people think and behave the way they do. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, industrial-organizational psychologists with a bachelor's degree earn a median salary of $77,350 per year, which is far more than the salary psychology majors with an associate degree earn. In addition, employers prefer students who return to college for a degree in psychology due to their advanced research skills and understanding of human behavior.

Psychology students enjoy plenty of specialization options, such as child development, criminal justice, and mental health counseling. Moreover, a professional with a bachelor’s degree in psychology has other career options in occupations and industries apart from being a psychologist. Market analysis, human resources, and religious work all require a psychology major's skills. Not everything in psychology is about the study of theories or research methodology. A major hidden advantage of a bachelor’s degree in psychology is acquiring soft skills on how to think and communicate. Holding a master's degree or doctorate opens up additional opportunities to practice as a therapist, social worker, or clinical psychologist.

Average Salaries for Psychology Graduates by Educational Attainment
Associate Bachelor’s Master’s Doctorate
$35,221 $44,663 $67,082 $76,811

Source: PayScale

Studies show that older students who return to college through online courses outperform their younger counterparts. Older students often mentor younger classmates, forming mutually beneficial relationships. Furthermore, employed students can learn new skills, improve their existing skills, and increase their earning potential by pursuing a college degree. A 2016 survey found that while online graduate students are an average of 33 years old, their undergraduate counterparts in brick-and-mortar schools have an average age of 29. This age difference reflects the effectiveness of online courses for adults.

Online education is a perfect model for students with life commitments such as work or family because it allows learners the flexibility to complete work at their own pace. Courses do not have specific lecture times, so students can engage in class before work, during dinner, or after story time. Additionally, online students can log into their student accounts from anywhere with their mobile devices. Many schools also offer internships or clinical requirements at locations near a student's home.

Students who previously attended school or took classes at an accredited college or university may be able to transfer their credits to a new school. Transferring credits can help students save money and graduate faster. Each school sets its own transfer policies, but most institutions only accept credits from institutions with regional accreditation. Students should contact the registrar's office at their former school to request a transcript. Almost always, students can find the process for doing so listed on a school's website.

College credits never technically expire; however, some courses may have changed significantly and those credits may not transfer. Schools typically only accept a limited number of transfer credits, but they may accept as many as three years worth. General education courses tend to transfer most easily, and students may have to retake certain courses in fields that are rapidly changing, such as technology or computers. Nevertheless, transferring credits can offer big savings in time and money to qualifying students.

Transferable Credits

Most courses earned at accredited colleges or universities with a grade of C or higher will be eligible for transfer. Typically, transfers between public schools in the same state are the easiest and most straightforward. However, the prospective school always has the authority to decide whether or not to accept transfer credits and how to apply them. When making decisions about returning to school, students should pay close attention to policies about course equivalency, transferring between course levels, and transferring from a quarter system to a semester system.

Course Equivalency

While all courses earned at an accredited institution may transfer, not every course taken at one school is equivalent to a course required at another school. For instance, one college may accept credits for a freshman-level psychology course from a community college, considering it equivalent to its own basic psychology course, while another school may only offer general elective credits for it. Students should talk with their academic advisers about transfer course equivalency before making a final decision on which college to attend.

Course Level

To transfer between colleges, a course at one school must be equivalent in scope and content to a course at another institution. Sometimes, however, the first school will offer the course as a 100-level or 200-level course while another school offers it at the 400 level. In these cases, transfers can get tricky. It is easier to transfer credits for fundamental courses at the 100 and 200 level than it is at the upper levels. Lower-level courses rarely transfer as upper-level courses.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers

When considering transfer options, prospective students should look at whether the prospective school runs on a quarter or a semester system. Students in a quarter system attend fewer classes in each of the four quarters. Those studying under the semester system take more classes in two semesters. When transferring from one system to another, credits must convert. The general formula for converting credits divides quarter credits by 1.5 or multiplies semester credits by 1.5.

Nontraditional students often bring valuable life experiences to their college education for which an institution may give credit. Students may gain prior learning credits through military service, independent study, workplace training, examinations, and other means. However, schools do not award credit simply because students have experience. Instead, students must demonstrate what they learned from the experience and how it applies to a specific course's learning objectives. Institutions determine the amount of credit students gain by conducting prior learning assessments (PLA), such as portfolio reviews, examinations, and reviews of workplace trainings.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning defines four generally-accepted approaches to credit by prior learning: standardized exams, challenge exams, individualized assessments, and evaluated non-college programs. Many schools also accept portfolios for assessment from nontraditional students with work experience.

Standardized Exams

Students can earn college credit through standardized exams such as the AP, IB, CLEP, DSST, Excelsior College, and UExcel exams. The most popular of these are the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) and the DSST Examination Program. CLEP tests are subject-level, multiple-choice exams scored on a scale of 20-80. Students who earn at least a 50 may qualify for college credit. DSST exams offer a similar approach, but the U.S. Department of Defense administers them. Psychology students may take the CLEP test in psychology as well as those in general education fields.

Challenge Exams

Individual schools administer challenge exams to students who possess advanced subject knowledge. By passing these exams, students demonstrate that they have attained the level of knowledge associated with the courses that these exams represent. To qualify for a challenge exam, students need to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject. Most schools place limitations on how many credits students can earn with challenge exams and in what subjects. Challenge exams usually score a passing grade and not a letter grade.

Individual Assessments

Colleges award credit for different types of individual assessments, including portfolios, interviews, and demonstrations. Of these, the portfolio assessment is the most common. A portfolio must demonstrate college-level learning through life experiences. When preparing a portfolio, students usually need to include a chronological autobiography, a resume, a learning narrative, and documentation showing what learning activities the student completed. Some schools require a student's portfolio to include a matrix showing how each learning activity fulfilled a course objective.

Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training

Many colleges award prior learning credits for military training, workplace certification or licensure, and training experienced in the workplace or as a volunteer. Common methods of evaluating non-college education and training include assessing portfolios, reviewing certifications, and evaluating workforce or military training. Typically, the American Council on Education must evaluate and approve training for credit before a college recognizes it. Faculty experts at the individual college, however, often review portfolios to assess how much college credit a student can earn.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Each school handles PLA credits according to its own policies and criteria. Some schools award credit for prior learning by matching a specific required course with the PLA. Other institutions may waive course requirements based on the competencies demonstrated. When a school awards PLA credit, it may apply that credit as an elective, a general education course, or a requirement for the major. When reviewing a prospective school's policies on credit transfers and credit for prior learning, students should remember to look at the school's policies on maximum credit transfer and whether their PLA credits will transfer to another institution.

Paying for school as an adult nontraditional student can be a challenge due to factors such as childcare responsibilities, mortgages, and car payments, which younger, traditional student may not have. Fortunately, the federal government, state governments, and private donors help make education possible through financial aid packages.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

All students attending public or private higher learning institutions in the U.S. are eligible to receive federal financial aid. Regardless of how long a student has been out of school, the application process for financial aid is the same for both traditional and nontraditional students.

The Free Application for Federal Students Aid (FAFSA) is the key financial aid form for all students. Both federal and private funders use it to make financial aid decisions. The FAFSA uses data such as income and other financial assets to determine the amount of money students should contribute toward their education. The U.S. Department of Education uses parental data to determine the eligibility of traditional students for federal loans, need-based grants, and scholarships, and it uses a nontraditional student's own financial information if they are 25 or older.

It is free to apply for financial aid through www.fafsa.ed.gov or at any college's financial aid office. The FAFSA application for the 2018-2019 school year became available on October 1, 2017. Students should start the application process by contacting the financial aid offices of the their college a year before applying. Financial aid recipients must reapply for funds each year.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number: Submitting a correct Social Security number is critical because students without a Social Security number cannot complete the FAFSA. That means undocumented students, even those currently covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), do not qualify for federal student aid. They may apply for institutional or state-sponsored financial aid.

Driver’s License Number: Students should submit their driver's license numbers. Those without a driver's license may submit a state-issued identification card. The Department of Education does not review driving records; it merely uses this document to verify the identity of the applicant to maintain the security of the application.

Federal Tax Information: Applicants must submit tax returns, including IRS W-2 information, for themselves, their spouse if they are married, or their parents if they are a dependent. The Department of Education also needs other relevant forms such as the IRS 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ; foreign tax returns; and tax information for American territories such as Puerto Rico.

Records of Untaxed Income: Applicants must provide information on their nontaxable income such as interest income, veterans noneducation benefits, and child support received. These records do not need to include foster care benefits, adoption payments from the state, untaxed Social Security benefits, or veterans non-education benefits.

Information on Assets: Applicants must provide information on their assets, including all bank account balances; cash; investments such as real estate, stocks, and bonds; and farm and business assets. Dependent students must provide information on their parents' assets.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

Cost of Attendance (COA) is the official estimate of what it will cost a student to go to college, including room and board, disability, eligible study-abroad courses, dependent care, tuition, and fees for students attending at least half-time. An Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is an index number a school's financial aid office uses to determine the amount a student is eligible for if they choose to attend their college. The information included in the FAFSA or in the Student Aid Report helps determine the EFC. Federal law establishes the formula for calculating the EFC.

Non-need-based aid is a type of aid based on the COA and other assistance a student receives not on the EFC. The types of non-need-based financial aid provided by the Office of Federal Student Aid include direct unsubsidized loans, Federal PLUS Loans and TEACH Grants. Need-based aid is the type of aid a student receives if he or she demonstrates financial need and meets other eligibility criteria. Need-based aid includes the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, direct subsidized loans, and Federal Work-Study.

Types

  • Scholarships
    Scholarships are financial awards that do not need to be repaid. Each scholarship's requirements are different, and students should do careful research to find the options best suited to their needs.
  • Grants
    Generally provided by the federal government, grants are funds donated to a student to help pay costs associated with going to college. Grants do not need to be repaid except in unusual circumstances.
  • Federal Loans
    Offered through select lenders, federal loans are funds that must be repaid with interest. However, their interest rates are often lower than private loans. The federal government pays the interest on subsidized loans while the borrower remains in school.
  • Private Loans
    Students can apply for private student loans through banks and credit unions. These loans are not subsidized by the federal government and may charge much higher interest rates as a result.

Sources

  • School Aid
    Every school’s financial aid office maintains details about the available financial aid types in that particular school and in each of its departments.
  • Federal Aid
    The United States government offers need-based aid in the form of grants and loan subsidies to qualifying students. Veterans, military personnel, and their families may be eligible for additional aid and should contact the Veterans Administration.
  • State Financial Aid
    Most states provide assistance for graduate students or those attending a professional school. Prospective students should contact their state department of education.
  • Privately Funded Scholarships
    Individuals, foundations, and corporations set aside scholarship money for which college students can compete. Requirements vary between donating organizations, so students should ensure they qualify before applying.

Graduate psychology students are eligible to receive financial aid packages, including grants, loans, and work-study funds. These financial aid options all work differently. A Pell Grant doesn’t have to be repaid like a loan, and the amount a student can receive changes every year. Through the federal work-study program, graduate students with financial need can find part-time jobs related to their course of study. Students studying for a career in teaching can qualify for grants of up to $4,000 per year through the TEACH Grant. This program is distinguished from other grants because it requires students to take certain coursework to qualify. Grants and other private funding can help supplement or even supplant the need for students to take out extensive loans.

Direct PLUS Loans are ideal for graduate students who want to borrow an amount above the maximum unsubsidized loan amounts. The applicant has to complete a credit check during the process. Every school’s financial aid office has details about the available financial aid types in that particular school and its departments. Prospective psychology students should also research foundations and organizations that offer scholarships as well as inquire about tuition assistance from their employers.

American Addiction Center's Behavioral Health and Addiction Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Eligibility requirements include enrollment in a qualifying program, a minimum 3.2 GPA, and a first-person essay.
Amount: $10,000

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Franklin D. Boyce Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Applicants need to submit academic transcripts, standardized test scores, a SAR showing the EFC, a FAFSA application, and three letters of recommendation.
Amount: $2,500

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Gallagher Student Health Careers Scholarship Program

Who Can Apply: Applicants must plan to graduate by the deadline listed on the scholarship's website. They must also be full-time students pursuing a career in a health-related field.
Amount: $7,500

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Filipino American Psychology Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Filipino American students pursuing graduate degrees in psychology must submit letters of reference, an essay, and information about their extracurricular activities to apply.
Amount: $500

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Future Counselors of America Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Applicants need to hold a minimum 3.5 GPA and write a 500 to 900-word essay on the psychology of online dating. Scholarships go to students majoring in psychology and pursuing careers in relationship counseling.
Amount: $1,000

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The P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education

Who Can Apply: Women who are returning to school after at least 24 months away and who have less than 24 months to complete their academic programs may apply for this scholarship.
Amount: $3,000

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Nontraditional students face unique challenges by returning to school. Planning ahead will mitigate many of these challenges.

  • Brush Up on Tech Skills
    Rapid advances in digital communication can cause a nontraditional student to feel like they are lagging behind their peers. Before starting a program, students should know if their operating system is a Mac or a PC and make sure it is less than five years old. They should also know how to bookmark a page, use email, and navigate the internet using a search engine.
  • Find a Support Network
    Embracing the challenge of earning a degree as a nontraditional student requires a team of supporters. Family, friends, and employers can support an adult learner by running errands for the student, providing childcare, offering emotional support, and sharing study tips. Students can build a support network before starting their degree by talking about their plans with colleagues and friends and asking for help.
  • Choose a Flexible Program
    A flexible degree lets students learn on their own schedules. Learners who are returning to school for psychology should look at the way their school devised its individual courses. Are there many deadlines? Do all students need to be online at the same time? Can students substitute one course for another to accelerate the program? Be sure the program’s requirements align with your own.