Adult students: How to get back into "the system"

Don’t let fear of debt keep you from upgrading your education

Some mail I received recently:

I’m turning 25 this year and am considering more and more what to do with my life and how to get there. I never finished high school, then years later got my GED certificate. Since I was 18 I’ve been working unfulfilling dead-end jobs, and it’s wearing on my soul. I’ve been considering college and university seriously for the last year and a half, but I feel lost. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how I can pay for school and I also don’t know which programs to enroll in. I’m not sure what I really want to do in life. I always feel weighted to choose between smarter more practical choices, or really pursue my desires. I’m ready to work for my dreams, but I just need clear objectives, and some paths I can take. Thanks.

There’s a heck of a lot to that letter. And it reads like something I could have written myself about eight years ago. So I’ll start with a little biography.

I did graduate from high school (with uninspiring grades) but then I declined to continue my education. I didn’t begin to look seriously at a return to school until I was twenty-six. At that time, I didn’t have very distinct ideas of where I wanted to end up, but I did have a general sense that I wanted to do something more with my life. I decided to pursue an English degree not because it seemed at all practical (surprise!) but rather because it’s the only thing I really cared much about. My idea then, and I can at least attest that it’s worked for me, is that you do what you care about and things have a way of working out.

Now I don’t know much about how a GED is received by universities but I can promise I wasn’t a very strong applicant when I applied. I had to fight my way back into the system for even a chance to prove I could handle university. So you may find you have to jump through a few hoops to make it happen. Or you may not. They may simply admit you directly. But either way, at the undergraduate level, you should find the chance is there to get back on the inside if you’re willing to do what it takes to get there.

One of the hardest things about approaching education as an adult student is knowing where to start. The path from high school to university and college is so well traveled that you can’t possibly miss it. Guidance counselors are just waiting in their offices for you to ask. Presentations are made in class. All your friends are talking about it. But when you’re on your own, and removed from these networks, it’s a lot harder. You’ve got to make someone care about your situation.

What I did, once I knew I wanted to attend U of T, was simply pick up the phone and call admissions. It’s been a long time, so I can’t remember exactly how things went from there, but after talking to several people I eventually got someone from Woodsworth College on the phone. That’s U of T’s part-time college. And I admit, I was having a hard time sorting out my options and the systems I would have to deal with. So I made an appointment to see her personally. Once I was in her office, things just came together much more easily. University bureaucracies are made to deal with typical students. When that isn’t you, you’ve got to force the issue and make someone see you as an individual. Get a name. Make an appointment. If nothing else, make sure that the next time you call you can deal with the same person, who knows something about your situation.

University applications are different province to province. In Ontario they are all centralized through the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC). But rather than try to summarize all the ways you might apply here or there, especially since you are also interested in college, I’ll just suggest this is a perfect question to ask once you’ve got someone on the phone. Once you know where you want to attend school they’ll be able to tell you how to apply. It’s a very straight-forward question.

Funding education is another big question mark for many independent adults. I was broke when I started attending university, and I certainly did it on my own dime – or at least my own signature. It seems impossible when you’re just covering rent month-to-month but it is possible to pay for school and even pay your bills while you do it, as long as you’re willing to go into debt. At twenty-five you are almost certainly an independent adult, which means you’ll be able to get enough government loans to at least survive on during the school year. It’s much more complicated for younger people who are not helped by their parents but whose parents nevertheless earn a good living. That’s a different topic entirely. In your case, at least, you’ll qualify for loans – and some of that will be free money you won’t end up paying back. You won’t be living the high life at that income level, but then your past experience working low wage jobs is good training there.

Debt is scary. It always scared me and that’s one of the things that kept me out of school for so long. I knew I could survive on a minimum wage income if it was just me and I wasn’t in debt, but the whole idea of owing tens of thousands of dollars threatened to upset that whole balance. What if it didn’t pay off? What if I couldn’t find a better job afterwards? What if I didn’t even want the kind of life it was leading to, and I decided partway in it was all a big mistake?

I can’t make any promises on that front. So far so good, in my case, but then I’m still in law school now and in more debt than I ever anticipated. I also have very good employment prospects so I’m not too scared, anymore, but I’m not out of the woods yet. I guess this is just one of those chances in life that you’ve got to take sometimes. Your life will change when you go back to school, and it isn’t at all a short-term commitment. Your situation will be such, when you get out, that you simply must hold down a “real” full-time job. And maybe that’s really what I was scared of all along. Simply growing up. But hey, it comes to all of us. And it does have its compensations too.

Glad to get this letter. It really is something I might have written myself, around the time I first decided that enough was enough and I was going to university. Couldn’t expect then it would lead me to where I am now. But I’m not complaining, either.

Questions are welcome at [email protected]. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.