Returning to School

Returning to school as an adult can be challenging. Juggling work, family, and finances, while also finding the time and money to take classes, is not easy, but it is possible, and often worth the effort. Some return to school to advance their careers, while others are seeking new careers or personal enrichment. A 2014 report found that almost a third of newly hired teachers in the 2011-12 academic year were 29 or older, implying that many have switched from their initial career paths to go into teaching. Some teachers also return to school to gain additional skills, endorsements, or specializations, so they can earn more money or change jobs.

almost a third of newly hired teachers in the 2011-12 academic year were 29 or older, implying that many have switched from their initial career paths to go into teaching. CPRE

Teaching is one of the largest professions in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 3.6 million full-time elementary and secondary teachers were working in classrooms in 2016 and projected nearly 1.9 million job openings for teachers between 2014 and 2024. Every community needs teachers, and many find this career option to be personally and professionally rewarding. Returning to school to become a teacher or enhance your teaching skills can be a worthwhile endeavor, but it can also come with hurdles. This guide will help you navigate the challenges of going back to school, including selecting the right program, transferring credits, and applying for financial aid.

Benefits of Returning to School for Teaching

To become a K-12 teacher, you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. Associate-degree holders may work as childcare workers, preschool teachers, paraprofessionals, and even as teachers in some private schools. However, all public schools, and most private schools, require their teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree. All states require teachers to complete a bachelor’s degree and meet certain course requirements to become licensed. Even if you have a bachelor’s degree, you may need to take some courses or pursue another degree to fulfill the course requirements for teaching in your desired field.

Many teachers hold master’s degrees, and school districts often prefer and encourage this. Because teachers are also required to complete continuing education, many pursue graduate degrees to fulfill these requirements or switch specialties. Teachers are usually paid according to their levels of education and experience, so obtaining a master’s degree may earn you a higher-paying teaching job.

Average Salaries for Teachers by Educational Attainment

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The chart has 1 Y axis displaying Average Salary. Data ranges from 43650 to 59150.
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Online Learning for Teachers Returning to School

For adults hoping to return to school, online learning can be much more practical than traditional on-campus learning. According to a National Center for Education Statistics report, about one-quarter of nontraditional undergraduates took some of their classes online in 2011-12, and even more took all of their courses online. Asynchronous online courses allow students to complete course requirements whenever and wherever their schedules allow, eliminating the need to be on campus at any particular day and time.

Online courses are ideal for teachers with family obligations or otherwise busy schedules. These students can complete their coursework without having to live on or travel to campus, and online programs are usually more affordable than on-campus programs. Adults returning to school can also shop around for online programs that best fit their budget and schedule without location constraints.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Most adults returning to school don’t have to start their degrees from scratch. Often, they have already earned some credits at another college, or gained life or work experiences for which colleges will award them credit. Transfer credits allow students to finish their degrees more quickly and for less money. However, the credit transfer process is involved and often time-consuming. Start by researching your prospective school’s transfer policies to find out what types of credits it accepts, and whether it limits the number of credits you can transfer. These policies vary by program and institution.

Transfer credits allow students to finish their degrees more quickly and for less money.

You’ll also have to order transcripts from any colleges you attended. Visit the National Student Clearinghouse Transcript Order Center or your college’s website to find out how to order transcripts. Some colleges charge a fee, and processing your request can take some time. Find out how to submit previous transcripts to your new school. If possible, meet with a counselor to help you determine which of your prior credits will transfer. Credits never expire, but they can become outdated, in which case you may need to retake courses, especially in rapidly changing tech fields. General education courses taken at regionally accredited institutions tend to be the easiest to transfer.

Transferrable Credits

Admitting schools have the right to determine which transfer credits to accept, if any. Regionally accredited schools usually only accept credits from other regionally accredited schools. It’s usually easiest to transfer credits between two public universities in the same state. Learn about your school’s policies on its website, or by speaking to an adviser. Pay close attention to rules regarding course equivalency, course levels, and transferring credits between quarter- and semester-system schools.

Course Equivalency
Colleges usually only allow the credit transfers for courses they consider equivalent to their own courses. If you plan to become a science teacher, you will need to take some science courses to match the subjects you will teach. Your school may accept an introductory 100-level biology class from a community college in place of its biology 100 class. However, it might not accept an anatomy or environmental science course as equivalent to its biology 100 class, because the material in your prior course was too specific. This course may still qualify to transfer for general elective credits.
Course Level
In general, lower-level courses require fewer prerequisites, while higher-level courses require more prior understanding of the subject matter. Colleges vary slightly in how they view these course levels, and what they will accept for transfer. In some cases, it might be easier to transfer credits from lower-level courses. Other schools might consider these introductory courses too basic and not accept them for transfer credits, or require you to demonstrate that the introductory courses met high enough standards to qualify for credit transfer.
Quarter vs. Semester Transfers
Consider whether your prospective school runs on the quarter system or the semester system. If you earned credits from a school that uses a different system for assigning credit hours, you will need to do some conversion. Speak with an adviser from your prospective school to confirm how your credits will transfer between quarter- and semester-system institutions, but the general formula for converting credits looks like this.

College Credit for Work Experience

Adults returning to school may be able to receive college credit for learning gained outside the classroom. Such learning might include workplace or military training, independent study, professional certifications and national exams, travel, and volunteer service. Some colleges recognize the value of skills learned outside the classroom in these other ways and award students college credit accordingly. Earning such credits can reduce the time and money necessary to complete your degree. Colleges use several different methods of prior learning assessment (PLA) to determine how many credits they will award for prior learning. See below for more information.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

Colleges award credits for prior learning, not just time spent in an activity or years of experience. They must therefore find ways to assess how much students actually learned. They do so through four generally accepted means: standardized exams, individualized assessments, faculty-developed exams, and evaluated non-college programs. Those with teaching experience of some kind may receive credit for this prior learning using one or more of these methods.

Standardized Exams

A common way students receive credit for prior learning is through national standardized exams, such as the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams offered in high school. Other exams may be especially relevant to adults returning to school. College Level Exam Program (CLEP) exams in subjects including science, math, history, and literature allow students to demonstrate their understanding of introductory college-level material. Similarly, the DSST Program offers exams on intro college material for which students can earn college credit.

Challenge Exams

Some colleges allow students to earn credit by taking the final exams for courses taught by their own faculty. If you gained knowledge in a content area where no CLEP or DSST exam is available, you may ask if your school will allow you to take a challenge exam. For example, if your work experience included the use of computers or other technology, you might take a challenge exam measures your expertise and allows you to receive prior learning credit for it.

Individual Assessments

It is sometimes possible to receive credit for prior learning by demonstrating what you learned through experiences, non-credit courses, or training. The most common way of doing this is through portfolio assessment, in which you create a portfolio of evidence to demonstrate how you mastered the materials covered in a particular course outside the classroom. College faculty review your portfolio to determine if your experience warrants prior learning credit.

Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training

You may be able to receive college credit for workplace, military, or volunteer training, or for certifications or licenses you received. The National College Credit Recommendation Service evaluates training programs and translates them into college credits. The American Council on Education (ACE) helps adults receive college credit for courses and exams taken outside the college setting. ACE also evaluates military training for college credit. Your college may also have its faculty review any licensure or certification programs you completed to determine if they can award you credits.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Be sure to look at your prospective school’s website or course catalog for policies regarding prior learning credit. Some schools award these credits, while others simply waive prerequisite requirements, allowing you to advance through your program more quickly. Some schools only allow certain PLA methods. Find out if prior learning credits go toward general education, elective, or major requirements. Accredited schools generally set a maximum number of PLA credits they award. PLA credits may be transferred between schools just like other types of credits, but it is always up to an admitting college whether or not to accept transfer credits.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Teachers returning to school will find many options available to help them cover their expenses. Grants for teachers to return to school are available from the federal and state governments, and from many colleges and private organizations.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

The first step in applying for financial aid is the same for both traditional and nontraditional students: completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students must complete the FAFSA to apply for federal grants, work-study, and federal loans. Additionally, all states, most colleges, and many private financial aid providers require financial aid applicants to complete the FAFSA, because they use the form to determine what kinds of aid students are eligible for.

Anyone who meets the basic eligibility criteria can qualify for aid.

There is no age limit on financial aid eligibility. Anyone who meets the basic eligibility criteria can qualify for aid. The process for filling out the form online or on paper is similar for all students, regardless of age, but dependent students must provide their parents’ financial information. Graduate students and students age 24 and older are automatically considered independent and do not need to provide this information.

The FAFSA becomes available every year at the beginning of October. The application closes at the end of June. Most colleges set deadlines for completing the FAFSA that are much earlier than June, at least in the first year students apply. Check with your prospective school’s financial aid office to confirm financial aid deadlines. Some state and federal aid programs have limited funds, so it is best to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. Students receiving financial aid must complete the FAFSA each year they are in school to determine continued eligibility.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number

Provide your Social Security number exactly as it appears on your Social Security card. If you do not have an SSN, you will not be able to sign your FAFSA electronically, but you may sign a paper Student Aid Report instead. Eligible noncitizens may also complete the FAFSA and will be asked to provide an Alien Registration number.

Driver’s License Number

You will be asked to provide your driver’s license number if you have one.

Federal Tax Information

You must provide federal tax information or U.S. or foreign tax returns, plus IRS W-2 information for you and your spouse (if you are married). The FAFSA does not ask independent students to provide tax information for their parents.

Records of Untaxed Income

You will need to provide information about any untaxed income you receive, including child support, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits. Independent students do not need to provide this information for their parents.

Information on Assets

You will enter information about your assets, including cash, savings account, and checking account balances; investments, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate; and any business and farm assets.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

To determine your financial need, start by finding out the cost of attendance (COA) for your prospective school. This number should include tuition, room and board, and other school-related expenses. Your university’s financial aid office should be able to give you this number. Next, consider your expected family contribution (EFC). This number is the amount you are expected to pay for college. The federal government calculates this number when you complete the FAFSA and reports it to you on your student aid report. Subtract your EFC from your COA to determine your financial need.

Students are eligible to receive need-based financial aid up to the amount of their financial need. The federal need-based financial aid programs are:

Schools may also offer non-need-based aid to students by taking their COA and subtracting any financial aid they were already awarded. Federal sources of non-need-based aid are:

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


  • Scholarships

    This type of financial aid is usually awarded based on academic merit or criteria other than financial need. Scholarships do not have to be repaid.

  • Grants

    These are financial awards that students do not repay. Grants are usually awarded based on financial need, but may also be awarded based on academic merit or other criteria.

  • Federal Loans

    The federal government offers subsidized loans to students with financial need, and unsubsidized loans to students regardless of need.

  • Private Loans

    Many private banks offer student loans with interest rates based on your credit score. These interest rates are usually higher than federal loans’ interest rates.


  • School Aid

    Colleges and universities offer financial aid including grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study

  • Federal Aid

    The federal government provides financial aid including loans, grants, and work-study funds to those who complete the FAFSA.

  • State Financial Aid

    State governments give scholarships, grants, loans, tuition assistance, and work-study funds to eligible students.

  • Privately Funded Scholarships

    Religious organizations, charitable foundations, corporations, and other institutions offer scholarships and loans to applicants who meet specific criteria.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Graduate students returning to school to become teachers are eligible for many of the same types of financial aid as undergraduates. By completing the FAFSA, graduate students can qualify for direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans. They can also apply for Direct PLUS loans from the federal government. The federal government also provides grants that do not need to be repaid to graduate students who demonstrate financial need. Graduate students are not eligible for Pell Grants, but the TEACH Grant is available to teaching students who agree to work in a high-need, low-income area.

Graduate students returning to school to become teachers are eligible for many of the same types of financial aid as undergraduates.

Financial aid is available from other sources, as well. State governments offer loans, grants, tuition assistance, and work-study opportunities for college students, and colleges offer assistance through grants, scholarships, and loans. Once you complete the FAFSA, your state and prospective college can use this information to calculate what aid you may qualify for, though the aid they distribute depends on available funds. Many private organizations, such as corporations and foundations, offer private scholarships, such as those listed below. If you are employed, check with your employer about whether any scholarships or tuition-matching programs are available.

Scholarships and Grants for Teachers Returning to School


STEM Teacher Graduate Scholarships $2,000-5,000

Who Can Apply: The AFCEA Educational Foundation offers scholarships to students pursuing graduate studies to become K-12 teachers in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) subject. Applicants must be U.S. citizens in their second semester of graduate school with at least a 3.5 GPA. View Scholarship

Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship $2,000

Who Can Apply: Low-income women age 35 or older who are pursuing an undergraduate degree may apply for this scholarship given by the Rankin Foundation. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and a willingness to give back to their community. View Scholarship

Patsy Takemoto Mink Award $5,000

Who Can Apply: Low-income mothers seeking an undergraduate or graduate degree may apply for this scholarship. The Patsy Mink Education Foundation grants five annual awards based on financial need and personal circumstance as well as educational, career, and civic goals. View Scholarship

American Legion Auxiliary Non-traditional Student Scholarship $2,000

Who Can Apply: This scholarship is open to members of the American Legion, Auxiliary, or Sons of The American Legion who are pursuing professional training or a college degree. The award is intended to assist those returning to school later in life or after an interruption in their education. View Scholarship

Adult Students in Scholastic Transition (ASIST) Scholarship $2,000-10,000

Who Can Apply: This scholarship caters to adults facing social, economic, or physical challenges who are seeking to improve their lives through education. Applicants must go through their local chapter of Executive Women International to compete for scholarships offered at the corporate level. View Scholarship

Tips for a Successful Return to School

Returning to school as an adult comes with a unique set of challenges. Preparing for these challenges can help you make a successful return to student life.

Brush Up on Tech Skills

Technology continues to change rapidly, and the tools students use today may be quite different from what you used last time you were in school. Check out free online courses and tutorials, local classes, and community resources that can help you update your computer skills.

Find a Support Network

Just as you may need family and friends to support you in your return to school, you may also need to build a new support network of people who can help you navigate the demands of your new life as a student. Network with your peers, seek out your teachers with questions and for mentoring, and don’t be shy about using resources available at your school.

Choose a Flexible Program

Teachers returning to school often juggle family and work along with their student responsibilities. For these students, selecting a flexible program is the key to success. Taking classes that fit with your schedule can make a huge difference in your ability to handle the demands of being an adult student.