Returning to college? Five things you should consider

by Karl Erickson

The decision to return to school to complete my English degree was a choice I’ve never regretted, but I sometimes struggle making a quick explanation when people ask me about it. Why did I enroll in the university again after a quarter century in the workplace? What prompted a 47-year-old father, husband, author, photographer and state employee (of nearly two decades) to infuse even more chaos into his busy schedule?

I most often will reply to the curious friend or colleague with something along the lines of wanting to become a stronger and more polished writer. That’s fine for office hallway chatter, but the reasons run much deeper. In my mind, it’s about completing what one undertakes. Education is so important, and we shouldn’t restrict it to our younger years. After all, formal education at my age is like an exceptional glass of wine or a memorable hike in the mountains: an experience to savor and for which to be truly grateful.

For those readers who are prospective English literature and writing majors, I’d like to take the opportunity to share a few tips that in my experience, made it possible for me to return to school and maintain momentum in pursuit of my degree. If you’re considering a return to school, there are at least five questions you should first consider.

First, can you afford the time? This isn’t as hard as it sounds. In the university’s Prior Learning Assessment course, you will have the opportunity to examine your background and experiences by creating a chronolog of your professional and personal history that may translate into earned credit and bypass courses. In my case, for example, I used to be a regular writer of fiction—e.g. The Blood Cries Out (adult mystery), Toupee Mice, and Tristan’s Travels (children’s books). Once my classes began at Marylhurst, I placed a pause on most of my fiction writing. I’ve also been careful about not taking on more commitments in my life. It’s easy to say “yes” to people, but you have to begin setting boundaries on your time. Sometimes a simple “no” is all that’s required. In the same vein as time management, it’s often helpful for young and returning students alike to organize assignments and associated deadlines using a traditional calendar or a calendar application.

Second, can you afford the financial commitment? This also isn’t as challenging an obstacle as one might imagine. Yes, the cost of attending Marylhurst University is not inexpensive; yet there are ways you can lessen the financial payout while benefiting from a private liberal arts education. While everyone considering college is familiar with student loans, don’t neglect applying for grants and scholarships each year. In my particular case as a student within the Marylhurst English department, I was fortunate to be a recipient of the Binford Writing Scholarship. This scholarship will continue to be awarded on an annual basis, and its proceeds can be either applied to a single quarter or allocated throughout the year. Every dollar helps.

It was my initial hope to be able to pay my tuition off as I took my classes—a pay as you go approach for higher education. Of course, that’s easier said than done. I likely will need to get more comfortable with the idea of carrying student loans. Still, that’s fine, because this is an investment in myself and in my future.

Another way to reduce the financial burden is to fulfill core requirements at less expensive community colleges or by taking examinations to bypass the classes entirely; for 40+ years Marylhurst has been a leader in credit for prior learning and the innovation of transfer pathways for community college students. (In my case, for example, a single College Level Examination Program test, costing about $100, provided me with nine credits and a savings of $4,067. That’s what I call a good return on an investment!)

Third, do you have both practical and…less than practical reasons for finishing your degree? I think that different reasons and goals appeal to us at different periods in our lives. That is, your practical side may see a potential financial benefit with degree completion. I’ve had my eye on a communication position series within the State of Oregon’s executive branch agencies. Even though I’ve authored several books and written more than 50 articles, the competition for these positions is fierce. (I was surprised to recently learn that one of my competitors for an entry-level public affairs position held a master’s degree.) An associate degree is usually just not going to be sufficient if you’re aiming to be a spokesperson for a large state agency.

As far as impractical motivations, I suggest you need more than just a practical reason for completing your degree at a more mature age. Do you have a passion for lifelong learning and a commitment to doing quality work? If you’re passionate about academics and you have practical reasons for taking on the extra work for a few years, I encourage you to pursue your dream.

Fourth, while not as critical as the first three, flexibility is still something to reflect upon. Does your livelihood permit the ability to make the occasional visit to campus to attend classes or meet with your advisor, etc.? Time required on campus varies widely based on the program you choose. While English literature and writing classes are available in an online format, there are in-person class opportunities. Earlier this year, for example, we had a remarkably valuable orientation to the program throughout a single weekend. There’s no substitute, after all, for that face-to-face time.

It really doesn’t matter if you live in Oregon, Washington…or Texas, but you need a degree of flexibility to take those days off from time to time to take care of these academic responsibilities. If you absolutely can’t spare any time away from your day job, it may become difficult for you to pursue these academic goals. Still, most people these days can find time in their schedules to attend the occasional class or meeting. It’s not usually an insurmountable problem, but it can pose a logistical challenge. If you’re unsure of how it would work, consider beginning your academic journey with a single course.

Fifth, a university should be a place of learning, where one needs to be comfortable at being uncomfortable. Ideas and concepts may be presented with which you strongly disagree. I encourage you to welcome opinions and views different from your own. For instance, while I could be described as a somewhat conservative Catholic, I welcome respectful disagreements. I don’t want or expect everyone to agree with me, but I have come to expect courtesy. Some university students elsewhere seem to demand that university campuses become places safe from all forms of discomfort. Without doubt and questioning, however, how are we to mature intellectually? How are we to discover truth without some degree of pain?

If you decide to embark upon your new academic adventure at Marylhurst University, I encourage you to embrace the thoughtful, courteous culture that exists. Demonstrate a willingness to say what you believe and listen to your classmates and professors when they do likewise. Don’t take the diversity of thought and opinion out of the academic experience by letting your own potentially small degree of discomfort stand in the way of a great education. Embrace your discomfort and express yourself! Whether face-to-face in a classroom environment or posting in an online class or social media, I encourage you to treat everyone with respect and courtesy. Don’t hide behind anonymous web profiles and say things online you wouldn’t consider saying face-to-face. It seems that polite disagreement is a lost art; let’s endeavor to bring it back with our daily interactions. As the often-repeated saying goes from Shakespeare’s Henry V, “The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”

A passion for education is a powerful thing. Embracing a lifetime of learning is one of the most important qualifications for the prospective university student—especially for adult learners. Proceeding thoughtfully is important, and sometimes that first step is the most difficult. If you’re uncertain about your next move, but seriously considering a return to school to complete (or begin) your degree, I urge you to contact Marylhurst University’s excellent admissions department. Communicating directly with professors within your major and/or students is another good way to explore the options available to you. Whether you decide to return to school, or not, I hope you will enrich your life through the pursuit of education!

Karl Erickson is a student at Marylhurst University, majoring in English.