Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students: How to Earn a Top Diploma from America's Great Colleges at Any Age

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A practical, witty guide for adult returning students

The number of adults completing bachelor's degrees later in life is at an all-time high. Many universities have targeted this market with expensive, substandard programs. In this essential guide, Carole S. Fungaroli challenges the conventional wisdom that advocates distance learning, Internet degrees, and second-rate weekend programs for adult students. She argues that adults are best ...
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Overview

A practical, witty guide for adult returning students

The number of adults completing bachelor's degrees later in life is at an all-time high. Many universities have targeted this market with expensive, substandard programs. In this essential guide, Carole S. Fungaroli challenges the conventional wisdom that advocates distance learning, Internet degrees, and second-rate weekend programs for adult students. She argues that adults are best suited to a traditional college experience, and she insists that even those with children, jobs, and mortgages can earn a standard, four-year degree at a first-rate college. As Fungaroli shows, traditional studies at excellent universities will foster a scholar mentality that leads to top grades, greater academic opportunities, and more fulfilling careers.
In addition to information on program selection, application, and financial aid, the book offers advice on such issues as overcoming fears of not being "college material" and taking part in campus life.
Fungaroli writes from her own unique experience as an adult returning student. She has also interviewed scores of adult students at colleges and universities across the country, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bryn Mawr College, and Harvard.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374299897
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/15/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Carole S. Fungaroli, Ph.D., earned her bachelor's degree at age thirty, while working full time. She has a doctorate in English literature from the University of Virginia and teaches at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt

Why College ... And Why Now?

You may have any of a variety of reasons for thinking about college now. Perhaps you want a better job. A diploma from one of America's great colleges or universities will certainly help you find a rewarding one. Or maybe not having a degree has created a yearning for "something more." Perhaps you always knew that you could have been a good student, if only you could have focused. Now, years or even decades later, you may feel ready. 

Ads in newspapers and on the radio often talk about adults as if all we think about are jobs, promotions, and dry-as-dust responsibility. For many nontraditional students, however, college isn't just a path to a job. It also involves discovering a love of the arts, politics, history, public service, technology, the sciences, and the glories of a life of the mind. You don't have to have any reason for returning to college aside from an interest in seeing what fascinating information might be waiting for you in various classes. 

Whatever your reasons for going back to college now, you'll have lots of company. According to the Department of Education, nearly half of the enrolled college students in the United States are twenty-four or older. Over one-third are at least thirty-five! That means that over four million of the ten million students sitting in college classrooms today are adults just like you. Although you may initially feel like the World's Oldest Living Undergraduate--as I jokingly dubbed myself when I returned to college--you'll soon find that nontraditional is becoming the norm. 

No matter who you are or why you're going, finishing college is a great idea. Not only will it give you an important credential for employment, it will change how you feel about yourself and your abilities. Many of the adults we'll meet in this book started college thinking it would simply help them get a job. Eventually, however, most of them discovered the joy of learning for its own sake. They stopped thinking of themselves solely as parents, spouses, partners, employees, and "busy adults," and started thinking of themselves as scholars, too. 

For them, and for you, finishing college isn't just about adding a line to your résumé or snagging a promotion. It will help with both of these, but there's much more. You'll learn new things about yourself, you'll make friends, you'll have opportunities to travel, and you'll be able to point proudly to the kinds of accomplishments that society not only recognizes, but also rewards. College can change your life. All you need to begin is the humility to start where you are, the patience to cut through some initial red tape, and the courage to walk onto a campus and ask for some of the best things that colleges and universities can offer. 

What's the difference between a college and a university, anyway? The basic difference is the school's ability to grant various degrees. A college grants bachelor's degrees, and it may have limited opportunities for postgraduate study. It does not usually offer the master's or doctoral degrees. A university offers all of these. Colleges generally focus on the teaching abilities of their faculty. Universities engage in ongoing research and expect their faculty to do the same. Some faculty members at universities don't even have teaching responsibilities: they're just there to conduct research and to direct the occasional dissertation. When I use the word "college," I mean your bachelor's degree experience at either a college or a university.
Depending upon your needs and the reputation of the school you select, you may attend either one. In this chapter, you'll learn some surprising things about college degrees, beginning with just how uncommon they really are. As you read, try and place yourself in the mosaic of adults who have already returned to college. We all had a special reason for returning to college. But we all stayed for the same reason: college is easier in adulthood. What used to be a grind has now become a great deal of fun. 

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, FOUR-YEAR DEGREES ARE STILL QUITE RARE 

Given our society's emphasis on education, you'd think that college diplomas were as common as brown hair or right-handedness. They're not, however, since many traditional-age students drop out. When you finish college, you will join the top twenty percent of all working adults. 
Does this statistic surprise you? Did you think that most working people had bachelor's degrees? They don't. Let's look at the numbers. Here is the educational attainment of 159 million American adults surveyed in the 1990 Census, according to the Department of Education and the journal American Demographics: 

Eighth grade or less.............10.4%
Some high school, no diploma.....14.4% 
High school diploma..............30.0% 
Some college, no degree..........18.7%
Associate's degree................6.2% 
Bachelor's degree................13.1% 
Graduate or professional degree...7.2% 

You probably already know that most supervisory and management positions go to college graduates. Therefore, just by finishing college, you will make yourself more promotable than almost 80 percent of the people around you. 

And that's if you just squeak by. What if you do well, really well? And what if you are able to transfer into a more prestigious college or university because of that? Top college grads make up less than 5 percent of the working population. That small group often includes the most influential decision makers in the nation. It may seem like a distant prospect now, but you can join this group more easily than you might think, and this book will tell you exactly how. 

COLLEGE GRADUATES EARN AS MUCH AS 70 PERCENT MORE THAN THOSE WITHOUT A DEGREE 

If you graduate from college at age thirty, keep working full-time, and retire at age sixty-five then you'll likely earn a career minimum of $350,000--over a third of a million dollars--more than your non-college-educated counterparts. And that's only at the lower levels. The top college graduates earn more than that, bringing your career bonanza closer to the half-million or million-dollar range. That's a big return on the $20,000 or so that you are likely to spend in finishing college. 

So why don't more adults take some risks and return to college? The first argument people usually offer is "I can't afford it." Yet college pays you much more than it costs. If a rich couple rode up in a limousine and offered you a trust fund of $500,000 or more for four years of work, would you do it? Most people would, but most people also claim that they can't afford college, or that they're too busy slogging away at a low-paying job to graduate. 

In Chapter 5 we'll talk about the price tag on a college degree. Then we'll see how it can cost less to earn a degree--even at one of America's top universities--than to buy a new midsize domestic automobile. If you can afford car payments, you can afford college. I'll also give you plenty of suggestions for earning your way through college without having to spend very much of your own money at all. And if you earn exceptional grades, universities could eventually pay you to go to school. 

COLLEGE IS A RELIABLE ROAD TO THE GREAT PROFESSIONS AND CAREERS 

Besides giving you the key to higher-paying jobs, college gives you access to different types of jobs. If your present work doesn't seem rewarding to you, then you probably have a job instead of a career. By far the most satisfied workers are those who labor in a field they love, and do so at a level that brings not just money, but recognition and personal satisfaction as well. Theo used college as a way of catching up on an important work requirement: 

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service hired me as an inspector ... and one of the prerequisites was that I speak fluent Spanish. I enrolled at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, and the teachers made the classes come alive. I was attending school because I wanted to, not because I had to, and learning became a pleasurable experience for me. I entered the door into a Spanish-speaking world, and shut it behind me. I graduated with highest honors from the community college one year later, and to this day I write and call to thank the teachers there who changed my life. 

Theo is now in the University of Miami's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program, designed for adult learners. Without college, you will be limited to the clerical realms in business, or manual labor elsewhere, unless you develop top skills in a trade. College is the only acknowledged route to professions such as law, medicine, business, academia, and many others.

COLLEGE GRADUATES GET TO BE THE BOSS

Have you ever trained anyone to be your supervisor? Working adults often tell stories about having to teach a new, clueless middle manager how the department works. Sometimes these "bosses" are fresh out of college, with no more business sense a stray dog. It can be terribly frustrating to watch younger men and women of average intelligence who don't know the company as well as you do earn the promotions every time. 

So how did these managers get where they are in the first place? For many, simply possessing a prestigious bachelor's degree from one of America's great state or private universities made them automatically hireable at the management level. There's a poster on the walls of the business school at my university. It reads, LEARN WHAT A COMPANY IS LIKE BEFORE YOU SPEND THE FIRST SIX MONTHS MAKING COPIES. Translation? "As a college grade from a top university like this one, you shouldn't have to suffer the indignity of entry-level work." 

And it's not just the business world that insists on a college education for its higher levels. Before Jan returned to college, she worked for years as the director of a children's education program at a Catholic parish. It was a rewarding job, but she struggled with low pay and insufficient recognition: 

I became painfully aware that the ideal educational level for the position I was already holding was a master's degree in either religious education or theology. Even though I had trained two inexperienced pastoral ministers to perform the duties of director, I would never be offered that position myself, or the salary that came along with it, largely because I had no degree. 
Also I found that I was frequently taken advantage of, and that the work I did was not given the respect it deserved. I suspected that this was because I was viewed as a "glorified volunteer," somebody's mom who was helping out - and this was after twelve years of experience, a successful track record, and more hours spent in informal education than I could count. 

Jan soon realized that she had both the intelligence and the experience to earn the degrees she needed. But without them, she would never be recognized for what she could contribute: 

I had always given far more hours to my work than was healthy for myself and my family, and way beyond the hours for which I was paid. My motive in returning to school was partly to earn proper credentials, partly to earn some respect, partly to pull my salary range out of the teens (this was beginning to feel insulting), but mostly to fill a thirst and a desire to come closer to God through prayerful study. In the end, this has been the most important result. 

Instead of sitting outside the parish door waiting for recognition, Jan earned her theology degree - with honors - from Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Today she is the Director of Religious Formation and Education in another Catholic parish. Earning her degree later in life was a challenge, but afterward promotions came easily: "I improved my salary by $4,000 a year without even trying very hard. I am nearing the end of my first year. It has held some challenges, but I have faced them with greater confidence and self-esteem." 

Forget "foot in the door" jobs. With rare exceptions, you can't start out in the mailroom and advance to the boardroom. If want to get ahead, or even land somewhere in the comfortable middle, you will need a bachelor's degree. 

MAYBE YOU'RE THE FIRST IN YOUR FAMILY TO THINK ABOUT COLLEGE 

Many people didn't go to college simply because no one ever expected them to. People in many regions of the United States plan more value on physical labor and life-experience skills than on academia as it is traditionally defined. You may not have attended college because no one else in your family did. Some families would never even consider spending hard-earned money on such an endeavor. 

Douglas's high school counselor discouraged him from his goal of attending the top university in his state, even though he was a strong student. Instead, she suggested that Douglas work in the local factory for a year, since most men in his region went directly to work for the same company after high school. Douglas did. Then he married and had children. He didn't go to college until his late thirties, even though college would have helped him and his family much earlier.

In rural regions there are generally colleges and universities that specialize in reaching out to a variety of students from nonacademic backgrounds. Jacquelyn, an administrator, writes glowingly of her typical adult returning student:

Morehead State University serves the twenty-two poorest counties in the hills of eastern Kentucky, and several are the poorest in the state. Our students come at great sacrifice. They are truly the most wonderful students. I count them as family.

She describes one woman who walked into her office with her hands covered in grease: "She had just changed a tire. She said, 'If I can change a tire without a tire tool, surely I can finish my degree!'" 

You don't have to have a blue-collar background to have skipped higher education. Perhaps you grew up in a complicated household, and your college plans suffered because of it. A 1996 Cornell University study showed that only 14 percent of the children from divorced families were accepted into college, as compared with 24 percent of the children from two-parent households. Children from the divorced households also performed more poorly on standardized tests, partly because of stress and depression and partly because they didn't have parental support for their studies at home. 

If this sounds like you back in your younger days, don't worry. You have plenty of company. Up to 40 percent of white children in the United States live with one parent, or even no parent, by high school age. In African-American families that statistic is nearly twice as high. According to studies published in Black Issues in Higher Education and in Jet magazine, this is one important reason why fewer minority students finish college. 

If we look at the percentage of college-educated adults by race, it is evident that the bachelor's degree is rare enough in any ethnic group. But if you are black or Hispanic and you earn a bachelor's degree at an excellent university, you move yourself into an even more selective category than that of the average American. Take a look at the percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher, by race, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education: 

Asian.....36.6%
White.....21.6%
Black.....11.3%
Hispanic...9.2%
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Dropout Who Dropped Back In Again
1 Why College ... and Why Now? 3
2 If I Only Had a Brain: Overcoming the "Not College Material" Image 32
3 What's Scarier: Telling Your Boss, or Telling Your Family? 49
4 Choosing a College or University: Prestige Does Matter 68
5 Paying for It: The Simple Math of Financial Aid 87
6 The Inevitable Application Process 122
7 Balancing the Demands of Work, Family, and School 157
8 Where There's a Will, There's an "A" 192
9 Declaring a Major 220
10 Developing an Intellectual Identity (Without Becoming a Snob) 243
11 Campus Life: Why Fellow Students and Professors Are Vital to Your Academic Success 252
App. A Some Recommended Campuses for Nontraditional Students 273
App. B Books, Software, Websites, and Other Helpful Resources 287
Acknowledgments 293
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  • Posted April 16, 2010

    Inspired me to go to the college of my choice

    Many of my friends had master's degrees, and I wanted one, too. But I felt at a disadvantage because my undergraduate record was a bit spotty. I came across Carole's book several years ago and found it both practical and inspiring. She reinforced my view that prestige matters, and that a pricey school is often cheaper in the long run because it offers more employment opportunities and financial aid. More important, she offers step-by-step instructions to get to that school from wherever you are now, and to succeed once you are there. I chose Stanford because I knew and admired several people who went there as undergrads or graduates; they seemed confident, well-adjusted and talented without being stuffy. I began taking continuing studies classes at night at Stanford, and shared my goals with professors who might help me. The classes cost the same or less than continuing education at state universities, and at my income level they were fully tax-deductible. After I had accumulated 30 units -- equivalent to two quarters' full-time study, and all of which I enjoyed thoroughly -- I applied and was accepted to Stanford's master of liberal arts program. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner. Since Carole wrote this book the tax advantages to education have only increased. I hope she will put out a second edition to inspire a new generation of adult students.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2002

    You Will Be Happy You Bought This Book - Buy 2.

    Ms. Sargent strikes the perfect tone in her book, warm and engaging while leaving no question in the reader's mind that she knows what she's talking about. This is not an easy accomplishment, and the author should be recognized for this fact alone. But in addition to being an ENJOYABLE read, 'Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students' is an immensely USEFUL book as well. Before reading this book, I had only the pestering regret of not having finished college. But I didn't know where to start. Now I do, and if all goes according to plan, I will be in my first semester of college in about three weeks. It was Ms. Sargent's book that inspired me to get off the couch and onto a campus. Buy it, you will be very glad you did.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2002

    A Masterpiece

    <P>At one time, I may have owned the largest collection of college bulletins in the world. In each of the past ten years since my high school graduation, the stack has grown higher and higher. Each contains a glimpse of a world I promised myself I would return to someday; each contains the promise of a brighter future. One day, I read Dr. Sargent's book <i>Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students</i>. Then I threw all of those bulletins out: I needed room on the shelf for my textbooks.</p> <P>With the sage guidance one would expect of a professor from a prestigious university, and with the empathetic advice one would count on from a friend who has 'been there' herself, Dr. Sargent completely addresses the challenges and rewards that await the adult college student. This book is a treasure for any adult who is considering going back to school.</P>

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2001

    A must read for ANYONE considering college young or old

    Just 3 weeks ago I had an epiphany and came to the conclusion that I want to go back to school and complete an undergraduate degree so that I may begin a lifetime of continuing education. I've been very timid about going back to school, hiding behind many excuses and thought I had finally put all those aside so I can really go for it. I began looking into programs of study, stopped in at the local bookstore to buy some guides to financial aide and writing the admissions essay, when I found this masterpiece on the shelf.<p> I bought it thinking that maybe it would have a handful of useful pointers but didn't realize that it would not just affirm that I wanted a degree, it also ignited a passion in me that I now realize I _need_ that degree to find happiness in life. The stories were touching, thought provoking and I easily found myself identifying with many of the people and their feelings. I'm no longer feeling timid about the admissions process, instead looking forward to it and the fears of rejection that reemerged just a couple weeks ago as I began to investigate returning to school now seem like a small obstacle compared to the learning process I will go through not just to get into school, but beyond admissions and into the academic programs I choose.<p> I can't overstate how thankful I am to Dr. Fungaroli Sargent for writing this book and sharing not just her story, but the stories of others that have found themselves outside staring in, wondering, and dreaming of a life that can be more fulfilling now that they've realized their appreciation for education. This book has been the best investment I've made all year and I look forward to returning to school full time so I can stop chasing my dreams and catch a real experience of a lifetime.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2000

    The Joy of Going Back

    Some of us couldn't afford to go or to finish college at the traditional age. Some of us just didn't want to be in college then. But what starts at some point as a wistful desire becomes a passion, and we find ourselves, whether 30 or 60, wanting to go back to school. We're beguiled by 'distance learning,' and other non-campus routes to some kind of degree. But we want more. We want good teachers, challenging courses, and fellow students to interact with. We want the real thing, and that's where Dr. Fungaroli's book comes in. It gives equal measures of hope and encouragement, plus no-nonsense practical advice on how and where to apply, dealing with costs, getting started in a good college or university, and staying the course. I'm now going back to finish college at 61. I'm betting almost everyone who dares to read this book will find their way back into the classroom and rejoice in having done it.

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