So much about returning to college as an adult is impossible to anticipate. Beyond the basic steps involved in applying to a school, registering for classes, getting your books and so on, you will encounter frustrating situations that will require careful attention and navigation if you want to maintain some measure of inner peace. Here are a few of those situations.
As you steer yourself through the steps of going back to school, you won’t have to look far at all for the negativity that can derail you. I read that more than seventy-five percent of a person’s daily thoughts are negative. That’s pretty profound and sadly curious. Such pervasive negative thinking makes each of us our own worst enemy. Any task or goal we want to accomplish becomes more challenging when we tell ourselves that we can’t or shouldn’t pursue it for whatever reason. Don’t psych yourself out this way—you will be much better off listing reasons why you can and should. The Buddha said we are what we think. So if you think you can’t, then you won’t.
Unfortunately, your own negative thoughts won’t be the only ones you have to contend with. For some reason, some people (perhaps even most people) think it’s helpful to share their own negative thoughts and experiences with others—especially when those others are preparing for a big change or a lofty goal.
When I was pregnant, every person I knew or met who had ever given birth in their life was compelled to describe, in horrifying detail, the terror of their own labor. They thought they were just making a friendly connection with me, but in fact hearing these stories created in me a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. My husband finally put a stop to this. He respectfully proclaimed that we were not listening to anyone’s horror stories any longer because we wanted to look forward to the birth of our child and not be terrified of it.
This technique was remarkably effective, and I have adapted it to fit other areas of my life in which I am forced to deal with negativity. Whenever I am pursuing a goal and people feel compelled to share prophesies of doom, I stop them. I tell them that I can easily succumb to my own self-doubt because the odds are against me, so I need their support to help me stay positive. It really works, and I feel much more confident and in charge when I don’t let them rain on my parade. Sometimes I don’t even have the energy to do all of that explaining, so I just give a sideways grin and say something like, “Do you really think so?” and walk away. Find your own style, but develop it quickly, as you will need all of the personal power you can muster to meet the challenges of college.
You will need to find courage in yourself, because no one else is going to root for you unless you do. Become your own best cheerleader. You must believe in yourself, or fake it until you do. Make it your personal mantra to resist negativity, and resist it from the very beginning of your college considerations. Negativity will serve you no purpose as you strive for personal betterment.
By now in your life you understand the hazards of debt. You are an adult, and you understand debt on a higher level than your fellow young students. That is why the matter of applying for and accepting student loans may at times give you heart palpitations. In your adult life, you may also have a mortgage, a car payment, a pile of credit card bills, and innumerable other financial obligations. Thinking about incurring more debt in order to return to college is just terrifying.
You must change your ideas about this immediately. In my case, I am about $44,000 in debt with student loans, and I have completed only my bachelor’s degree. This is because I attended a private school where tuition was exorbitant. In this book, I am going to show you how to learn from my mistakes. I will show you how you can make much more economical choices than I did. I could have earned my entire degree for under $12,000 if I had made some different choices. Either way, you must change your attitude about tuition debt and think about it in a new way.
The average American currently has $8,000 – $15,000 in credit card debt. You may be one of these people. Perhaps you used a credit card to purchase this very book. It’s not incomprehensible that so many people have so much debt on their shoulders—just look at the current state of our economy. With unemployment on the rise and bankruptcy laws becoming more stringent, these debt statistics may only worsen as average Americans find themselves having to charge groceries just to get by. I know about this firsthand because I charged groceries as a matter of practice while in school and out of work. I genuinely, truly, deeply understand the anxiety that surrounds debt.
I am here not as the devil on your shoulder, urging you to charge away. I am here as the angel on your other shoulder trying to illuminate the truth about student loans. Think about it this way: in terms of your credit card debt, can you really account for what you purchased to create those balances? Probably a lot of little things you can’t really quantify. A degree is something that you absolutely can quantify. A payment on a student loan is typically about the amount of an average credit card payment. What’s more, you won’t eat a degree, as you did with the groceries you may have charged on your credit cards. You can’t sell it in a garage sale or donate it to Goodwill or forget it at the grocery store. A degree cannot be repossessed. It will only appreciate in value. It will appreciate as it allows you to earn more money in your field and more respect from yourself and others. It will be a constant source of pride and opportunity and potential.
Here’s another reason not to be afraid of student loan debt: the government is a very forgiving creditor. Loan payments are deferred until such time as you graduate, drop below full time, or drop out of school altogether. You may even defer your student loans for up to six months after you graduate, and if at any time in the future you’re not working, you may apply for further deferments. Furthermore, when it is time to make payments, you have options in terms of your payment amount—if you can’t quite afford a big payment yet, you can opt for a smaller one. All of this makes the financial aspect of returning to school a whole lot more palatable.
So if you get hives just thinking about getting deeper in debt, please take my advice and let go of that fear. It is not selfish or frivolous to accept financial aid in order to pursue your education. Student loan debt is, in a way, something to be proud of, because those loans will make it possible for you to get your degree.
One thing that most of us have in common is our outstanding ability to rationalize bad decisions or bad habits and make excuses for them. I’m no better. I’m the excuse queen. I could teach a course on how to expertly justify practically anything. Many of you could probably do the same.
When you begin contemplating college, you may find yourself concocting reasons why you should wait or not go at all. These are excuses. If you want to go back to school you will find a way. It is just that simple. Let me repeat: if you want to go back to school, you will find a way.
If you think college will take more effort than you are willing to invest, you will find any number of excuses to abandon the idea. I know this because I created and perfected these excuses for a long time. Remember, in my adult life, I was a college dropout for far longer than I was a student. I used to joke that I was on the twenty-year degree program. I kept putting it off and making excuses for why I didn’t finish. I began to refine, rehearse, and perfect my excuse-making. This had an insidious effect on the rest of my life as I started making excuses for a lot of other things. I came to hate that part of myself.
It was easier to make those excuses as an adult because going back to college as an adult had a host of legitimate challenges. While my fellow students were going to frat parties, I was home with a brand new baby doing laundry. It was very easy to throw my hands up and say, “It’s too hard!”
Finally, during my last stint, I ignored my list of excuses and I just stuck with it. I am overjoyed that I have a degree and happier still about the windows of opportunity it has opened up for me. But this degree represents something bigger still for me. It represents the fact that I am not an excuse-maker anymore. What this says about me is that I can be counted on. Show people that you can be counted on. Throw the excuses away. They aren’t working for you. They are the big roadblocks to your dreams.
The Bottom Line
Even if your situation is ideal and you have a strong support network as you embark upon this journey, you will notice that there are always problems to be dealt with. You probably would have had to deal with some of these problems anyway. They will just become more pronounced when you are going to school, and you (and your family) will now have something more definitive on which to place blame for your troubles.
There are going to be so many times that you are going to want to quit because you think quitting would be easier. Just remember that the problems you’ll face because you’re in college will have been totally worth it when you have your degree in your hand, and if you drop out you will be angry with yourself for not sticking with it. And these “problems” are a small price to pay for the satisfaction and success you will reap when you’ve completed your program. Just get through it in whatever way you can, and remember that dropping out of school because it’s too hard, because of student loans, because your laundry keeps falling behind, because your friend tells you that you are nuts to even consider going back to school, because you didn’t believe in yourself—those are weak excuses indeed, and you won’t be able to live with yourself if you let these excuses derail your dream.
PART I CHEAT SHEET
GETTING THE GUTS
Chapter 1—Why Should I Go Back to College?
- The only secure, lasting way that you can prove your value to potential employers is with a college degree.
- College graduates earn 62% more money than non-graduates.
- The unemployment rate for non-graduates is 400% higher than it is for advanced degree holders.
- Getting an education actually makes you want to learn more.
- Getting an education exposes you to perspectives and ideas you may have never considered, and enables you to more deeply appreciate the life you have.
- Between 2004 and 2014, more than 14 million job openings are projected to be filled by workers who have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Chapter 2—Knowing You’re Doing the Right Thing
- Signs, signs, everywhere signs. Coincidences, chance meetings, random intuitive thoughts—all of these will be calling to you. Be open to them. They can direct you to your right path.
Chapter 3—Stuff They Don’t Tell You
- 75% of a person’s daily thoughts are negative. If you think you can’t, then you won’t. Banish negative thinking from your mind.
- Develop a strategy for deflecting the negative comments of others as you begin your journey back to school. You don’t need their discouragement—even if their intentions are good.
- Student loan debt seems scary, but incurring debt in order to get a degree is actually a smart decision. Your degree will never decrease in value, and you will have it forever.
- Student loan payments are easy to manage, and creditors are more flexible with terms for this kind of debt than they are for any other.
- You may become an excuse-making machine while you are trying to decide whether or not to return to school. Ignore the excuses. They will only derail you.
It doesn’t matter where you start or how you get your motivation. Your reasons are your own. Develop a resolve to go to college, and then just do it. Accept that challenges such as hard work, negativity, and a little debt will be worth it. You know it in your heart already.