Former students return to college for many reasons and there's no typical profile of a nontraditional student. Whether it's a desire to improve career prospects, move into a new industry, or simply learn for the sake of personal enrichment, there's never a bad reason to resume your studies. If you're interested in returning to school to pursue an MBA, you're likely to be motivated by career goals. Fewer degrees hold more value in the world of business than an MBA, which offers high-level leadership and management skills along with the option to specialize in one area of study, such as marketing or finance. Earning an MBA is almost certain to improve your career prospects and salary potential, as the degree builds high-level business skills and offers opportunities for networking and professional development.
Earning an MBA is almost certain to improve your career prospects and salary potential, as the degree builds high-level business skills.
The rewards of an MBA are well worth pursuing, but if you've been out of school for years, you may worry about re-entering the academic world. Returning MBA students may face challenges such as changing technology, new business knowledge, and the balance between school and other obligations. If you're a working professional, it's unlikely you want to quit your job to pursue a degree, and successfully navigating the responsibilities of work and school is one of the most significant challenges for nontraditional students. It may seem difficult, but it's entirely possible to earn your MBA as a returning adult student, and this guide is a roadmap that helps you with program selection, credit transfer, and more.
Benefits of Returning to School for Your MBA
Returning to college to earn your MBA dramatically increases your potential for career advancement and a higher salary, and the benefits of the degree are almost certain to outweigh the cost of tuition. With an MBA, you become eligible for a host of advanced positions and career paths, including leadership and management roles that typically come with hefty salary increases. The versatility of the degree also means that you'll likely be able to find work in many different sectors of business. Simultaneously, an MBA opens the door to an array of professional licenses and specialization options that convey advanced business skills and make you more desirable to employers.
You might worry that earning your MBA after an extended absence from school makes you look unprofessional, but this is rarely the case. In general, most employers recognize the drive and hard work required to earn the degree, rather than focus on the age at which you earned it. Additionally, returning to school for an MBA shows that you possess the motivation necessary for career advancement. As the chart below indicates, that advancement potential is high.
Average Salaries for Business Administration Graduates by Educational Attainment
Online MBA Programs for Returning Students
For working students interested in an MBA, online learning is an accessible pathway to a degree. The combination of affordability, flexibility, and convenience make online learning an ideal choice for working adults, who have flocked to distance education programs in the past decade. A 2016 Online Learning Consortium study notes that 85% of online learners are classified as nontraditional students, and 75% are age 25 or older.
For students with work and family obligations, online learning offers several advantages over campus courses. Many MBA programs offer asynchronous delivery options, which enable you to forgo conventional class meetings and complete coursework when it suits your schedule. It's also possible to complete an online MBA at home, eliminating the need to travel to campus. Many programs require only the ability to log on from a computer with an internet connection, making the online MBA an ideal choice if you travel frequently. Professional experiences such as internships and practicums form an important part of any MBA curriculum, but most schools offer significant flexibility to complete these requirements, allowing you to intern at your current place of employment or with another business in your community.
Transferring Credits as a Returning Student
If you previously attended college, you may be able to apply some of your old credits toward your MBA, enabling you to complete the degree faster and save time and money. To determine the eligibility of your credits for transfer, you must first request a transcript from your former college, typically by contacting the school registrar. It's important to verify that your former school is properly accredited, as credits from unaccredited colleges usually aren't eligible for transfer.
Even if you do possess eligible credits, most schools have a limit on the number of transferable credits they accept.
Transfer policies vary widely between different schools and MBA programs, so you should check with your new school to determine if any of your old credits are eligible. General education courses typically transfer most easily, and you may be able to use old credits to fulfill current general requirements. Even if you do possess eligible credits, most schools have a limit on the number of transferable credits they accept. If you last attended school more than 10 years ago, you may be unable to transfer some or all of your old credits, depending on the subject area. College credits never technically expire, but in fields that change quickly, such as business, credits more than 5-10 years old may be deemed irrelevant or out of date.
Transfer policies between different institutions can be confusing for even the savviest students, but in general, it's easiest to transfer credits between public schools within the same state, as most enforce the same general curriculum standards. Ultimately, it's up to your new college to decide whether your credits are acceptable, and since so many variables and restrictions exist, it's always a good idea to pay close attention to a school's credit transfer policies.
Quarter vs. Semester Transfers
College Credit for Work Experience
If you're a seasoned professional with business experience relevant to an MBA program, you may be able to earn credit through your school's prior learning experience program, which translates pre-existing knowledge into academic credit. Experiences such as workplace training, independent study, professional certifications, military service, and academic examinations may be eligible for prior learning credit, enabling you to skip certain courses and earn your degree faster. Schools award credit not just for possessing these experiences, but for your ability to demonstrate your understanding of them and their relevance to your MBA. Below is an overview of some of the most common methods for assessing prior learning.
Methods of Assessing Prior Learning
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning defines several categories for prior learning assessment, all of which may be relevant to MBA students. Below is a brief overview of the four main pathways to earn credit for your prior experience and the best ways to approach each one.
- Standardized Exams
Standardized tests, such as the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) and the DSST, offer the opportunity to earn college credit for the successful completion of a subject exam. The CLEP offers several tests covering business subjects, including financial accounting, business law, principles of management, and information systems. The DSST, which serves both military and civilian students, also offers several business subject tests, including business ethics, business mathematics, human resources management, and organizational behavior.
- Challenge Exams
Functioning differently from general knowledge tests like the CLEP, challenge exams award academic credit for successful completion of a course's final examination. Most schools require approval from the department chair to take a challenge exam, and you typically must pay a fee to take the test. However, if you're confident in your knowledge of the material, challenge exams can be a convenient method to skip entire courses and complete your degree faster.
- Individual Assessments
Individual assessments function in several different ways, but the most common is the portfolio assessment. Most schools allow you to assemble a portfolio detailing your professional experience and knowledge, which faculty and academic advisers evaluate to determine credit equivalencies. Individual assessment procedures vary between schools; you might submit your portfolio to waive certain course requirements, or your advisers may determine credit equivalencies based on your portfolio contents.
- Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training
Prior learning assessment can also involve the evaluation of other professional experiences, such as job training, volunteer experience, military training, and professional certification or licensure. Different schools have different procedures for evaluating these experiences, and it's best to check with advisers to determine which of your past work might apply. Certain experiences, like licenses or types of military training, may automatically equate to academic credit.
How Prior Learning Assessment Credits Transfer
Prior learning credit often functions differently between schools, and it's important to keep track of varying policies if you're attempting to transfer credits. Some colleges award credit values for prior learning, while others waive courses entirely rather than award credit. Schools that do award credits may categorize them in different ways, such as elective credits, general education credits, or major requirement credits. These differing policies may create problems if you're attempting to transfer prior learning credits between institutions, so be sure to check with advisers to determine each school's policy.
Paying for School as a Returning Student
Nontraditional students returning to school have several options to fund their education, most of which are the same as traditional students.
Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student
Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is typically the first step to obtaining aid. The FAFSA is free to complete, and it determines your eligibility for many types of financial assistance, including loans, federal grants, and work-study programs. The FAFSA becomes available on October 1 of each year, and you need to complete the form every year to receive aid. Fill out the FAFSA as early as possible to maximize your chances to receive aid. Some awards are first come, first served, and applying early can make a difference in the amount of aid you receive.
There is no age limit to receive student aid, and as long as you fulfill certain basic requirements, you should always be eligible to complete the FAFSA. The process for obtaining aid through the FAFSA is essentially the same for most students. If you're over age 25, your parents' finances won't affect your aid award, and you'll have to provide information on your own annual income. Completing the FAFSA isn't a guarantee that you'll have school paid for, but doing so maximizes your chances to receive various types of funding. Many students struggle with completing the FAFSA as the process can be confusing and intimidating, especially if you've been out of school for a while. Below is an overview of what's on the form, along with the types of aid you may be eligible to receive.
What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?
Social Security Number
The FAFSA requires you to provide a Social Security number, but you can also complete the form using an Alien Registration Number. If you're an undocumented student, you won’t be eligible to receive student aid, but you may still be able to receive other sources of funding, such as state aid or aid from individual colleges.
Driver’s License Number
The FAFSA calls for a driver's license number, but if you have a state ID number, that will suffice. Neither of these is actually required to complete the form, and you can still receive aid even if you don't provide your ID.
Federal Tax Information
If you're an independent adult over age 25, you need to provide your federal tax returns, such as you W2 and IRS forms 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ. If you're married, you need to provide your spouse's tax returns as well.
Records of Untaxed Income
For the purposes of the FAFSA, untaxed income includes child support payments received, income from interest, and veterans benefits. It's possible to transfer this information from your tax return using the IRS' Data Retrieval Tool, which can simplify the process of filling out the FAFSA.
Information on Assets
In addition to your untaxed income, you also need to provide information on any assets you possess, which, for the FAFSA, includes cash; your checking and savings accounts; and any investments, such as stocks, bonds, and real estate.
How to Determine Your Financial Need
Even if you have an estimate of your total tuition and financial aid package, there are still many hidden costs that make it difficult to determine how much you'll actually end up paying for your education. To give you a better idea of what you'll likely spend, colleges determine your cost of attendance, an estimate of your total education expenses. Schools also calculate your expected family contribution, which considers your income, assets, and other factors related to your family size. To gauge your need for financial aid, schools subtract your cost of attendance from your expected family contribution, which determines your total financial aid package.
Not all financial aid is created equal, and most awards can be divided into two categories: need based and non-need based. Funded by the federal government, need-based aid is the more desirable of the two, and because it factors in your income, some of the awards do not need to be paid back. Need-based programs include Pell Grants, Direct Subsidized Loans, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal Perkins Loans, and Federal Work Study. Non-need-based options, which don't take income into account and typically feature less generous repayment options, include Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Federal PLUS Loans.
Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students
Scholarships are merit-based, awarding students for academic or professional achievements. Outside of extenuating circumstances, scholarship funding never needs to be paid back.
Unlike scholarships, grants are typically need-based and take your income level into account. Like scholarships, they never need to be repaid.
- Federal Loans
Federal loans are subsidized by the federal government, and they offer lower interest rates and more lenient repayment policies, including forbearance and income-based plans.
- Private Loans
Offered through private agencies such as banks and lending organizations, private loans typically feature higher interest rates and less forgiving repayment plans.
- School Aid
Many schools offer their own financial aid to students based on either need or merit. Check with your school's financial aid office to see what sort of funding is available.
- Federal Aid
Among the most common types of student aid, federal funding pays for billions of dollars in student tuition each year through grants, work-study programs, and subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
- State Financial Aid
Individual states' higher education agencies also offer financial aid, which often serves students who are ineligible for other forms of federal aid.
- Privately Funded Scholarships
Businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations of all types offer scholarships to students who meet certain criteria. A quick search online can identify hundreds of scholarship opportunities.
Financial Aid for Graduate Students
Graduate students pursuing an MBA have access to a wide variety of funding options, including some that never need to be repaid. Due to the high salaries that MBA graduates typically command, grant options are limited, but you may be able to locate state funding sources, particularly if you're from a group that's underrepresented in the business world. Many MBA programs also offer funding for students who demonstrate merit and academic need. You may qualify for the federal work-study program, which connects you with employment opportunities to help offset the cost of education. Conversely, if you're already in the business world, your current employer may even cover some of the cost of your MBA for the purposes of professional development.
Conventional student loans are also a common option to fund your MBA. Both federal and private sources provide financial aid for MBA students, and depending on your income, you may qualify for federal direct unsubsidized loans or direct PLUS loans. Private lenders are almost always willing to offer funding for an MBA, as graduates see significant salary increases that make it easier to pay back their loans.
Scholarships and Grants for Adult and Mid-Career Students
- EWI ASIST Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Executive Women International offers this scholarship for nontraditional female students either returning to or already enrolled in college. Applicants must be a member of a local EWI chapter.
- Mary Elizabeth Lockwood Beneventi MBA Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Daughters of the American Revolution provides this scholarship for MBA students with a GPA of at least 3.25. The scholarship does not automatically renew, though recipients can reapply each year.
- P.E.O. Program for Continuing Education
Who Can Apply: Philanthropic Educational Organization, an international women's organization, offers this scholarship for continuing education students completing a degree to increase their professional marketability.
Amount: Up to $3,000
- Return2College Scholarship Program
Who Can Apply: Open to returning students entering a graduate program, this scholarship requires applicants to submit a three-sentence statement on why they are returning to college.
- AAUW Career Development Grants
Who Can Apply: Offered through the American Association of University Women, this program supports women pursuing an advanced degree who completed their bachelor's degree at least five years ago.
- The Cash Store Continuing Education Scholarship Program
Who Can Apply: This scholarship serves adult students over the age of 25 who are entering or already enrolled in a graduate program. Applicants must have a minimum GPA of 2.75.
Tips for a Successful Return to School
If you're returning to school after a significant absence, you may find it difficult to adjust to the rigors of higher education. However, there are plenty of measures you can take to smooth your transition back into school.
- Brush Up on Tech Skills: Whether you're attending online or on campus, today's colleges incorporate technology into most aspects of their educational model. If you're not familiar with general computer use and software applications, take some time to acquaint yourself. Many schools also host technology services that can help you gain new skills.
- Find Support Network: It’s up to you to complete your degree, but that doesn't mean you have to do it alone. Identify trusted individuals who can help you through your education, such as a friend or colleague who can proofread your papers. Most colleges also offer academic support services for returning students.
- Choose a Flexible Program: It's important to know what you need out of an MBA program, and if you're a working student, flexibility is likely at the top of your list. Research different programs closely to determine which best suits your scheduling needs and enables you to fit school around life's other obligations.