Adult students: How to get back into “the system”

Don’t let fear of debt keep you from upgrading your education


Some mail I received recently:

I’m turning 25 this year and am considering more and more what to do with my life and how to get there. I never finished high school, then years later got my GED certificate. Since I was 18 I’ve been working unfulfilling dead-end jobs, and it’s wearing on my soul. I’ve been considering college and university seriously for the last year and a half, but I feel lost. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how I can pay for school and I also don’t know which programs to enroll in. I’m not sure what I really want to do in life. I always feel weighted to choose between smarter more practical choices, or really pursue my desires. I’m ready to work for my dreams, but I just need clear objectives, and some paths I can take. Thanks.

There’s a heck of a lot to that letter. And it reads like something I could have written myself about eight years ago. So I’ll start with a little biography.

I did graduate from high school (with uninspiring grades) but then I declined to continue my education. I didn’t begin to look seriously at a return to school until I was twenty-six. At that time, I didn’t have very distinct ideas of where I wanted to end up, but I did have a general sense that I wanted to do something more with my life. I decided to pursue an English degree not because it seemed at all practical (surprise!) but rather because it’s the only thing I really cared much about. My idea then, and I can at least attest that it’s worked for me, is that you do what you care about and things have a way of working out.

Now I don’t know much about how a GED is received by universities but I can promise I wasn’t a very strong applicant when I applied. I had to fight my way back into the system for even a chance to prove I could handle university. So you may find you have to jump through a few hoops to make it happen. Or you may not. They may simply admit you directly. But either way, at the undergraduate level, you should find the chance is there to get back on the inside if you’re willing to do what it takes to get there.

One of the hardest things about approaching education as an adult student is knowing where to start. The path from high school to university and college is so well traveled that you can’t possibly miss it. Guidance counselors are just waiting in their offices for you to ask. Presentations are made in class. All your friends are talking about it. But when you’re on your own, and removed from these networks, it’s a lot harder. You’ve got to make someone care about your situation.

What I did, once I knew I wanted to attend U of T, was simply pick up the phone and call admissions. It’s been a long time, so I can’t remember exactly how things went from there, but after talking to several people I eventually got someone from Woodsworth College on the phone. That’s U of T’s part-time college. And I admit, I was having a hard time sorting out my options and the systems I would have to deal with. So I made an appointment to see her personally. Once I was in her office, things just came together much more easily. University bureaucracies are made to deal with typical students. When that isn’t you, you’ve got to force the issue and make someone see you as an individual. Get a name. Make an appointment. If nothing else, make sure that the next time you call you can deal with the same person, who knows something about your situation.

University applications are different province to province. In Ontario they are all centralized through the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC). But rather than try to summarize all the ways you might apply here or there, especially since you are also interested in college, I’ll just suggest this is a perfect question to ask once you’ve got someone on the phone. Once you know where you want to attend school they’ll be able to tell you how to apply. It’s a very straight-forward question.

Funding education is another big question mark for many independent adults. I was broke when I started attending university, and I certainly did it on my own dime – or at least my own signature. It seems impossible when you’re just covering rent month-to-month but it is possible to pay for school and even pay your bills while you do it, as long as you’re willing to go into debt. At twenty-five you are almost certainly an independent adult, which means you’ll be able to get enough government loans to at least survive on during the school year. It’s much more complicated for younger people who are not helped by their parents but whose parents nevertheless earn a good living. That’s a different topic entirely. In your case, at least, you’ll qualify for loans – and some of that will be free money you won’t end up paying back. You won’t be living the high life at that income level, but then your past experience working low wage jobs is good training there.

Debt is scary. It always scared me and that’s one of the things that kept me out of school for so long. I knew I could survive on a minimum wage income if it was just me and I wasn’t in debt, but the whole idea of owing tens of thousands of dollars threatened to upset that whole balance. What if it didn’t pay off? What if I couldn’t find a better job afterwards? What if I didn’t even want the kind of life it was leading to, and I decided partway in it was all a big mistake?

I can’t make any promises on that front. So far so good, in my case, but then I’m still in law school now and in more debt than I ever anticipated. I also have very good employment prospects so I’m not too scared, anymore, but I’m not out of the woods yet. I guess this is just one of those chances in life that you’ve got to take sometimes. Your life will change when you go back to school, and it isn’t at all a short-term commitment. Your situation will be such, when you get out, that you simply must hold down a “real” full-time job. And maybe that’s really what I was scared of all along. Simply growing up. But hey, it comes to all of us. And it does have its compensations too.

Glad to get this letter. It really is something I might have written myself, around the time I first decided that enough was enough and I was going to university. Couldn’t expect then it would lead me to where I am now. But I’m not complaining, either.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.


Adult students: How to get back into “the system”

  1. I would recommend thinking carefully about what university you want to apply to in terms of finding an adult-friendly environment. That was a big problem I had when getting back into it later in life. I first went to a university that focuses more on high school entrants. I made an appointment but then was basically laughed off the campus when they found out I had a college diploma from a number of years earlier, even though my grades were pretty good. I believe the phrase was “you’d be better off trying to get in here had you not gone to college. Next!” Discouraged, I waited for years before trying again. This time I went to a different university that puts real resources into their part-time college and has thousands of adult students just like me, and things worked out much better. I think depending on their particular raison d’être some universities see adult students as a necessary evil while others see them as ideal customers: mature people who perform well and pay their tuition on time.

  2. I want to thank you for writing this post – I am 29 years old, and hold a BA with a double major from about 5 years ago. I really want to go back to school, and have been increasingly preoccupied with how to make it happen in the past year or so. The last year of my schooling was less than ideal – mostly because what was lucrative won out over what I wanted. I went out and got a job in the degree that would make me money (computing science), rather than going to grad school in the degree I enjoyed (philosophy). After 5 years, I am ready to go back and pick up where I left off (after enough make-up courses to pick my AGPA up off the floor, of course). You’re right though: the prospect of trading in the salary for all that debt is *really* scary. But it is reassuring to know that someone in a similar position to mine went back, adjusted to the change in lifestyle, and is happier for it.

  3. I would suggest going to a University which is located by or in a larger city so that working during school part-time or just in the summer is easier. Loan is nothing to be scared of really, if education costs were to rise 3x I would still go for it, with education people will look at you differently, and in turn you will be able to find a better job no matter if it is related to your study field or not. Good luck.

  4. Hello,

    just to let you know I’ve turned 31 and beginning an engineering degree… it’s never too late !


  5. thanks for writing this. I graduated high school in 2000, I wasn’t a great student but I always loved art. For a long time I decided I was never going to go back to school, and continued my art as a hobby. Last year I had taken art classes once a week at a local art supply store, but due to a new call centre job (yuck) I had to leave. A year later I realised how much I missed those classes. Luckily for me, there is a college literaly two blocks away from me that offers visual arts and graphic arts.

    It happened all so fast, but I was recently accepted. Funny, I was 26 when I applied, but recently had a birthday so I will be 27 during the classes. Since it will be a small class, I’ll probably be the oldest. It’s scary, knowing that, but at the same time, I feel like I have a lot to offer because of my nearly 10 years work experience. :)

    Even though call centre work makes decent money, over time, I realised that I couldn’t see my future. I couldn’t see past this job. so repetative, boring, frustrating and stressful. I feel like I am just a number, and not a person. I’m just there for people to vent their frustrations. I realise I need to get out of this and pursue what makes me happy.

    Finances is scaring me a lot. My loan will be late, but I am lucky enough to have the school director on my side. He is a very encouraging person, if he wasn’t, I dont think I would have gone this far. I stress about not getting the student loan, about having to find out other ways to pay for this, to live (It’s just me, my boyfriend, and two cats), also how to get back into the school enviroment.

    I know I am not the same person that I was 10 years ago, I want this bad enough that I will work my hardest. But I revert back to high school days and get scared that I will become lazy, unmotivated, and will not make friends because of my age. (which I know cannot be true, but I am still terrified)

    So I am soooooo happy to find this article. I always knew I was not the only person who goes through this, but its so encouraging to see an article like this kind of describing ME! I feel like my confidence lever has gone up! THANK YOU!!!

  6. There’s no time like the present. I earned a BA when I was younger (23) and now I’m back in University, albeit part-time, working towards a BComm.

    It’s never to late to start and life is too short to have any regrets. Education, especially at the University level is so much more than the sum of its parts. The experience far outweighs interest payments on a student loan in the future.

    With that being said, plan to pay that money off in the future. Talk to school resources and others who have successfully managed student debt and learn from them. Having a plan before you start makes a world of difference.

  7. I went back to university in my late 20s with a son to raise. Please be aware that the Canada Student Loans system and policies are NOT geared to mature students. In fact, they seem to hurt them the most.

    I’m not saying don’t return to school, I’m just saying “be aware”:


  8. I am in my late-20s going back to University (for my BEd) and though it was harder to get a decent OSAP loan initially, I talked to the financial advisor on campus and was shocked and pleased at all the options they have to ensure that NOBODY leaves school because of money.
    My OSAP loan was upped by getting a letter that stated I needed the car my husband and I share for the program, and I am receiving $4000 in bursaries.

    Talk to financial services – they are not just there for the young’uns who got awesome marks in high school – they’re there for the older students as well (even if the applications forms don’t seem like it).

  9. I’ll echo Michelle’s reply to Laura. In conversation with older students, as an extension of this and other articles (bear in mind, I started university myself at age 27), more than anything I’ve observed that they tend to make assumptions about what they can and can’t access in terms of financial aid. So even where money is available, older students may hurt themselves by believing otherwise. Note this isn’t entirely their fault. I’ve also noticed a huge information bias that makes it harder for non-traditional students (meaning anyone not straight out of high school) to get the info they need.

    There are problems with the financial aid system. Please don’t misunderstand me on that point. To a degree it’s hard for everyone. Given the non-specificity of Laura’s complaints, I can’t guess what particular problem she’s run up against. But I’d urge every student (especially those that aren’t straight from high school) to have a sit down appointment with the financial aid people at your current or planned educational institution. You may have options you don’t know about. You may be hampered by assumptions you don’t realize you’re making, as others have done.

    My experience has always been this. The back-end of the loan system is terrifying. If you end up in a position where you can’t repay what you’ve borrowed it can be a hell of a pit to dig out of. But the front-end, malign it though we may, is pretty good. The money is there for you. And a good portion – if you’re on public loans – will even be written off when you’re done each year. Paying it back is still scary, and another topic entirely, but mature student or otherwise, assuming your credit isn’t already messed up, the money will be there for you.

  10. I’ll chime in with a part-time mature student perspective / rant here.

    I agree that the system is relatively sane for mature students who go back to school full-time, but unless you are in some serious financial difficulty, there is virtually no government support for mature and part-time students.

    Here are the gross family income AND asset limits above which you will get no government support at all in Ontario:

    Family size of one: $26,100
    Family size of two: $34,800
    Family size of three: $43,600
    Family size of four: $50,500

    Info Source:

    Those are the limits to get a loan, and all of the part-time student grants require that you first take out loans.(NOTE: It may be that different provinces have different income/asset maximums..check your provincial financial aid program).

    These strike me as a fairly pretty stringent income/asset test for the provision of an *interest-bearing* student loan.

    In addition, unlike full-time students, part-time students are not allowed to raid their RRSP to finance their education. (Well, they can, but they’ll pay taxes on those amounts withdrawn). The Life-Long Learning Plan is designed SOLELY for older students to return to school full-time, not part-time. This strikes me as odd, considering many older students return to school part-time to upgrade their skills while working, rather than leaving the workforce completely and return to school full-time. It seems to me that part-time students should be allowed to participate in this otherwise good idea from the federal government.

    Info Source:

    OK, rant off. :)

  11. i am 31, planning to return to school nesxt year when i’ll be 32. i left school (due to step-family issues) when i was in grade 10. what are my chances for admission with the GED certificate? should i just go for a transition certificate instead? please advise me .



  12. opps. rephrase: what are my chances of admission inot a degree program at a post-secondary institution?

  13. In reply to Peter, I can state in general terms that universities look quite favourably on adult students looking to return to school. They tend to make things easy rather than hard for you. But the specifics vary considerably. I assume you know already where you eventually hope to study? My advice would be to contact the university directly and ask them. Also, your individual details may have considerable bearing on the situation, and so it’s hard to give any kind of concrete answer beyond that.

Sign in to comment.