Returning To College as an Adult

Ben Mitchell, M.F.A.
Affiliated Professor of Writing and Literature
Union Institute & University

Although there are clearly many challenges when returning to college as an adult, there are real benefits on two distinct levels: one financial and the other more human. Going back to school requires a serious commitment of time, resources and money. For most people it also requires taking on debt. For adult students with children and a full-time job, a full load of traditional classes can be nearly impossible to balance. This is why Union’s Bachelor of Arts program succeeds. Through independent study adult students can juggle all of their responsibilities.

Let me start by sharing my experience of returning to college. Having struggled in college in the 1980s, I later returned, enrolled in Union’s Bachelor of Arts program (Norwich University at the time) and graduated in 1995. I remember the time before returning to school—the feelings of failure, hopelessness, and trying to survive in a bad economy. I felt like a loser. I was a loser.

Most of us can place ourselves somewhere on the continuum between winners and losers. Is this the core motivation of our culture, to move from the losers’ end of the continuum, to the winner’s circle? Are we becoming a winner take-all-society?

During the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, the notion of the 99 percent versus the one percent became popular. Richard D. Wolff, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts highlights data that suggests that one percent of the population in this country controls 43 percent of the wealth. That is striking. Even more compelling is that 93 percent of the accumulated wealth of our country is controlled by 20 percent of the people. In other words, two people out of 10 control almost all the benefits of our collective economy.

This helps to emphasize the economic value of graduating from college. A college degree significantly increases your odds of becoming part of that 20 percent. Furthermore, a college degree will statistically double your income over the course of a lifetime. A 2010 U.S. Census Bureau report suggests that over an adult’s working life, high school graduates can expect to earn, on average, $1.2 million; those with a bachelor’s degree, $2.1 million; and $2.5 million with a master’s degree. Earning a degree will statistically increase your chances of earning a decent living. It will move you along the continuum toward that winner’s circle

My bachelor’s degree from Union Institute & University made it possible to gain a position that, for the first time in my adult life, provided health insurance. This degree made it possible for me to get paid vacations and paid holidays. When you get paid to go on vacation, you are a winner, right?

But, I also have a mind.

Now by mind, I don’t just mean some hunk of gray tissue animated by electrical activity. To me a “mind” is something much more; something George Hegel might call “Geist.” The Christians call it Soul.  Hindus call it Autman — spirit incarnated into flesh. There is something in a living cell that is not in a dead cell, not just electricity but life. Life itself is the great mystery.

It is this mind that truly concerns us. Here at Union Institute & University’s bachelor program we take a somewhat radical approach. We ask: “Who are you? What do you think? What is your understanding, your spirit?” We want you to think critically, to challenge assumptions, to question deeply the very structure of what we know. We are not concerned with making students regurgitate memorized information and fill in bubbles. In the bachelor’s program, as you learn more and assimilate material, you will come to trust and value your own insight, your own perception, and your unique flashes of genius. These are the pearls, the real treasures of our species.

Real knowledge is constructed when new ideas and information are sifted through real life experience. New ideas challenge our ideas, our cherished assumptions and beliefs and then we create a new understanding; we actually create a new model of the world within the mind. In order to do this we must start with what we already know. No one comes to Union Institute & University as an empty brain to be filled. Each student brings a great wealth of understanding and knowledge earned over years of struggle, failure, and success. We will challenge your ideas, inspire you, push you, and you will create a new understanding that is truly yours. Rather than just learning random material to pass a test, our students engage with the questions at the core of their life, creating meaning from the truth of what we know.

The independent study model makes it possible to be a student and parent, while working full time and doing all the things adults have to do. The self-designed curriculum allows you to choose subjects to which you connect personally. Not only does this make it much more meaningful, and easier to make the time for school in a busy life; it also means our students explore the material on a much more essential level, often working at a level usually associated with graduate school. In fact, many of our students go on to excel in graduate school because they are already accustomed to working at that degree of inquiry.

With all this in mind, I respect the challenges that adult students face as they wrestle with the decision to return to school in this uncertain economy. But it is also from this perspective that I can say that the bachelor’s degree program at Union Institute & University is a truly remarkable option. Is there a guarantee that graduating from Union Institute University will make you one of the winners? No. Does it statistically increase the odds? Absolutely. Our graduates have the power to think critically about the world, to challenge the assumptions of our culture and to construct a new understanding. These are tools that enrich your life and provide you with benefits impossible to calculate numerically. This we promise to all of our graduates.

Learn more about the bachelor degree programs at Union Institute & University.

Ben Mitchell, M.F.A. is an affiliated professor of writing and literature at Union Institute & University. He is the co-founder of Student Mentoring Services, a groundbreaking educational consulting firm that helps learning-disabled students transition to a university experience. Previously, Mitchell worked for 13 years at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont and authored and edited a series of Landmark Press books about learning disabilities. Mitchell holds degrees in both education and writing from Goddard College.