As a dean and administrator at Hunter College, New York University and Princeton University, Marcia Cantarella has worked with students across a broad spectrum — from those just out of high school to older adults returning to school while holding down jobs and family responsibilities. But no matter what their age, the New York resident found many students were often stymied by the same stumbling blocks that interrupted their path to a college degree.
“The most dominant problem is the culture of silence, particularly for students who are first-generation, low-income, immigrants, of color, or even adults,” Cantarella said. “College is new terrain, and they become intimidated and fearful of looking stupid. They struggle or muddle along in silence when the reality is, in every freshman class about 90 percent of the students think everybody else knows what’s going on.”
Overwhelmed, students often fail or drop out of classes. Others are waylaid by financial issues or health problems and wind up dropping out of school. Whatever causes the break in a student’s studies, it isn’t necessarily insurmountable, and returning to earn a diploma is still possible.
Cantarella, now a consultant and speaker who also works with the New York City University System, offers strategies and suggestions for making a college comeback in her book, “I Can Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide.”
The starting point is often figuring out where a student left off.
“Getting back in (school) often depends on the point at which you left,” she said “It’s always a good idea to keep the syllabi and course descriptions for every course you took, so if you are going to a different school, you can see whether or not those courses will be credited. But the easiest approach is to go back to the school where you’ve been so you don’t lose ground or money.”
Once a student makes the decision to go back to school, several other factors should be weighed, Cantarella suggests.
“First, it needs to be done more purposefully; you should have a clear idea of why you’re going, what you’re going to do differently, how you’re going to handle issues you might have had before,” she said. “You need to be in a different place mentally. I’m not a big believer in the major aligning with what you do the rest of your life, but you do need to have a sense of purpose.
“If you’re an adult who says, 'I want to have this degree so my children will know they can do it, too,’ that’s motivation, too. And it needs to be there.”
Returning students should think realistically about how going back to school will fit into their lives.
“If you have to work full time and you want to go back to school, do you need a school that offers online and off-campus courses?” Cantarella asked. “What about weekend courses? A school that allows the flexibility to be in class in the evenings or on weekends and to do a portion online may be what you need.
“Also, there are campuses that have child care services, if you need them. Whatever your need, it’s important to align the school with your lifestyle.”
All students, no matter how far along they are in their college careers, should have a financial plan in place, Cantarella said. “One of the main reasons people drop out in the first place is because they haven’t planned for it financially. That needs to be done up front, and if you have an issue, talk to someone in the financial aid office. If you have a strong academic average, they will try to keep you but you’ve got to tell somebody so they can help.”
A large portion of Cantarella’s book is devoted to helping students utilize the resources that colleges offer.
“That includes how to approach people and how to interact with your faculty,” she said. “So often, students don’t take advantage of faculty office hours, advisors or tutoring centers. They don’t seek out an administrative person when they’ve registered for the wrong class. They don’t tell anyone they’re having financial problems when money may be available. There’s no reason to suffer in silence until they reach a point of no return.”
Cantarella makes a point in her book that going back to college shouldn’t hinge on how old someone is, even though many adults consider age a stumbling block.
“A lot of people are intimidated by the thought of being the older student in a class,” she said. “But I remind them how longevity has changed; you’re likely to be in the workplace for 60 years, and re-invention will be expected. In my own experience, I did my graduate work 20 years after I graduated from college. At NYU, I had a graduate assistant who was getting a master’s degree at 70. Today, there is no real age inappropriateness when it comes to getting a degree.”