Returning to School

Going back to school provides both an exciting opportunity for self-advancement and a source of consternation. Whether it be an associate or bachelor's degree, individuals returning to school to earn a degree in counseling face a number of challenges, including how to juggle work and family obligations, figuring out which type of learning suits them, and how to pay for their education.

The number of nontraditional adult learners remains a significant and growing population in higher education enrollment. Almost 40% of college and graduate students in the U.S. fall in the bracket of age 25 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES projects that learners 25 and older will make up the largest population of students in postsecondary education by 2020. Students return to school for a variety of reasons, including career advancement, career changes, and personal enrichment. Many individuals returning to school for counseling fall into the first two categories, and they enter a field filled with promise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts a job growth rate of 13% for school and career counselors between 2016 and 2026; substance abuse and behavioral counselors, 26%; marriage and family therapists, 23%; and rehabilitation counselors, 13%.

Some individuals with counseling degrees also enter non-counseling fields, where they hold positions in areas such as human resources. This guide covers several topics focused on the benefits of returning to school, online learning, transferring credits, and how to secure financial aid.

Benefits of Returning to School for Counseling

Those pursuing jobs as counselors need to complete a master's degree to meet state requirements. Few bachelor's programs in counseling exist. A bachelor's degree in a related field such as psychology qualifies the holder for a limited number of counseling careers, including behavioral counselor, case manager, and psychiatric technician. The counseling field's need for employees with diplomas and associate degrees remains even more limited. Far more positions open up to holders of master's degrees in counseling, including as therapists and counselors in several specialized areas.

The Counseling for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) notes that schools across the U.S. offer master's programs with specializations such as addiction counseling; clinical mental health counseling; and marriage, couple, and family counseling. The fastest growing specialization remains genetic counselor, which requires a master's degree and boasts a 29% job growth rate, according to the BLS.

Those who pursue a career as a licensed professional counselor must meet the licensure requirements outlined by the state in which they live. In most states, those licensure requirements require a master's degree. Once students complete an advanced degree in counseling and hold licensure, they work with different populations in a variety of settings, including medical facilities, private practice, and at rehabilitation agencies.

Average Salaries for Counseling Graduates by Educational Attainment

Bachelor's Master's Doctorate
Case Manager - $38,984 Licensed Professional Counselor - $44,780 Counseling Psychologist - $57,913

Online Learning for Returning Students

Online learning serves as a popular choice for college students. The NCES notes that in the fall of 2015, 5,954,121 students enrolled in at least some distance education coursework at postsecondary institutions, and 2,871,788 took courses exclusively online. Since nontraditional learners already make up almost 40% of college and graduate students in the U.S. and they require flexibility, they potentially constitute a significant block of online learners.

The appeal of online education for nontraditional learners includes flexible scheduling with little to no need to commute. Many schools offer virtual programs that students complete fully online; schools also give students the opportunity to experience the best of both worlds with hybrid options that offer some on-campus coursework. Students enjoy even more flexibility with asynchronous learning in which they log on to their program at anytime from anywhere.

Online learners save money since they do not need to live on campus, pay for transportation, or pay for other costs associated with on-campus learning. Online learners pursuing a degree in counseling often need not worry about leaving their communities for required internship or clinicals, as many programs allow students to complete field experiences in their local communities. Given these factors, online learning suits adults juggling work, school, and family obligations.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

One-third of students transfer at least once before degree completion, according to a 2012 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that looked at students’ enrollment between 2006 and 2011. The issue of credit transfer concerns many students planning to enter a program in counseling. Those with prior credits should get hold of their transcripts by contacting the previous college’s registrar or records department. Many schools contact your previous school to access your transcripts.

In general, college credits do not expire, but it remains up to the school to determine how many they accept, if any. Credits may not transfer to a new program for a number of reasons. For instance, general-education credits transfer easier than major credits. Additionally, upper-level credits may no longer apply in rapidly changing fields such as computer technology. Most schools lay out their institution’s or program’s transfer or advanced standing policy online, and counseling students should examine those carefully to determine where they stand. A school's accreditation from one of the six regionally accrediting agencies in the U.S. also facilitates the smooth transfer of credits; regionally accredited colleges accept credits from schools with the same status.

Transferrable Credits

Transferring credits between public colleges within a state serves as the simplest form of transfer given that these college systems usually establish transferability guidelines. Schools consider several factors during this process, such as course equivalency, transferring between course levels, and transferring from a quarter system to a semester system. Students should pay close attention to each school's policies on these issues.

Course Equivalency: Schools accept transfer credits from other institutions using their own calculations. For instance, an astronomy 101 course may meet one school's general education science requirement, but another school may only accept chemistry or biology 101. The student may apply the astronomy class to the transferring school's allowed quota of electives, but some schools may not accept the class at all.

Course Level: Lower-level courses tend to transfer more easily than upper-level ones. Lower courses, such as 100- and 200-level courses, may fit easier into general education requirements at most schools than 300- or 400-level courses that schools use to customize their programs. For instance, colleges consider a 100- or 200-level English literature course far more universal for general education than a 400-level history course focused on the Middle East.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Most colleges employ a semester system, but some schedule their classes using a quarter system. The transfer from one system to the other could affect the calculation for how many credits students earn per course in one system compared to the transferring school. Students should use a formula to convert quarter credits to semester credits. They should always work with their prospective school advisers to ensure that their credits transfer.

College Credit for Work Experience

Many colleges recognize that students returning to school acquire formal and nonformal knowledge and skills outside the classroom that apply to their program of study. This knowledge comes from a variety of places, including as workplace training, military service, examinations such as CLEP and DSST, and professional certifications. Schools use different types of prior learning assessment (PLA) to determine how many credits students receive for this kind of experiential learning. The PLA assesses how skills count as equivalent to college-level coursework and warrant academic credit. Credits earned from PLA potentially accelerate degree completion, thereby reducing tuition costs.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

After 40 years, schools in the U.S. continue to use PLA methods to grant college credit. Four categories of PLA exist as defined by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. Students in counseling programs use them to demonstrate their proficiencies through exams that determine their knowledge.

Standardized Exams: Colleges use several standardized exams to determine how many credits students receive based on prior learning, such as the College Level Exam Program (CLEP), Advanced Placement Examination Program, DANTES Subject Standardized Tests, and Excelsior College Exams.

Challenge Exams: Students earn credits through challenge exams developed by faculty. The exams assess whether students' possess knowledge comparable to content students learn in a college program. When CLEP exams do not exist for a specific course or subject such as counseling or psychology, a departmentally administered test serves as the measure of that knowledge. The school may require the student to pay for the test.

Portfolio Assessment: Students develop a portfolio to document knowledge from work and other experiences that schools cannot assess through exams and credit recommendations. The portfolio specifically demonstrates mastery of content that meets the counseling program's requirements. Faculty with appropriate expertise in the subject evaluate the student's portfolio to determine their level of knowledge, awarding program credit accordingly. This option suits students who experience difficulty with standardized exams.

Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training: For a fee, organizations such as the American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service conduct evaluations of non-college workplace or military training programs. Some colleges may already allocate credit for the training employees receive at local organizations and employers. Some schools also award credit for certifications, licensure, and apprenticeships.

How PLA Credits Transfer

To understand how schools handle PLA credits, prospective students should examine each school's policies regarding credit transfer or credit for prior learning. This will outline how many PLA credits transfer, and how schools determine transferability between schools. Some schools may not accept another school's evaluation of a student's prior learning. For instance, while a student may hold nine PLA credits for work or military training pertaining to the counseling field, the school to which the student plans to transfer may only accept three. When schools do award PLA credit, they apply them to general education, major, or elective program requirements in the counseling program. Some schools may simply waive course requirements instead of awarding PLA credit.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Paying for school can prove challenging. However, this guideline provides an outline of the options that exist for students who return to school as nontraditional learners.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) awards $120 billion in federal aid each year to students. The funding covers tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, and other school-related expenses. Nontraditional students who meet basic eligibility requirements can use this source of education funding. The first step involves filling out the ED's Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The federal government, states, and colleges use information provided on the FAFSA to determine eligibility for student aid such as loans and grants. While most students apply online, others may download a FAFSA PDF for a print version. The ED advises that the online process remains faster and easier.

The application process for nontraditional students and their traditional counterparts remains similar. In each case students must meet established requirements, including U.S. citizenship or noncitizen eligibility, possession of valid identification such as a Social Security number, and the establishment of financial need. Individuals who recently filled out the FAFSA may update their information using the FAFSA Renewal function online.

Schools use the FAFSA to determine how much financial aid students will receive to cover counseling programs. The school disburses the financial aid based on school policy, which varies from institution to institution.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number: Students cannot fill out the FAFSA without a Social Security number. Those without social security numbers, such as DACA students, cannot receive federal financial aid. Undocumented students may pass eligibility requirements for state or college aid and in-state tuition. Once eligible students provide a Social Security number, they apply for an FSA ID -- a username and password -- that they use to electronically sign their FAFSA form.

Driver’s License Number: Students who hold a driver's license might need to use it for the FAFSA application process.

Federal Tax Information: Applicants must provide information from their and their spouse’s IRS W-2 and tax returns. Dependent students provide the tax information for their parents. Those living in U.S. territories and those with income from abroad should also provide foreign tax returns.

Records of Untaxed Income: Applicants must also provide records of untaxed income such as child support, veterans noneducation benefits, and interest on investments. Dependent students provide this information for their parents.

Information on Assets: Individuals with assets must provide documentation as part of the FAFSA application process. These assets include cash, banking accounts, investments such as stocks and bonds, and any real estate holdings. They must also provide information about business or farm assets. Dependent students provide this information for their parents.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

As nontraditional students consider the cost of returning to school, they may wonder how schools determine the amount of financial aid they will receive. Financial aid uses information provided on the FAFSA to calculate the cost of attendance (COA) and expected family contribution (EFC). The COA includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and other supplies, transportation, loan fees, and child or dependent care. School staff also use FAFSA information to determine the prospective student's ECF index number using a formula established by law. The formula takes factors such as the student's family income, assets, and social security payments into consideration.

The school establishes need-based aid by subtracting the EFC from the COA to establish financial need. For instance, if a student's COA amounts to $20,000 and the EFC amounts to $12,000, the formula calculates the financial need as $8,000, and the student cannot qualify for more than that amount in need-based aid. Students qualify for the following need-based federal student aid programs:

Non-need-based aid refers to financial aid not based on the EFC. The school establishes non-need-based aid by subtracting all awarded financial aid from the COA. With a $20,000 COA and $8,000 in financial aid awarded, the student qualifies for up to $12,000 in non-need-based financial aid. Students qualify for the following non-need-based federal aid programs:

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


Scholarships: Students receive scholarships based on financial need; merit, such as scholastic ability; or demography, such as gender or race. Students do not pay back scholarships, which benefactors consider gifted aid.

Grants: Grants function just like scholarships in that organizations, including colleges and foundations, provide gift aid to those who establish a need. The benefactor often stipulates that the recipient use the money for a specific purpose, such as research or a particular area of study.

Federal Loans: The federal government funds loans that offer fixed interest rates, no credit check except for PLUS loans, no cosigner in many cases, and other benefits.

Private Loans: Sallie Mae, banks, and other private organizations offer loans that students must repay once they complete their education; sometimes before degree completion. This type of loan proves less flexible than federal loans, which offer benefits such as flexible repayment options to keep payments affordable.


School Aid: Many colleges offer institutional aid through their financial aid offices. Schools calculate aid using formulas and policies that vary from school to school. Students should contact each institution to determine available options.

Federal Aid: The federal government oversees direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans, grants, and work-study programs that provide part-time work to help students cover educational expenses.

State Financial Aid: State education agencies oversee a host of student financial aid programs that vary in breadth from state to state. Often, students must reside and attend a college in the state to benefit.

Privately Funded Scholarships: Various organizations around the country -- such as foundations, trusts, and private donors -- provide students with scholarship opportunities based on financial need, merit, subject choice, or demography.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Graduate and professional students pursuing counseling degrees qualify for several financial aid programs. While graduate students do not qualify for Direct Subsidized loans, they do qualify for direct loans through the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. Under this program, graduates may apply for direct unsubsidized loans or direct PLUS loans.

Direct unsubsidized loans allow students to borrow up to $20,500 per school year to pay for tuition. Those who need to borrow more than the maximum unsubsidized amount apply for direct PLUS loans. The Pell Grant provides students with a source of funding that does not need repayment. This makes a good option for those pursuing guidance or school counseling degrees since the grant requires enrollment in a graduate teacher certification program, and many states require teacher certification for guidance counselors. Guidance or school counseling students may also qualify for TEACH grants worth up to $4,000 a year.

Colleges around the country participate in the federal government's work-study program, which provides students with part-time jobs on or off campus. Students receive payment in exchange for 10 to 20 hours of work a week. Students may also apply for state and school aid, private scholarships, and tuition reimbursement from employers.

Scholarships and Grants for Adult and Mid-Career Students in Counseling

NBCC Foundation Rural Scholarship
Who Can Apply: NBCC awards one scholarship to a master's-level counseling student living in a rural area in any state. To apply, students must maintain good standing in a CACREP-accredited program and commit to serve rural areas for two years after graduation.
Amount: $8,000

Esther Katz Rosen Graduate Student Fellowships
Who Can Apply: Esther Katz Rosen Graduate Student Fellowships provide up to three graduate students with funding to conduct doctoral research on the psychology of gifted children and adolescents. Awarded based on a proposal.
Amount: $20,000

NBCC Foundation
Who Can Apply: The NBCC Foundation awards scholarships to graduate students enrolled in guidance counseling programs. The foundation expects recipients to incorporate career development in their practice as counselors for two years. Students fill out an application for review.
Amount: $2,000

American Psychological Foundation
Who Can Apply: The American Psychological Foundation awards 21 annual scholarships to graduate students in psychology to conduct research in one of several areas. Students must submit a comprehensive research proposal.
Amount: $2,000 to $5,000

California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists Educational Foundation
Who Can Apply: CAMFT awards three scholarships to students enrolled in a master's or doctoral program that qualifies them for licensure as a marriage and family therapist. Students must demonstrate financial need, community service, and involvement in CAMFT.
Amount: $4,000

Pi Gamma Mu
Who Can Apply: Pi Gamma Mu awards 10 scholarships each year to members planning to attend graduate school to pursue a degree in the social sciences, including psychology and counseling. Applicants must submit an application, transcripts, and a personal statement.
Amount: $1,000 to $2,000

Tips for a Successful Return to School

Students returning to school face a number of challenges. After a hiatus from school schedules and the rigors of academic study, they may need to readjust to an academic schedule, tweak their technical skills, and find support networks populated by like-minded individuals. A number of tips follow:

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Rapid technological advances provide both challenges and opportunity for many returning students. Students must embrace the use of computer technology to succeed in today's classroom; basic applications of technology include online classes, internet research, the use of spreadsheet programs, and connecting faculty to students.

Find a Support Network: Joining an organization such as the American Counseling Association and American School Counselor Association provides students with access to networking opportunities, research and publications, and job search options. Both organizations offer students membership rates. Students should also work to forge connections with advisers, professors, and fellow students.

Choose a Flexible Program: Many students who fall in the "nontraditional student" category work and juggle multiple responsibilities as they pursue educational goals. Schools offer online counseling programs with limited or no residency requirements, and others offer evening and weekends programs that provide flexibility. Students may also want to consider part-time enrollment to complete their degree.