Returning to School

Every year, nontraditional learners return to school to pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees. Students go back to school for several reasons, including advancing their careers or joining a new industry. Some adults also return to school for personal enrichment or to pursue a career where they can give back.

For nontraditional learners considering a degree in social work, the opportunity to support and assist clients of all ages may motivate their return to school. Earning a graduate degree in social work also helps professionals complete licensing requirements and qualify for advanced positions. Social workers earn higher salaries with each increased degree level, so professionals already working in the field return to school to increase their earning potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that social work opportunities will grow 16% by 2026.

Social workers earn higher salaries with each increased degree level, so professionals already working in the field return to school to increase their earning potential

Nontraditional learners considering returning to school face several challenges. Most must balance school with their work or family obligations, and many benefit from more flexible social work programs. Students returning to school may also worry about paying for their degree. On the other hand, adult learners often possess the maturity and independence required to succeed in a social work program. Many forms of financial aid, including federal aid, school aid, and scholarships, do not set an age limit for recipients.

This guide walks through the process of returning to school to earn a degree in social work. It covers common situations for many adult learners, such as choosing a program that accepts transfer credits and evaluating online degree options. It also explores financial aid options, including scholarship opportunities for social work students. By conducting research before enrolling in a social work program, students returning to school can find the best program for their career goals.

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Benefits of Returning to School for Social Work

By returning to school, adult learners broaden their career opportunities and increase their earning potential. In social work, for example, a bachelor’s degree qualifies professionals for case work and social services positions not available to applicants with an associate degree. Similarly, many advanced positions, such as clinical social work or management-level jobs in social work organizations, require a master’s degree. Many social work licenses require either a bachelor’s or a master’s in social work. By completing the licensure process or pursuing a specialization within the field, social workers qualify for higher paying jobs.

Many students returning to school continue to work while earning a degree. Employers often encourage their employees to return to school because educational advancement often leads to career advancement within the company. Some employers even offer tuition reimbursement programs to help employees afford the cost of a degree. By returning to school, professionals demonstrate their commitment to advancing their career.

For many, returning to school propels their career to the next level. With higher degrees, social workers receive higher salaries. As shown in the chart below, with each degree-level advance, the average social workers salary increases.

Average Salaries for Social Workers by Educational Attainment
Source: PayScale

Online Learning for Social Workers Returning to School

Nontraditional students returning to school benefit from the flexibility and convenience of an online social work program. More and more students choose online courses over in-person courses. A 2017 study by the Online Learning Consortium reports that nearly 30% of higher-education students enrolled in one or more online courses. A National Center for Education Statistics study covering the 2011-2012 academic year found that students who fit into four or more nontraditional categories are six times more likely to enroll in a fully online program.

Online students also save time and money on commuting, and they can log on from anywhere, even a mobile device

Working professionals with busy schedules and students with family responsibilities often prefer to schedule coursework around their other obligations. Asynchronous learning courses, which let students complete coursework at any time, help students balance school with their other responsibilities. Online students also save time and money on commuting, and they can log on from anywhere, even a mobile device.

Current social workers considering a degree for career advancement can attend one of the top online programs in the country without having to quit their job or relocate. Online programs let students complete internship or clinical requirements locally. Online social work programs work with students to arrange an approved internship site.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Many nontraditional students return to school with some college credit. These students can transfer those credits to their new school, helping them earn a degree in less time and at a lower cost. However, schools do not automatically accept all transfer credits. Instead, students must submit a transcript showing all prior credits. Transfer advisors then determine which credits to accept.

Several factors influence whether a school accepts transfer credits. For example, many schools only accept transfer credits from accredited institutions. Most also limit the number of credits students may transfer toward a degree. While college credits never technically expire, some schools set policies limiting the age of transfer credits, e.g. not accepting credits older than 10 years. General-education courses and 100-level courses tend to transfer easily, while upper-division or major courses prove more challenging. Some schools also require that students retake courses in areas that change rapidly, such as computer science or nursing.

Transfer policies vary depending on the school and program. Returning students need to research transfer policies for their prospective schools and potentially speak to a transfer advisor.

Transferrable Credits

Colleges and universities set their own transfer-credit policies. Typically, schools review transfer students’ transcripts and decide whether to award credit. Transfers between public schools in the same state system usually prove the easiest, and many four-year public schools hold transfer agreements with in-state community colleges. Students need to pay attention to policies about course equivalency, course-level transfers, and conversions from a quarter system to a semester system.

Course Equivalency: During the transcript review process, schools decide which courses on the student’s transcripts meet the equivalency standards for courses at their school. For example, a student who took intro to social work at a community college may receive credit for the intro class at a four-year institution. In other cases, schools may only give students elective credit or general-education credit for a course without a clear equivalency.

Course Level: The course level also influences transfer credit policies. Schools will not grant credit for a 300-level course if a student’s transcript shows a 100-level course, even if the classes hold the same title. In general, transfering credits for 100- and 200-level courses proves easier than transfering upper-division or specialized courses. Many colleges prefer that students complete upper-level major requirements at their school.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: The majority of colleges and universities in the U.S. use the semester system. However, students can still transfer credits earned on the quarter system to a school on the semester system, or vice versa. Students can use a credit conversion formula to estimate how many credits they might receive after transferring from one system to the other. Returning students should also plan to confirm transfer policies with a school advisor.

College Credit for Work Experience

Nontraditional students often return to school with a wealth of training and knowledge. Colleges grant credit or waive course requirements for students who demonstrate their prior learning. However, colleges do not automatically award credit for any experience. Instead, they use a process known as prior learning assessment (PLA) to determine when to grant credit for prior learning. These assessments include examinations, interviews, and portfolio reviews. PLA varies from school to school, so students need to research prior learning policies as part of the application process.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

Each college or university determines its own standards for assessing prior learning. Some of these methods, identified by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, include credit for standardized exams, challenge exams, or portfolio reviews. Social work professionals returning to school to advance their education may benefit from pursuing prior learning assessments.

Standardized Exams

Many colleges grant credit to students who meet minimum scores on standardized exams. Some of the most common exams include Advanced Placement (AP) tests, the College Level Exam Program (CLEP), and the DSST examination program. These exams, offered by independent organizations, test student skills in a variety of college subjects. Many schools publish their credit transfer policy for standardized exams.

Challenge Exams

Unlike independently operated standardized exams, colleges create their own challenge exams, also known as departmental exams. These exams, often created by faculty at the college, test students on specific skills and knowledge. Foreign language exams may serve as the most common challenge exam, where students can test out of a foreign language and receive credit by passing the exam. Challenge exams either grant credit for a specific course, fulfill a graduation requirement, or waive a course requirement.

Individual Assessments

Many schools also offer individual assessments to determine prior learning. Students submit a portfolio demonstrating their knowledge in a particular area, and either a faculty panel or an external portfolio evaluator assesses the portfolio. Students may also need to complete an interview or performance assessment as part of the review. In some subject areas, students may also take a skill simulation to demonstrate their competencies.

Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training

Colleges realize that students gain valuable knowledge and skills outside of higher education. Students can gain prior learning credits for education and training gained through the workplace, the military, or volunteer experience. Schools also award credit or waive course requirements for students who hold a certification or professional license. Social work professionals can earn credits toward a higher degree by presenting their certifications, licenses, or even badges.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Schools do not necessarily grant credits for a specific course to students who demonstrate their prior learning. Instead, many use prior learning to waive course requirements. They may also grant general credit that meets elective or general-education requirements. In some cases, students receive credit for major requirements through PLA. Nontraditional students, particularly those with extensive work experience or military training, need to research a prospective school’s prior learning credit policies. Choosing a program with generous prior learning assessments and high-credit maximums can significantly reduce the time and cost it takes to earn a degree.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Before applying to social work programs, adult students need to research their payment options. Nontraditional students can also fill out the FAFSA, apply for scholarships, and receive financial aid from many sources.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

High school seniors often fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, as part of the process of applying to colleges. The FAFSA qualifies students for federal grants, loans, and work-study options that help cover the cost of a degree. However, the FAFSA applies to both traditional and nontraditional students applying to college.

The FAFSA doesn’t just qualify students for federal financial aid. Filling out the FAFSA also helps students receive financial aid through their state or college. Some private organizations and scholarships also use the FAFSA to determine financial need.

Before filling out the FAFSA, students need to review the eligibility requirements for federal financial aid. Applicants must hold U.S. citizenship or qualify as eligible noncitizens with a valid social security number. They must also attend an eligible institution, and men must be registered with the Selective Service. Students can fill out the FAFSA starting in October for the following school year, and they must complete the FAFSA annually to receive financial aid.

In order to complete the FAFSA, students must provide certain information on their taxable income, assets, and untaxed income. The federal financial aid program uses this information to determine the student’s financial need and award financial aid.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number

The FAFSA requires a name and social security number, both of which must match the student’s social security card. Applicants must possess a social security number to fill out the FAFSA. While undocumented students do not qualify for federal student aid, they may qualify for state or school aid.

Driver’s License Number

Students with a driver’s license must also provide their driver’s license number on the FAFSA application. However, the federal government does not require a driver’s license number, and students without a driver’s license can leave it blank.

Federal Tax Information

The FAFSA application requires federal tax information or tax returns with W-2 information for the applicant and his or her spouse. Most nontraditional students do not need to provide tax information because their parents no longer claim them as dependents.

Records of Untaxed Income

In order to determine financial need, the FAFSA also requires records for untaxed income, including child support the applicant receives, interest income, or veterans noneducation benefits. Applicants must provide records for themselves and their spouse.

Information on Assets

The FAFSA also asks about other financial assets, including cash, savings and checking accounts, stocks and bonds, and real estate investments. Dependent students also need to provide information for their parents.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

Both the federal financial aid program and schools use a student’s financial need to determine their financial aid packages. This number, calculated using several formulas, qualifies students for need-based financial aid programs.

Financial need equals the gap between the cost of attendance (COA) and the expected family contribution (EFC). Schools calculate the COA based on the tuition, fees, living expenses, and additional expenses required for an academic year. The federal financial aid program then calculates the student’s EFC using a formula established by law. The formula takes into consideration information reported on the FAFSA — such as taxed and untaxed income and assets — plus the student’s family size and number of family members in college. Students can find the EFC formula on the federal financial aid website.

Students receive need-based aid up to the amount that their COA exceeds the EFC. Federal need-based aid programs include Pell grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, subsidized loans, Perkins loans, and federal work study. Students can also receive non-need-based aid, which equals the COA minus financial assistance received through scholarships and need-based aid. Federal non-need-based aid programs available for social work students include unsubsidized loans and PLUS loans.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students

Types of Financial Aid

Scholarships provide financial support that students do not need to repay. Students may qualify for public or private scholarships based on their financial need, major, and career interests.
Like scholarships, grants provide funds that recipients do not need to pay back. Students may qualify for certain grants by filling out the FAFSA.
Federal Loans
By filling out the FAFSA, students qualify for several types of federal loans, including both subsidized and unsubsidized loans. These loans may offer competitive interest rates and terms for students who require financial assistance.
Private Loans
Private loans typically offer fewer benefits than federal loans, including loan deferment while in school and loan forgiveness programs. However, some students require additional loans above those offered by the federal government.


Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Graduate students qualify for specialized financial aid, including federal financial aid for graduate and professional students. These funding sources include loans and work-study programs. Social work graduate students can take out up to $20,500 a year in unsubsidized direct loans. If students require additional funds, they can apply for a PLUS loan. Students with financial need may qualify for the federal work study program, which provides part-time jobs for graduate students. These jobs provide income and work experience for graduate students.

State and school financial aid programs also help cover educational expenses. Some states offer specialized educational support for social work students — or offer loan forgiveness programs. Schools and social work programs may also create customized financial aid packages for students. Social work graduate students who plan to work while earning their degree may qualify for tuition reimbursement programs offered by their employer.

Finally, graduate students also qualify for scholarships offered by social work organizations and private foundations, which can offer thousands of dollars in financial support.

Scholarships and Grants for Social Workers Returning to School

Adult and Mid-Career Scholarships

Tips for a Successful Return to School

Adults returning to school boast several strengths when compared with traditional students. Adult learners often possess the maturity and drive needed to succeed in a social work program. However, returning to school also carries challenges. By preparing in advance, nontraditional students can make the most of their education.

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Today’s colleges expect students to enter with a strong tech-skill foundation. Adult students or those who took a long break may need to brush up on their technical skills, including software navigation and online-learning platform familiarly.

Find Support Network: Adult learners face additional demands on their time, such as from a job or family responsibilities. Building a strong support network helps adult students succeed academically while also managing their other obligations.

Choose a Flexible Program: When returning to school after a break, students often benefit from a flexible program. Consider online social work programs, for example, which let students arrange classes around their schedule. Adult learners often possess the drive and motivation required for online programs.