Starting College After 20: Ultimate Guide

The best time to start applying to colleges and universities is by the start of senior year of high school, admissions experts agree. Most senior high school students in the US are 17 or 18 years old, which is why it’s not unlikely for people past 20 years of age to wonder if it’s too late for them to try to get their hands on a college degree.

It is never too late to go to college. As a matter of fact, there is no age limit when applying, although older applicants may have to go through a different admissions process. Many of today’s higher education institutions provide mature and returning students the opportunity to educate themselves.

Just because you are over 20 doesn’t mean you should give up your dream of being a college degree holder.

Everyone can go to college no matter the age — it doesn’t matter if you are about to blow out a total of 30 candles on a birthday cake, in your midlife, or are already retired.

Read on if earning a college degree sounds right, but you feel that your age is wrong for it. Below, we will talk about some of the most important matters you need to know about starting college after 20. Hopefully, you will realize that your age should not get in the way of you wanting a better and more fulfilling career and life in general.

What Percentage of Students are Non-Traditional?

Almost 74% of undergraduate US students are non-traditional. This means that they meet one or more of the various characteristics of non-traditional students set by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). They include delayed enrollment into college and working part-time or full-time.

If you are past 20 years of age and thinking about going back to school, then you would become one of the numerous non-traditional students enrolled at today’s colleges and universities.

However, it’s not just being older than everyone else that makes someone going to college a non-traditional student.

There are, in fact, numerous types of non-traditional students, each one of them having his or her own set of goals to meet and challenges to surmount. Some of them are more common than the rest.

NCES says you are a non-traditional student if you meet any of these:

  • Delayed enrollment into postsecondary education.
  • Attends college part-time.
  • Works full time.
  • Financial independence for financial aid purposes.
  • Has dependents other than a spouse.
  • A single parent.
  • Does not have a high school diploma.

According to NCES, most non-traditional students are considered adult students. Simply put, adult students are college students 25 years of age or older.

As a matter of fact, according to Stamats Communications, Inc., which is a marketing services firm, over 47% of students attending colleges and universities in the US are older than 25.

So, if you are a non-traditional student, there is no need to feel too embarrassed to start college or go back to it as there are many of you. If the rest were able to succeed as college students, so can you!

Best Colleges for Students 20 and Older

The best colleges and universities for students 20 years of age and older are those that are ideal for non-traditional students. Most of them have both traditional and online programs, some of which are hybrid courses. In the US, there are plenty of institutions traditional students may choose from.

Non-traditional students find institutions offering online programs as well as programs that can be completed in a short amount of time more attractive than traditional counterparts.

Basically, the right schools for them are those that allow them to work on their degree at their desired pace, without keeping them from working or raising their families.

This is why online schools and the programs they offer are appealing to all kinds of traditional students who would otherwise have a difficult time earning a degree from a traditional college.

As a matter of fact, based on a study involving students taking online courses, 40.5% of the respondents were highly non-traditional students.

On the other hand, 31.4% were moderately non-traditional. The rest of the respondents were traditional students. 48.7% of them were employed full-time, while 16.2% were employed part-time.

Online programs are suited for non-traditional students alright, mainly because it’s flexible and, more often than not, easier on the pocket. But, despite this, an online degree that you can earn is just as good as a traditional degree.

Refrain from assuming that it’s easier to complete an online program than one that can be earned by going to a physical school. It’s true that earning an online degree is more convenient than earning a traditional one.

However, it still requires the same amount of commitment and hard work, if not more, since you will be on your own.

It’s because of this why, employers respect and accept online degrees, especially those from accredited institutions.

Related Post: Do Employers Accept Online Degrees?

Are There Colleges Offering Online Programs Only?

Some colleges offer both traditional and online programs, while others offer online programs only. They are referred to as online-only colleges. Since they do not have physical campuses, all classes are held via the internet. Online-only colleges are not diploma mills because they are accredited.

Hybrid classes, which are a combination of online and face-to-face classes, come with benefits. For instance, they allow non-traditional students to feel what it’s like to have classes digitally and in the traditional fashion, too.

While they offer the best of both worlds, for some college students, hybrid classes can be more disadvantageous than advantageous.

For instance, since attending physical classes is required from time to time, hybrid classes may not be the best option for working adults or individuals with families due to their hectic everyday schedules.

The good news is that there are many online-only colleges in the country. As the name suggests, they are institutions for higher education offering nothing but online programs only.

So, in other words, these schools have no traditional programs and physical campuses either, which is why conducting hybrid classes isn’t a possibility. Attending one of the various online-only colleges is a wonderful idea if stepping foot in a brick-and-mortar classroom is not an option.

Some people are wary of applying to online-only colleges for fear of ending up getting a worthless degree from a diploma mill.

Well, for as long as the school is accredited by an accrediting body recognized by either the US Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or both, there is nothing to fear.

The following are some examples of accredited online-only US colleges and their accreditors:

  • American Broadcasting School – Online Program (Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training)
  • American Business and Technology University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • American College of Education (Higher Learning Commission)
  • American College of Healthcare Sciences (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • American InterContinental University Online (Higher Learning Commission)
  • American Public University System (Higher Learning Commission)
  • American Sentinel University (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Amridge University (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges)
  • Antioch University Connected (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Argosy University Phoenix Online Division (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Aspen University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • Bryant & Stratton College Online (Middle States Commission on Higher Education)
  • California Intercontinental University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • Capella University (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Catholic Distance University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • Charter Oak State College (New England Commission of Higher Education)
  • City Vision University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • Colorado State University – Global Campus (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Colorado Technical University Online (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Columbia Southern University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • Daymar College Online (Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges)
  • Excelsior College (Middle States Commission on Higher Education)
  • Florida Institute of Technology Online (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges)
  • Frontier Nursing University (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges)
  • Grantham University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • International Sports Sciences Association (Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education)
  • Johnson & Wales University Online (New England Commission of Higher Education)
  • Midwives College of Utah (Midwifery Education Accreditation Council)
  • Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute (Western Association of Schools and Colleges)
  • National Paralegal College (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • Northcentral University (WASC Senior College and University Commission)
  • Ottawa University Online (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Pennsylvania State University World Campus (Middle States Commission on Higher Education)
  • Remington College Heathrow Campus (Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges)
  • Sessions College for Professional Design (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • Shiloh University (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • South University – Savannah Online (Maryland Higher Education Commission)
  • Taft University System (Distance Education Accrediting Commission)
  • The Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online Division (Middle States Commission on Higher Education)
  • Trident University International (Higher Learning Commission)
  • University of Florida Online (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges)
  • Vista College Online (Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges)
  • Walden University (Higher Learning Commission)
  • Western Governors University (Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities)

Can Adults Face the Challenges of College?

Non-traditional students, including adults, graduate from college, although not everyone does so. According to a study conducted by the American Council on Education (ACE), 33.7% of non-traditional students earned their degrees. On the other hand, 54.1% of traditional students completed theirs.

It’s not unlikely for adults in college to juggle their studies with all sorts of duties and responsibilities outside the campus, ranging from working for a company, running a business to raising a happy family.

Because of the various tasks they have to carry out while trying to complete the programs they enrolled in, some non-traditional students are unable to finish college.

Still, there are those who are able to successfully earn their degrees, albeit most, if not all, will attest that it’s not the easiest undertaking they have subjected themselves into.

No matter the age, an individual can finish college — sometimes with flying colors, too.

On July 29, 2020, Paterno graduated from the University of Palermo with a degree in Philosophy and History. But he didn’t just graduate from college — he graduated at the top of his class, too! Due to this, Paterno is the oldest man (96-year-old) in Italy to earn a college degree and also one of the brightest college students in the country.


Most traditional students and non-traditional students alike rely on modern-day technologies such as laptops and the web to facilitate learning and thus get good grades.

Well, it’s a completely different story for Paterno.

According to him, while enrolled at the University of Palermo, he relied on a manual typewriter, which he acquired from his mother in the early 1980s. And, instead of using the internet for research, the nearly centenarian college degree holder counted on traditional printed books.

So, in a nutshell, graduating from college successfully has nothing to do with one’s age.

Refrain from assuming that Paterno is the only old person to graduate from college. Throughout the history of man, a lot of people have proven that it’s never too late to learn. Just check out the following oldest people to get a degree:

Leo Plass99Eastern Oregon University
Nola Ochs98Fort Hays State University
Twila Boston98Utah State University
Allan Stewart97Southern Cross University
Cliff Dadson93Open University
Bertie Gladwin90Buckingham University
Wally Taibleson90California State University
Charlie Ball89Arkansas Tech University
Mary Fasano89Harvard Extension School
Anne Martindell87Smith College
Willadene Zedan85Marian University in Wisconsin
Oldest People Graduated From Univesities

Which People Went to College After Being Famous?

Many people attended college after being well-known. The majority of them are actors, film directors, supermodels, recording artists, athletes, and CEOs. Among them are Shakira, Shaquille O’Neal, Steven Spielberg, and Oprah.

At traditional colleges and universities, non-traditional students can stand out easily. That’s because they are older than everybody else, have kids, go to work or did not attend a typical high school.

Despite having characteristics that make them different from students that fit the mold perfectly, many non-traditional students remain in college or have successfully completed their respective programs. These people serve as living proof that anything is possible if one is willing to work hard for it.

Let’s take a look at some people whose names might ring a bell who went back to college:

  • Shakira. Colombian singer and songwriter Shakira took courses in History of Western Civilization. She used her real name to avoid being recognized by her classmates and professors.
  • Shaquille O’Neal. Seven-foot-one Shaquille O’Neal missed an NBA game to attend his college graduation in 2000. Five years after getting his hands on a bachelor’s of arts in General Studies, he completed his MBA.
  • Steven Spielberg. ET director Steven Spielberg once applied to the University of Southern California. However, he was turned down because of a low GPA. Luckily, California State University accepted him.
  • Emma Watson. After starring in all Harry Potter films, Emma Watson enrolled at Brown University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 2014.
  • The Olsen twins. Former actresses and current fashion designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen attended NYU. Instead of living in a dorm, the twins bought the top floor of a high-rise in the West Village.
  • Tyra Banks. In 2012, supermodel, TV personality and businesswoman Tyra Banks earned her MBA from Harvard Business School. Before that, she also earned a non-degree-granting certificate course.
  • Karlie Kloss. Another supermodel who went back to school (she enrolled at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study) is Karlie Kloss, who was 2017’s seventh highest-paid model.
  • Oprah. When she became famous, Oprah was only one credit away from graduating from Tennessee State University. Eventually, she went back to school to finish her coursework and earn her degree.
  • Dakota Fanning. Former child actress Dakota Fanning enrolled at the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study in 2011. She majored in women’s studies with an emphasis on the portrayal of women in film and culture.
  • Mayim Bialik. Somewhere between starring in Blossom and the Big Bang Theory, actress Mayim Bialik attended UCLA. She earned not only a bachelor of science but also a PhD in neuroscience.
  • Jodie Foster. Despite already being famous, actress Jodie Foster earned a degree in Literature from Yale University. While in college, she made five movies and got A’s in her term papers.
  • Swizz Beatz. In 2017, rapper, record producer and businessman Swizz Beatz graduated from Harvard Business School. He completed the Owner/President Management Program from the Ivy League.

Just Before You Start College

Since age is just a number, it should not keep you from turning your dream of becoming a college degree holder into a reality.

Whether you are already in your 20s or older, you can always apply to the college or university of your choice — you could receive a rejection letter for reasons such as a low GPA or test score, but not old age.

Having a job to attend to or kids to raise should also not keep you from starting college or going back to it. There are many institutions for higher education with online programs perfect for a busy, non-traditional student like you.

Related Article: Is College Harder Than Work? Myth vs Reality

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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