Guide to and through college

This guide will offer information and links to help on your path to and through college.

If you are thinking of returning to college, the considerations below will get you started. Thinking about these may not be easy, and uncertainty is okay. Being aware of the many choices and researching them to identify those that are the best fit for you can be a challenge for anyone returning to college.




The reasons for obtaining a college degree are very personal. They may include professional growth, a new career, personal satisfaction in having completed a goal, or to be a role model. You are the only person who has the right answer for you!

Connecting career and education goals

Which careers are growing? Which are fading? How much do they pay?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics helps you compare professions on the basis of the size of the workforce, projected employment growth, compensation, the education needed for an entry level position, and opportunities for self-employment.

If you need to find a job first

Most states have websites connecting job seekers to employment and many offer career development tools. Tennessee residents can search for career opportunities at Jobs4TN


Consider demands on your time and energy, your commute and logistics, and make time for your studies. Think about the hours necessary for assignments, projects, and time for getting to and from school. Considering your available time will help you start planning how to balance your life, work and college schedules.


A supportive social environment is critical to your degree completion: people who believe in you, who will help in a pinch and who will protect your time for studying and classes. Identify and locate your supporters, at home, at work and in your community. Ask your support network for help and line up the resources you need. Write down names, phone numbers, email, home and work addresses and keep your list handy. To find your Northeast Tennessee Reconnect Community advisor please contact us at 423-547-7515 or click MEET YOUR TEAM.


Access to a computer and the internet is essential for connecting with your professors and your accounts, for researching and writing assignments or taking classes online. If you don’t have home access, consider options at work, a public library, relatives and friends.


Degrees can be obtained in many different ways! Options now include online, in-class and hybrids where you will be in a classroom with classmates and the instructor and be expected to do substantial work online as well. Accelerated programs offer courses that last about eight weeks instead of fourteen, but deliver the same amount of learning. Accelerated programs often have courses that start every five or seven weeks, so your courses may not run concurrently. Adult online courses rely on engaged interaction with classmates and the instructor, either in real time (synchronous) or at a time that is convenient to the student (asynchronous.) For now, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) do not translate easily into college credit.

Not sure about online courses?

Many adults do well in accelerated and online degree completion programs, but need a gentle introduction. Northeast Tennessee Reconnect Community offers workshops to ease adults into online learning. Call 423-547-7515 or email our Northeast Tennessee Reconnect Community Coordinator, April Shaffner , or check out the NETRC Calendar to ask about the next workshop.

Certificates and Prior Learning

Adults often re-enter college with more credits than they thought they had! Recognizing that adults are accomplished people with many achievements, most colleges offer college credit for learning that occurs outside the college classroom. For example, certificates and professional training at work, in the military or through community programs, may be evaluated for credit. Northeast Tennessee Reconnect advisors can explain how to make credit transfer work for you and how you can earn college credits for other experiences. Our partner colleges are among those that offer ways to bring in credits for past learning.

Start reflecting on major life achievements and list what you learned and any documentation you have. Do bring your list to your advising session.


There are many affordable college options for adults in our region, and most adults still qualify for federal and state grants and subsidized loans. Private loans should be a last resort as they have fewer consumer protections. This explains Income-based repayment programs for student loans and other loan payment and forgiveness programs.

College Cost Can help you calculate college costs and understand what you’re paying for. Colleges are required to have a cost calculator on their websites, but beware “hidden” costs like student activities fees that adults may not be required to pay.

While the media often highlights the plight of recent college grads with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt, in our experience, these cases are not as common as the media would have you believe. Adult students rarely incur such debt. Research your college choices, and ask about tuition cost for college completion programs, part-time students, evening students, etcetera.

Need help thinking through costs and how to pay for college?

Be sure to ask about total cost, and don’t let yourself be pressured into signing for any loan. Northeast Tennessee Reconnect advisors are very knowledgeable about federal and state financial aid, and can help sort out some questions about costs and loans, but we are not Certified Financial Planners.

Eligibility for Financial Aid

Adults can and should apply for all federal and state financial aid grants and loans. To determine your eligibility and start the process, visit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website at: FAFSA. Dates and sequences to remember: FAFSA funds are replenished each year on January 1 and are allocated on a first come-first served basis, so it literally pays to file early. You will need to have your tax return completed before you file your FAFSA.

Best sites to file the FAFSA

More about Federal financial aid and what happens after you file the FAFSA

  • Learning the ins and outs of student aid, such as learning about your student aid report (SAR) and your estimated family contribution (EFC)

More about Financial Aid available in your state (Important Deadlines!!!)

Defaulted Loans

Get back on track if you have defaulted on a student loan. Payments may be much lower than you expect. Visit or call 1-800-621-3115 for further details. Beware of predatory lenders who offer to “fix” your debt quickly with no payments. If in doubt, speak with a Northeast Tennessee Reconnect advisor, see who your local advisors at MEET YOUR TEAM.

More Financial Resources

Visit for comprehensive information and resources such as repayment calculators, needs analysis, information about commercial savings tools including Section 529 plans (which can be used by adults for themselves and their children) and search tools for scholarships. Ask college financial aid officers about payment options and scholarships.

There are many scholarship sites. Some will require you to pay or give information up front. We urge you to use caution and common sense. You should never have to pay for information about a scholarship. Explore this safe site to identify scholarships. The site also explains the competitiveness of each award and typical award amounts.

Employer Assistance

Ask your employer if you are eligible for tuition benefits and reimbursements that can help you with tuition and related costs. You may learn about programs and opportunities available to you.

Learn More

Plan, research, and ask for guidance. Call us, email us, or visit:


Financial Documents

You will need current and previous year tax returns for filing your FAFSA.


Gather all transcripts from colleges you have attended in the past—no matter when and how long you attended. Sometimes colleges do not place time limits on transcripts. It’s best to collect them from all of your previous schools. Do NOT open official copies, but ask for an unofficial copy (which should be provided for free).

Certificates and Samples of Prior Learning

Collect all Certificates of Completion from places of employment, training, the military, volunteerism, and documents of credit from ACE, Dantes/DSST, CLEP, etc.


Prepare for your meeting with your college advisor by writing down questions that will help you make a decision, such as:

  1. Total costs per course, per semester, and per year, as well as fees and any hidden fees, from start to finish.
  2. Majors, minors, and courses.
  3. Credits that will transfer into different degree options, including the number of transfer credits, and how, when, and where they will transfer into your program plan.
  4. Timeline to degree completion.
  5. Time and delivery of courses: in class, online, day, evening, weekend.
  6. Offices and individual contact information for those you need to contact prior to attending classes, such as: admissions, financial aid, business office, registrar, bookstore.


Create a personal spreadsheet to help you compare college programs, costs, timelines, and other factors important to you. Smoky Mountain Tennessee Reconnect partner colleges are all adult friendly institutions and offer day, evening, weekend, online, face-to-face, and accelerated programs. Research other institutions in our region at

Course Atlas allows you to search colleges by course listings and subject matter, and links to other good resources. Once you have a list of 3-4 colleges it is time to decide and commit to your future!

Buyer beware! Earning a degree is great for many reasons, and most colleges and universities are legit, but know the facts:  U.S. Department of Education College Prep explains why some institutions are not legit and how to identify them.


Once you have found the college program that fits you best, commit to your future, and enroll!


Apply to the college(s) of your choice. Most colleges have an online application, but some require paper applications for specific programs. Many colleges require applying students to test their skills prior to enrollment in order to qualify for college level courses. Accuplacer is a commonly used assessment. If you are required to take the Accuplacer test, do consider preparing well in advance. You will be glad you did. While you may have to refresh your skills in a so-called developmental course, it’s best to minimize the number of these courses you have to take, as they do not accrue credit toward your degree. Even a couple of hours of preparatory study can make the difference between almost-passing and passing the test.

Test Prep

  • ACCUPLACER study app for Android is a great resource. It is available for iPhone ACCUPLACER or search your smartphone store for “The Official ACCUPLACER Study App costing about $1.99.
  • Refresh your knowledge of English grammar.

Personal Application

Keep and secure any document relating to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Safeguard and remember your PIN number and Password. You will need them for future years.


Call and schedule a meeting with your college advisor at your school of choice to review all materials. Bring to the meeting your questions and the information you collected, as listed above.


Congratulations! You are back in college. Adult students have found these tips helpful:

  Be aware and meet all deadlines for registration, course selection, and ongoing tuition and fee payments. Don’t derail yourself by forgetting and missing an important deadline. If you must miss a deadline, talk to the    appropriate department at your new college and explain your situation. Try to reach a mutually acceptable solution. Remember to file annually for financial aid and keep all related paperwork up to date.

  Before your first class, warm up your brain and sharpen your academic skills here and catch up on learning strategies here. Remind yourself about citation rules here ( We recommend that you follow the tutorials and take advantage of the workshops and consultations. Or try tutoring help in math, science, computer science and test prep at Khan Academy.

  Be sure to have your books in time for class. Online sellers offer better prices and used books, but act early.

  Identify and use campus resources: Attend orientations – skipping the orientation is a common mistake adults make. So much important information as well as shortcuts and tips are shared at orientation, and you might find       people you know, or get to know people with the same goals and course schedule. Also find the library and the learning center, and use tutoring services.

  Meet with your college advisor at least once a semester to be sure you are on track with your program and coursework. Make sure you understand the required courses, course sequence, and credit requirements for your degree.

  Develop a good relationship with your professors. Professors appreciate the perspectives adults bring to the classroom. Don’t be afraid to contribute! Contact your professors at office hours or by email if you need help.

  Follow the policies and procedures outlined in your college catalog.

  Try an online course; you may find it gives you more flexibility with your schedule.

  Periodically check your career goals to see if they are still applicable.

  Monitor your financial aid status with your college financial aid office or the appropriate person at your college.

  Once you are back in the classroom, keep these helpful tools handy:

  1. Click here for tips on breaking through writers’ block and improving your writing skills. Scribe is a great toolkit for organizing and keeping track of information when you are writing a college paper. Scribe allows you to manage your research notes, quotes, thoughts, contacts, published and archival sources, digital images, outlines, timelines, and glossary entries.
  2. Here is a site dedicated to citations, and this site provides a quick online reference guide when you want to learn a grammatical rule.
  3. Doing research and starving for information? Need a database with more structure than Google? This easy to use, volunteer supported site can get you started and rolling. Picture many public libraries, researchers and experts organizing well vetted sources on the web and you’ve got The Librarian’s Internet Index. The first truly public online library. Or find a library near you.
  4. Believe it or not Math can indeed be fun (when explained properly). If you’re trying to grasp concepts in math courses such as algebra, geometry, and statistics, this site explains math in ways that are easy to understand and apply. Here you can find more straightforward explanations in algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Don’t forget which explains thousands of concepts in easy to understand 10-minute videos!
  5. Here is another resource on writing, group work, research, note taking, math, business and commercial awareness.

  Seek assistance from your support network if you need help. Meet your Northeast Tennessee Reconnect Community Advisors at MEET YOUR TEAM

  We all have different learning styles, and sometimes the way we interpret concepts is consistently different than the way that most instructors teach them. If this describes your general experience, certainly explore this site for a wealth of options for learners with alternative learning styles.


As you near your final 30 credits, remember to:

  Mark your graduation day on your calendar.

  Hand in all final assignments and make sure you have all your grades.

  Ask your professors for letters of reference for your future studies or career moves.

  Ensure that all forms for graduation are completed and submitted by the deadlines, with required signatures from you, your Advisor, and other college personnel.

  Complete the Application for Graduation.

  Order your cap and gown.

  Enjoy graduation events and festivities.

Don’t forget to let your Northeast Tennessee Reconnect advisor know when you are scheduled to graduate!