Returning to School

In the U.S., the nontraditional student population is rising as more working professionals return to school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), enrollment among 25-34-year-olds increased 41% from 1999-2013, with an additional 17% growth projected through 2024. Similarly, enrollment for students 35 and older increased 25% from 1999-2013. The NCES projects enrollment for this group will grow another 10% through 2024. Many older adults, especially retirees, pursue additional schooling for personal enrichment. Colleges support this endeavor by offering non-credit and community-oriented classes based on learning for its own sake. However, most students return to school to breathe new life into their careers. For some, this means pursuing advancement in their current fields. For others, it means gaining the education needed to succeed in new industries.

Enrollment among 25-34-year-olds increased 41% from 1999-2013, with an additional 17% growth projected through 2024. NCES

Public health is one of the most popular fields for returning students due to the diversity of careers the field encompasses. Graduates can find positions as occupational safety specialists, environmental conservationists, epidemiologists, health information administrators, and health educators. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that all of the aforementioned careers will grow through 2026, especially public health information technicians and educators, who can expect 13% and 16% increases, respectively. While going back to school bolsters pay and career longevity, returning students face substantial obstacles. Challenges include managing costs, juggling work schedules, and meeting family obligations. This guide provides students with the information necessary to find public health programs that suit their financial, professional, and personal needs.

Benefits of Returning to School for Public Health

An associate degree is the entry-level degree for public health professionals. With this credential, individuals can obtain work as administrative assistants and other supporting roles. Associate degree holders can advance their careers by pursuing diplomas and certification. However, students who want to access a wider spectrum of public health jobs should complete a bachelor’s program. Baccalaureate programs feature comprehensive study, hands-on training through internships, and networking opportunities. Students may choose from a bachelor of science or a bachelor of arts program. The former prepares students for health sciences careers in areas like pathobiology, pharmacy, and nutritional science. The latter degree centers on the sociocultural aspects of public health, allowing graduates to take on work in such areas as government policy, health education, and nonprofit administration.

Regardless of their particular academic plans, returning students generally enjoy support from employers, including financial assistance through tuition reimbursement programs.

Public health graduate and doctoral degrees cultivate the human resource and management skills necessary for leadership positions. These occupations enjoy the highest growth and significant salaries. The BLS projects that jobs for community services managers and health services directors will grow 18% and 20% through 2026, respectively. Additionally, professionals may advance their careers by pursuing specializations in high-need areas like biostatistics, program planning, and environmental health. Individuals can also earn professional certificates through such organizations as the National Board of Public Health Examiners. Regardless of their particular academic plans, returning students generally enjoy support from employers, including financial assistance through tuition reimbursement programs.

Online Public Health Programs for Returning Students

Returning students greatly benefit from online programs. The flexibility of online courses allows working professionals to pursue their degree part-time or full-time while maintaining career and family obligations. Distance education also comes with financial benefits, including in-state tuition rates and even discounted prices. The Online Learning Consortium reports that approximately 30% of students took at least one online class in 2017. The same report states that 68% of distance learners attend public colleges and universities, which offer more program options and lower tuition than private institutions.

Online public health programs also provide enhanced accessibility through asynchronous classes. With no scheduled meeting times, these classes enable students to access course materials, collaborate with peers, and engage with instructors at their convenience. Because online classes work through integrative platforms like Canvas and Blackboard, students can learn from their laptop, desktop, and cell phone. Additionally, distance education allows students to save money by living at home. Online students cut down on commuting, parking, and related costs.

Public health degree plans usually include internship requirements. Graduate programs, especially in the health sciences, also require practicums and clinical training. Most schools allow online students to fulfill these requirements through organizations in their local communities. Many colleges even allow students to complete internship hours with their current employer.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Returning students can save money and time by transferring in their prior college credits. Depending on the university, students can fulfill up to half their public health degree plan with transfer credits. For conventional bachelor’s and master’s programs, this translates to 60 and 18 credits, respectively. Students begin the transfer process by speaking with an academic adviser. They also need to request an official transcript from their former school by contacting the registrar’s office and paying a processing fee.

Each school enforces its own transfer guidelines, assessment methods, and maximum credit allowances. Returning students also need to pay attention to date. Though college credits do not technically expire, some schools reject credits that fail to meet current academic and professional standards. Public health encompasses several subjects and careers, some of which evolve rapidly due to technology and complex government regulations. To this end, coursework students completed 10 or 20 years ago may not pass evaluation. However, general education credits transfer easily due to the core nature of their content. Introductory math, science, literature, and history classes do not change much with age. Returning students should also take note of their former school’s accreditation. Regionally accredited schools may not accept credits from nationally accredited schools.

Transferrable Credits

Students who transfer between public institutions in the same state benefit from a streamlined process that guarantees almost no credits go unused. To make higher education accessible to students of all backgrounds, community colleges maintain direct transfer agreements with local universities. Students can also easily transfer between member institutions in the same network (for example, University of Nevada Las Vegas and University of Nevada Reno). Returning students should consult their prospective schools for details, including information on course equivalency, class levels, and credit systems.

Course Equivalency

This policy defines how a course from one school compares in content and learning outcomes to a course from another school. Through assessment, a university may decide on direct equivalency. Core public health classes usually work this way. A returning student who took introduction to epidemiology from a community college can trust that it applies to the same level course at a public university. Schools can also decide on limited equivalency. For instance, a public affairs or art history class may only transfer as general elective work.

Course Level

Of all courses, 100-level and 200-level classes transfer the easiest because of their standardized content and learning outcomes. For public health students, these courses include biostatistics and human behavior. Coursework at the 300 level and above contains advanced topics connected to a college’s distinct focus and faculty specializations. These potential differences make high-level classes difficult to transfer. Associate degrees usually only include 100-level or 200-level courses, and thus easily transfer to new institutions.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers

On a semester system, classes last for 16 weeks each spring, summer, and fall. Most classes result in three credits. Schools that organize their academic year into multiple spring, fall, winter, and summer sessions often follow a quarter system. These classes mostly result in five credits. For a bachelor’s degree, this difference means that semester-based students need 120 credits to graduate, while quarter-based students must earn 180. Returning students should consult this conversion guide when transferring between schools with different credit systems. They should also speak with prospective school advisers for details.

College Credit for Work Experience

In addition to prior coursework, returning students may also earn credits for volunteer work, civic engagement, workplace training, professional certification or licensure, military training, or work experience. Colleges and universities even award credits for independent study and research. However, students do not earn credit automatically. Learners need to prove that they gained knowledge and skills equivalent to college-level courses. Prior learning assessment (PLA) methods vary by school, as do the number of credits students can receive. As with other transfer processes, students should pay careful attention to their school’s institutional accreditation and policies for assessing prior learning.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

With guidance from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, universities use four main PLA categories: standardized exams, challenges exams, individual assessments, and evaluation of non-college education and training. Schools may use additional PLA methods to address their own teaching and learning philosophies. Experienced public health professionals benefit most from individual assessment and non-college education and training evaluation.

Standardized Exams

High school students can take International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement exams in order to earn PLA credits. Returning students can use DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST) and the College Level Exam Program (CLEP). DSST exam topics include ethics in America, the physical sciences, substance abuse, and foundations of education. Offered by College Board, CLEP consists of 33 tests in areas like information systems, introduction to sociology, mathematics, and the natural sciences. Public health students can earn the most credits by taking both exams.

Challenge Exams

This method allows returning students to earn credits by taking final examinations for actual courses at their university. Challenge exams may also include departmental, institutional, or faculty-developed exams. These tests undergo evaluation and revision before schools use them as challenge exams. This process makes them one of the best ways to assess a student’s knowledge and skills as defined by relevant college departments. Challenge exams also align with specific coursework, so the resulting credits stand a better chance of fulfilling major requirements.

Individual Assessments

To gain transfer credits through individual assessment, students compile a portfolio of their prior learning experiences. These experiences may include volunteer work, community engagement, non-credit learning, and professional work. Experienced faculty members evaluate portfolios and award credits as they deem appropriate. Schools may also hire an external organization to judge portfolios. As part of the assessment, students may need to sit for an interview or complete a performance-based evaluation. For public health students, this may include facilitating an educational workshop.

Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training

This PLA method examines official volunteer, military, and workplace training that may or may not have resulted in licensure or certification. Schools generally ask the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) and the American Council on Education (ACE) to oversee these evaluations. NCCRS gathers three professors who teach the relevant subject to evaluate the training. ACE works with the U.S. Department of Defense to judge military service and occupational training. Additionally, employers may partner with local colleges and universities to develop workplace training specifically for transfer credit.

How PLA Credits Transfer

While PLA standards exist, universities may impose different policies based on which learning outcomes they prioritize and how they want returning students to engage with their program. Some schools award credits, while others waive course requirements. If students receive credits through PLA, they generally apply to open electives or general education classes. If prior learning results in direct equivalency, students can apply the credits toward major prerequisite and core requirements. For public health students, equivalent courses include introduction to the U.S. healthcare system and global food systems. Students should research their prospective school’s PLA policies, especially transferability between schools. One college might grant nine credits for a professional license, while another might grant six or none at all.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Returning students benefit from loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study positions. Because public health is a broad field, students enjoy ample financial aid opportunities for a variety of careers. Options include awards for professionals in reproductive health, victim advocacy, food safety, and environmental sustainability.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) allows students to apply for multiple work-study positions, grants, and loans simultaneously. Established through the 1965 Higher Education Act, the FAFSA works under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Education. The FAFSA also helps students and their families find the right school, determine college costs, and plan for loan repayment. Students of all ages can apply for FAFSA awards. According to the FAFSA data by demographic characteristics, 45% of 2015-2016 applicants were 25 years or older. Even individuals with criminal convictions may access limited FAFSA assistance. To receive aid, returning students need to meet basic eligibility criteria, including demonstrable financial need and U.S. citizenship or eligible non-citizenship. Applicants must also show acceptance or enrollment in an accredited postsecondary program.

45% of 2015-2016 FAFSA applicants were 25 years or older. FAFSA data

All students go through the same application process. The FAFSA opens on October 1 for fall of the following year. Candidates have until June 30 to submit the application. However, students should complete their FAFSA as soon as possible to guarantee funds and make changes if necessary. States usually mandate earlier deadlines and schools operate on their own timeframes. Though optional, the FAFSA strongly recommends that students sign up for a federal student aid ID before they begin the application. The FSA ID acts as an government-approved electronic signature. It also provides protection from identity theft and enables students to access all FSA systems.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number

Students need to provide a Social Security Number (SSN) or Alien Registration Number (RSN). These numbers respectively affirm U.S. citizenship and eligible non-citizenship, without which students cannot access the FAFSA. Undocumented students, who are usually ineligible for an SSN or RSN, do not benefit from federal aid. However, they may still access state and institutional funding. Undocumented students can also seek out private awards, including scholarships through organizations like Educators for Fair Consideration.

Driver’s License Number

As an optional step, returning students can provide their driver’s license or state identification number. This information helps the FAFSA confirm applicant identity. Driving record does not affect a student’s chance of receiving financial aid or the amount they get. The FAFSA also does not punish students without a state ID.

Federal Tax Information

Students must provide their federal tax information from the previous year. Applicants who do not believe that the tax year in use accurately reflects their current income should contact prospective schools. Institutions possess the power to amend students’ financial information and ultimately how much funding they receive.

Records of Untaxed Income

The FAFSA asks for untaxed income from the same year as the student’s federal tax information. This can include unreported earnings (like a server’s tips), child support, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits. Returning students also need to report miscellaneous untaxed benefits and income through a sum amount. The FAFSA help services page provides additional information.

Information on Assets

Returning students must report assets, including investments like real estate, stocks, and bonds. The FAFSA also asks for the total amounts in checking and saving accounts. Unlike taxed and untaxed income, reported assets reflect current amounts for the day students begin their application. Because this step tends to confuse students, the FAFSA offers assistance through its 12 common FAFSA mistakes guide.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

To determine a student’s financial need, the FAFSA subtracts expected family contributions (EFC) from total cost of attendance (COA). The calculate EFC, the FAFSA draws from information students provide on their application, including benefits, assets, and taxed and untaxed income. The FAFSA also factors in family size and how many members currently attend postsecondary institutions. COA includes tuition, housing, books, and other expenses. Returning students also benefit from allowances for dependents and child care. While the FAFSA usually calculates COA for an entire academic year, students might receive aid for a different time frame if they enroll in an 18-month certificate or similar program.

Total funding breaks down into need-based and non-need-based awards. Need-based funds assist students based on their calculated financial need. For instance, if a student’s COA totals $25,000 and their EFC equals $15,000, then they may receive up to $10,000 in need-based funds. The FAFSA then uses this number to determine a student’s non-need-based awards. For example, if a student’s COA totals $25,000 and they receive $10,000 in need-based funds, the FAFSA allows them to access $15,000 in non-need-based awards. Need-based funds include Direct Subsidized Loans and Pell Grants. Non-need-based awards include Direct Unsubsidized Loans and PLUS Loans.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students



Returning students should prioritize scholarships, since they do not need to repay these awards. Scholarships generally come from colleges, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Students should also seek out scholarships from professional organizations like the Florida Public Health Association.


Like scholarships, grants do not require students to pay back any portion of their award. The federal government offers several grants, including Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants.

Federal Loans

Unlike grants and scholarships, student need to repay all loans. The FAFSA provides federal loans, including subsidized and unsubsidized options. Subsidized loans do not accrue interest while students are in school and may not accrue interest after graduation if candidates work with federal organizations like AmeriCorps.

Private Loans

Though easier to obtain, students should use private loans as a last resort. Banks, credit unions, and other lenders charge high interest rates. Unlike federal loans, students need to pay back private loans while they are still in school.


School Aid

Returning students often receive awards from their colleges and universities. Schools provide general awards, like a Dean’s scholarship, and field-specific funding, such as Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health scholarships.

Federal Aid

Students receive federal loans, grants, and work-study funds by applying with the FAFSA. Federal aid also includes work-study and loan forgiveness programs.

State Financial Aid

States usually offer need-based scholarships and grants. However, some states also provide awards based on merit and field of study. For example, Washington opportunity scholarships benefit select STEM and health majors.

Privately Funded Scholarships

Returning students should seek additional awards through businesses and nonprofit associations in their communities. Professional organizations are another great source of private scholarships. Public health majors can apply for several undergraduate awards from the National Institutes of Health.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Like undergraduate students, individuals who want to earn their master’s degree, doctorate, or post-baccalaureate certificate in public health also benefit from the FAFSA. Graduate candidates start their application at the same time (October 1) and must meet the same deadlines and basic eligibility criteria. The FAFSA data by demographic characteristics states that approximately 2.2 million graduate and professional students applied for federal aid during the 2015-2016 academic year.

Approximately 2.2 million graduate and professional students applied for federal aid during the 2015-2016 academic year.

Returning graduate students can benefit from Pell Grants and federal work-study programs. They may also access Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Direct PLUS Loans. Unsubsidized loans allow students to borrow up to $20,500 per school year, while PLUS loans enable them to exceed this amount. Public health students interested in teaching can apply for TEACH Grants. Graduate candidates cannot benefit from federal subsidized loans, meaning the loans students borrow accrue interest even while they are in school.

States offer financial aid through their respective grant agencies. In addition to general student aid, colleges and universities provide scholarships, research grants, and travel funding specifically for graduate candidates. Returning students should also seek support from their employers, particularly through tuition reimbursement programs. Nonprofit and professional organizations represent another source of funding. The list below details six scholarships and grants for public health professionals.

Scholarships and Grants for Adult and Mid-Career Students

Albert W. Dent Graduate Student Scholarship

  • Amount: $5,000

Sponsored by the American College of Healthcare Executives, this award assists minority students pursuing a master of public health in healthcare administration or a similar field. Candidates must hold U.S. or Canadian citizenship. Students also need to demonstrate financial need.

More Information

Association of Food & Drug Officials Scholarships

  • Amount: $1,500

Undergraduate juniors may apply for this award if they hold a minimum 3.0 GPA and demonstrate leadership capabilities. Candidates also need to prove career interest in food, drug, or consumer product safety.

More Information

Cory L. Richards Memorial Scholarship

  • Amount: $15,000

Endowed by the Guttmacher Institute, this scholarship provides funding to full-time graduate students who show a commitment to sexual and reproductive health. Applicants must demonstrate strong community engagement, especially through advocacy for marginalized persons.

More Information

Tylenol Future Care Scholarship

  • Amount: $5,000-10,000

This one-time scholarship assists public health students at all levels. Undergraduate candidates must have completed at least one year of their degree program. All students must have at least one year of school left. The committee judges candidates based on academic performance, community activism, and essay content.

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Vivian Drenckhahn Student Scholarship

  • Amount: $2,500

This award offers funds to undergraduate and graduate public health students with a career interest in health education or related fields. Candidates must be one-third of the way through their degree program. Students also need to hold Society for Public Health Education membership.

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NEHA/AAS Scholarship

  • Amount: $1,000-2,000

The award accepts applications from all environmental health and public health students. Undergraduate candidates must currently attend a program affiliated with the Environmental Health Accreditation Council or the National Environmental Health Association. Graduate applicants must have at least one year left in an approved environmental health program.

More Information

Tips for a Successful Return to School

To ease into a rigorous course schedule, returning students should seek planning and skill assistance from academic success staff at their school, including librarians, academic advisers, and career counselors. Students should also follow these tips:

Brush Up on Tech Skills

To facilitate integrative and accessible learning, universities incorporate technologies such as online research databases, cloud storage, and collaborative software. Returning students should seek training from their school’s library or tech services to brush up on these crucial skills.

Find a Support Network

In addition to conventional campus services and student groups, returning students can gain support from adult success centers and childcare services. Students can also seek assistance from professional organizations such as Alpha Sigma Lambda, an honor society for nontraditional students.

Choose a Flexible Program

Many colleges and universities provide night and weekend classes that only meet one or two times per week. Returning students may opt for entirely online coursework and degree programs. They can also combine in-person and remote classes to create a hybrid learning experience.