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.
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.
Quarter vs. Semester Transfers
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.
Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training
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
Driver's License Number
Federal Tax Information
Records of Untaxed Income
Information on Assets
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
State Financial Aid
Privately Funded Scholarships
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.More Information
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.More Information
- 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: