How to Deal with Stress as a Nontraditional College Student

Healthy Living

September 6, 2022

College and stress often go hand in hand. There’s so much to think about: papers, tests, tuition and more. But for some students, that’s only the tip of the collegiate iceberg.

In addition to school worries, many adult learners balance heavy life loads. Professional and family obligations demand their attention. And being pulled in so many directions can have a critical effect on students’ mental health.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are ways to protect your mental health while going back to school as an older student.

First, recognize that you’re not alone in needing support. Next, make a plan for safeguarding your health. Finally, become familiar with resources you can turn to in times of need.

Mental Health for Nontraditional Students

If you sense that you’re more stressed than your 20-year-old classmates, you’re probably not wrong. Research shows that adult learners have higher stress levels than their younger peers. They have higher rates of anxiety and depression, too.

Adult students are often called nontraditional or post-traditional students. Any college student over age 24 is part of this group. Many are returning to school after a long break. They may have kids or full-time jobs.

This group often feels like outsiders compared to younger students. They’re not alone though. Nearly half of people in undergrad and graduate programs are adult learners.

Knowing that fact doesn’t lighten the load, of course. Being an older adult in college is still stressful.

Tips for Minimizing College Stress

To get through school, you’ve got to make a plan. The following four tips may help you stay calm and focused.

1) Choose the right school.

You may have the most success at a college with a large population of adult learners. Typically, those schools know how to make things work for nontraditional students. They might offer the right resources to help you balance life and school, such as:

  • Night and weekend classes
  • Online courses
  • Social opportunities aimed at adult learners
  • Career counseling

This piece of advice may be most useful for those who haven’t yet enrolled. But if you’re in the midst of your program and really struggling, take a look at whether it’s worth transferring. Coordinating a transfer can be a lot of work, but it may pave the way for a smoother finish to your studies.

2) Explore all financial aid options.

College costs some serious dough, something that’s true for every student no matter the age. But balancing tuition costs with your everyday life expenses can be a challenge for post-traditional college students. That’s because older adults tend to have more responsibilities, like kids or a mortgage, that make college even less affordable. 

The more financial aid you receive, the lighter this load will be.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the key to unlocking government assistance, but don’t stop there. Some scholarships are designed especially for helping adults go back to school. Apply for as many as you can.

Talk to your HR department, too. Many employers offer tuition benefits. Even if yours doesn’t have an official program, you may be able to present a case for assistance. Emphasize the ways that your education will contribute to your job performance.

Stop by your school’s financial aid office for help as well. The counselors there may have ideas you haven’t considered.

3) Use school resources.

As a post-traditional student, know when to ask for help. Colleges generally want students to succeed, so they have support systems in place.

Visit your professors during their office hours. A 15-minute meeting to clarify a topic you don’t understand is a better use of your time than staring blankly at a textbook for hours.

Take advantage of other school services, too. Pay attention during the intro class that covers technology basics. Ask an academic advisor to help you find a course schedule that meshes with your other commitments. Go to the tutoring office for help with challenging assignments. Visit the career center to make a plan for the future — setting your eyes on the prize may give you the stamina to get through school.

Point being? Your college of choice likely has a whole host of services at the ready to help you make the most of your time there. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of them.

4. Support your body.

It can be tempting to deprioritize your health needs during this busy season. Instead, you should do just the opposite. Poor physical health will only add to your stress level.

Maryville University suggests that adult learners take the following steps to stay healthy:

  • Exercise every day. If needed, break it into short blocks of just 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Get at least seven hours of sleep each night.
  • Plan your meals in advance so that it’s easier to stick to a balanced diet.

Yes, each of these steps will require time out of your day. That can feel really hard when it seems like every minute is already jam-packed. Consider scheduling wellness activities on your calendar. That way, you’ll be less likely to skip them.

Mental Wellness Resources for Students

Proactive stress reduction is helpful, but it doesn’t come with a guarantee. You may need additional help to keep your head above water. That’s what mental health pros are for.

On-campus counseling

If you’re an in-person student — or an online student who lives near campus — try school resources first. Many colleges run on-campus counseling centers. And these services may even be free.

There are caveats, of course. Schools may provide only short-term counseling for individuals. (Support groups may be an ongoing option.)

Also, expect a waiting list. Campus counseling centers are often understaffed.

Finally, the center’s hours may not work for your schedule. Many are open only during regular business hours, which can conflict with work.

Private therapy

If your college’s services don’t meet your needs, consider private therapy.

Your insurance may cover part of the cost. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) includes provisions for mental health. For most plans, that means that coverage for mental health has to match coverage for physical health. Medicaid and Medicare Part B include some mental health services as well.

If you don’t have insurance — or can’t access an in-network provider — look for affordable counseling centers. Some offer sliding-scale fees. Ask the campus counseling center for a referral.

Nontraditional students with federal jobs may have another option. The Employee Assistance Program provides short-term counseling and other support options for workers.

Online mental health services

In today’s digital world, in-person counseling isn’t the only option. Telehealth therapy has become a popular alternative. It often appeals to busy students with packed schedules.

When looking for a provider, start with your health insurance provider, if you have one. Some insurers partner with specific telehealth services, which can lower what you pay for the visit. Others cover care from a variety of online platforms.

Your college might provide online mental health services, too. These resources could include support lines, health assessments or virtual appointments. Ask the counseling center about your options.

Emergency intervention

Finally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available. You can call night or day. The hotline will connect you to a local crisis center. As of July 16, 2022, just dial 988 to reach crisis support staff anywhere in the country.

Going back to school as an adult is admirable, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s tough. Help is available, though. Whether you need a hand with homework or weekly therapy sessions, allow yourself to reach out for support.