In slightly different form, this was the introduction to The Adult Student's Guide, which I put together two editions of (now sadly out of print). Most of it draws on my experiences as a professor in both adult and traditional college programs, as well as that of my students and of administrators I've known. The financial aid section of the essay which was a) heavily out of date and b) mostly written by my ex-wife, has been deleted.
Just because you're not eighteen anymore doesn't mean you're not nervous about going back to school again. A lot of eighteen-year-olds go to college because they think it's what they're supposed to do after they finish high school. You're in college for a reason. And Mom and Dad aren't paying the bills anymore, either.
There are many different kinds of programs for adult learners, and some of them will be a better fit for you than others. You will encounter a different kind of administrator and bureaucracy than you may be used to, as well as new kinds of classroom learning. You will have to make adjustments in your life, as the demands of a college education compete with both family and work for your time. And you will have to find a way to pay for college.
Picking the Right Program
What features should you look for in a program? Should you confine yourself to an adult-oriented program, or should you opt for more traditional study? What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?
While an adult-oriented program might be oriented toward your needs (or your needs as the college administration sees them), traditional programs have their strengths as well. Before choosing a program, you need to be aware of what it can and can't offer, and make certain that its strengths mesh with your needs as a student.
What sort of program and major are you looking for? Many adult student programs are very narrowly focused in what they offer. Since most adult programs have limited resources, they tend to specialize in a few areas for which there is a lot of demand. This may mean a lot of business courses and not much else, or it may mean that only two or three majors are available in a certain program. That's fine if the program meets your needs - if you're looking for a lot of business courses, or the major you want is one of the school's specialty areas. It's not so good if you haven't yet decided what you're looking for, or if the courses you need are only occasionally offered because of sparse demand. It's important to evaluate what an adult program can and can't offer you before you make a commitment.
Traditional programs, by contrast, tend to offer more choices but in a less-focused way. There will be a broader range of course offerings and majors available, but those courses will be at less convenient times and not structured to adult students. While some evening or weekend courses may be offered, you will not be able to complete a degree without taking daytime classes as well. The majority of your classmates will be in their late teens or early twenties with a limited base of knowledge and life experience; some of them will have only the foggiest notion of why they are in college. As a result, classes will tend to be less focused, and will spend more time on material you already know. Student services in a traditional program will be geared toward the needs and concerns of eighteen- to-twenty-two-year-olds, and may not be helpful or available at convenient times.
What times and days are classes scheduled? Most adult programs offer classes on evenings and/or weekends. Some meet as seldom as every other weekend. It's important to look over a full year's course schedule before you commit to a program. Don't assume that the class times will be convenient until you have actually looked at how classes are scheduled. You don't want to take the first half of a required two-semester course and then discover that the second half is only offered on the night you have to work late. With adult courses meeting only once a week, you can't afford to miss even one class session unless it's an emergency.
Traditional programs tend to offer more flexibility in terms of class schedule (although you don't want to take this for granted). It may or may not be a big deal if you miss a class or two. On the other hand, the classes are likely to be held at less convenient times, meet much more frequently, and the instructors may be less flexible in their ability to work with your schedule.
How wide a selection of classes is available? Will you be able to get the classes you need for your major? Just because a major is offered in theory doesn't mean you'll be able to get all the courses you need to finish your degree in a reasonable time period. Most adult programs can offer only a very limited number of courses, and they will focus on the courses required by the most popular majors, with a couple of other courses thrown in to be used as electives. Courses offered may also be chosen based on the courses employers are most likely to reimburse students for. In other words, you don't want to be one of the three communication majors in a program with fifty-seven business majors, regardless of whether the communication major is theoretically available or not. Make sure you know what courses are required for your major, how often those courses are offered (and if they are at convenient times), and how many other students there are in your prospective major.
How helpful and available are the school administrators? This will vary dramatically from program to program, and will depend on the commitment of the school, the structure of the program, and the personalities of its administrators. Many adult programs have only one or two full-time administrators. This can be helpful at times, since it means that you will be dealing with the same person consistently, won't be given different answers to the same question from day to day, and will know who to go to for help in clearing up problems. On the other hand, it means programs often feel dramatically understaffed, aren't always able to respond quickly to problems, and will not always have someone available to answer questions at a convenient time. There is likely to be a staffer around at night or on weekends when you have classes, so you probably won't have to make a special trip to handle routine paperwork problems. On the other hand, if you don't get along with a program administrator, you're pretty much stuck; you can't go to another counselor and avoid the problem person. You also will want to find out if the program administrators will work with you through the entire admissions and financial aid process, or if your file will be handled by the college's regular admissions, financial aid, and bursar's offices. If so, be certain to find out if those offices have late hours, and if they're comfortable working with nontraditional students.
If you enroll in a traditional program, you will want to locate administrators who are used to working with nontraditional students, and who are familiar with adult-student problems. Offices generally will not be open late on a regular basis (often just one night per week, if that), and while there will be more administrators, they may be less readily available to help adult students - who are traditionally self-sufficient and require little hand-holding - because they will be busy trying to rescue forlorn eighteen-year-olds and fend off their disgruntled parents.
Is there financial aid available? Will the financial aid office help you get your employer to pay for classes? There is a surprising amount of financial aid available for adult and part-time students. Actually, it's not so much that there's a lot available, as that these programs are underpublicized, and so there are often few applicants for the money. Administrators in an adult-student program will most likely not be financial aid professionals. It's best to check in with the school's financial aid office, to make certain all of your applications are correct and to find out if there are other benefits you might be eligible for. Look carefully at any aid package you are offered - many of them are weighted heavily toward loans, and you may not want to take out thousands of dollars in new loans.
Adult programs typically have a number of ways to make payment easier, and are often more flexible in this regard than traditional college programs. Many will allow you to split the tuition into several payments spread over the course of the semester. If your employer picks up part of the cost, you may be able to defer part of the payment until the end of the semester (generally, employers don't pay until they see how you've done in the course). Adult program administrators will almost always be able to help you if you want to try to get your employer to help pay for classes.
How is the faculty made up? Will you be able to get the quality of instruction, and the amount of attention, you need? Adult program faculty members may be members of the college's regular faculty who have been persuaded to teach at night or on weekends; part-time faculty drawn from a pool of underemployed college instructors without full-time positions; or local business or community experts recruited by the program because of their expertise (or their availability). Most of these faculty members will be used to teaching adult students and will structure their courses toward adult learners. However, faculty members used to teaching eighteen-year-olds may have a difficult time adjusting to adult learning styles, and may be unpleasant to work with.
You will want to find out who teaches the courses you know you'll be taking. Does the adult program use the same instructors regularly, or are they always changing instructors and adding new teachers at the last moment? Are the instructors helpful and easy to work with? Are they comfortable with adult students? Do not trust the program administrators' answers to these questions; they will feel obligated to stick up for the program faculty. Talk to students who have been in the program for two or three semesters. You should also ask those students if there are professors whose courses are particularly worth taking, or who ought to be avoided at all costs.
How much credit for life experience and prior education will you be able to get? You have probably done and learned things that are equivalent to college courses, and ought to be able to get credit for that learning. Adult programs are generally more willing to give credit for life experience than traditional programs, since it's one of the ways they attract students. However, it's best to find out the school's policy on life experience credit before enrolling (and if possible to be evaluated in advance, while they are still enticing you). Some schools will give credit generously, but charge hefty fees for that credit. Others will charge you tuition for those credits as if you had taken an actual course. Still others may charge little or nothing for life experience credits.
What are the other students like? Talk with some of the students who are already in the program, and if possible, some of the other prospective students. Are these people you want to spend a lot of time with over the next several years? Is it a diverse group that will bring different viewpoints and experiences into the classroom? In a strong program, you will learn as much from your fellow students as from your professors. The other students will be your support network as well.
Types of Adult Programs
What kinds of adult programs are there?
In general, there are five kinds of adult programs: special admissions programs, evening programs, weekend programs, accelerated programs, and degree completion programs. Many colleges combine more than one program style.
Special admissions programs are designed to help adult learners begin or return to school. The admissions process is built around the experiences of adults, and relies more on interviews and life or work experience than on test scores and high school transcripts. Most adult programs have some form of special admissions process, and many continue to give special support to adult students throughout their college days. Some colleges have a special admissions process and support services for adult learners, but no other adult-oriented programs: Students attend during the day in the same classes as traditional-aged students.
Evening programs are the most common kind of adult-degree program. Classes typically meet one night a week for three hours. Sometimes classes will meet two nights a week, with sessions stacked so you can take two classes each night (for instance, one class from 5:30 to 7:00
Weekend programs usually meet on Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and Saturday afternoons, usually for four hours. A few offer classes on Sundays as well. Some weekend classes meet every weekend, while others meet every other weekend, typically with some sort of guided independent study in the nonclass weekends.
Accelerated programs may be evening or weekend classes (or more rarely daytime courses). They generally are designed to fit a full class's worth of learning into a five- to eight-week period. Classes might meet one or two nights a week for four hours, or over several entire weekends. Usually, students are expected to do a great deal of independent work to make up for the lack of classroom time. Often, they are designed to allow adult learners to be considered full-time students for financial aid purposes. Another way of accelerating classes is to schedule courses into trimesters (meeting in the fall, winter, and spring), rather than the traditional fall and spring semesters.
Degree completion programs are designed for students who already have some college experience, usually an associate's degree or about 60 transferable credits (usually that means they're from an accredited institution and you got a C or better in those classes) worth of general education courses. Degree completion programs are designed to provide the rest of the courses you need to finish your degree within one to two years.
Most degree completion programs are also accelerated. Often they are based on cohort learning, meaning you will be part of a group of students that stays together throughout the entire program. Cohorts may be subdivided into small study groups that meet weekly as well.
In modular degree completion programs, courses are taken in lock-step; you take one accelerated course at a time, and each course builds on the one before it. Modular programs usually do not have much flexibility. You can't vary the courses you take or the order you take them in. You may or may not be able to change cohorts if you are in a group that's not a good fit. But if the program is a good fit for you, and you're comfortable with cohort learning, modular degree completion programs can be a tremendous learning experience, with each learning group keeping its members focused and providing a support network for each other.
Picking the Right Major
How do you choose a major that fits in with your life goals thus far? What majors should adults avoid?
The majority of adult program majors are business oriented. There are reasons for this: Adult programs are designed for working professionals, many of whom see a lot of value in business courses. What's more, employers see value in those courses too, and are more apt to pay for them. Some employers will reimburse students only if they are business majors, or only if a course title sounds business related.
But that doesn't mean a business program is what you're looking for. While adult programs may not offer many majors, they often try to make up for it by making it easier for you to design your own major around your needs as a student and a working professional. While there is value in this, there are some drawbacks as well. Your current needs may not match your long-term needs; the focus that looks important now may be less relevant in a few years. You may be better off with a more versatile major, with a broad grounding in the liberal arts.
Another danger to customized majors is that they are not always readily accepted or understood by potential or current employers. Everybody knows what a major in finance or economics or English or history means, and what kind of work you had to do to get that degree. People aren't so sure about majors in organizational leadership (a common degree completion program major) or a bachelor of general studies. You may have worked just as hard to get the degree, and learned just as much, but that doesn't mean your degree will get the same recognition. If you work in a field where your choice of major may count against you (or plan on moving into such a field), then you may want to steer clear of what one traditionally minded adult administrator refers to as "MUMs," for "made-up majors."
Are there other costs beyond those listed on the program brochure?
There are always other costs beyond those listed on the program brochure, some small, some large. Books and supplies may vary wildly in price depending on your major and the community where you attend school. Some students can pick up required texts in used bookstores and from other students selling them cheaply, or have a large community's resources to draw upon. You may need uniforms or other professional paraphernalia depending on your major (nursing, for instance), and while the adult program office or other students usually can give advice on where to shop, the costs can add up.
Parking is a hidden expense. There may or may not be school parking lots available, depending on where the school is located, how much faculty- and administrative-only parking is allotted, whether traditional undergraduates are allowed to bring cars on campus, the amount of construction going on (parking lots seem to be frequent casualties of construction), and whether public transit is nearby. Check with the college regarding parking fees and required stickers; you don't want to leave class at night to find out your car has been towed because you parked in the wrong lot. Plus, there's the wear and tear on your car and your gas expense to factor in each semester. If you commute via mass transit (or combine driving with mass transit, such as a park-and-ride), you also need to take into account your monthly or weekly train pass or bus fare when budgeting your semester's expenses.
Food is a hidden, and sometimes sneaky, expense. That cup of coffee and bagel before that first Saturday class, combined with that second cup of coffee during the morning class break, combined with lunch and/or dinner snatched on campus or at a fast-food restaurant, can add up to a surprising amount spent per week.
Materials and lab fees, student activity fees, athletic center fees, health insurance fees (if you're not insured by an employer), transcript fees, payment plan fees, late payment fees, Internet access fees, and other miscellaneous fees need to be taken into account each semester. Some schools have low tuition rates and high student fees, while some prorate or waive certain fees for part-time students. Check with your bursar's office, financial aid office, or adult program office to find out which fees are covered by financial aid and which are not.
You may pay tuition on a per-credit-hour basis or at a flat rate based on the number of credits for which you enroll in a given semester. If you enroll in an extended payment plan (many schools have them, either administered by the school itself or an outside provider), you make several payments on the semester's tuition instead of paying in full at registration. Be prepared to be charged a fee for this service, and check to see whether part-time students are permitted to enroll in the plan.
Credit for Life, Work, and Prior College Experience
Can you get credit for being an adult (prior college work, on-the-job learning, etc.)? If so, what sorts of life experiences are translatable into credit hours, and how can you assemble documentation?
There are three ways to get college credit for prior learning: transfer credit, lifelong learning credit, and credit by examination. Some colleges will also give credit for certain noncollegiate training programs in industry, government, or the military, usually only those approved by the American Council on Education (ACE).
How does transfer credit work? How long are my old credits good for? Transfer credit is granted by a college for courses taken previously at another institution. Every college has its own rules about accepting transfer credit, and it's a good idea to look at those rules closely. If you have credits you would like to transfer, try to get your new school to give you an idea of how many credits they will transfer before you enroll.
Usually credits will only be accepted from a regionally accredited institution (meaning a school that isn't an obvious academic disaster). There is also often a minimum grade below which a course will not be accepted, usually a C or C- (but sometimes as high as a B). If a college accepts transfer credits from unaccredited schools, or will transfer courses with grades of D, it may be a warning sign. Schools will sometimes accept low grades if they are part of a completed associate's degree, particularly if they have an articulation agreement (a general agreement to accept a certain number of a two-year college's courses for transfer) with that institution.
Some schools will only accept transfer credits that are compatible with your current major, or will only transfer courses that are equivalent to classes listed in your new college's catalog. Both of these restrictions can cost you a lot of extra time and money, but they often can be appealed, if you can demonstrate (and document) how a course is relevant to your current major. Don't be afraid to speak up and explain why you think you should get credit for your courses (be very polite, though).
Be careful of transfer policies that won't evaluate your credit until you complete a certain number of courses at the new school. At that point, you're stuck with whatever they want to give you. Try to get a firm, written commitment on transfer credits before you enroll - while the school's still trying to entice you.
If you have very old college credits, don't assume they will transfer - but don't assume that they won't, either. Some schools will take ten- or twenty-year-old credits, and many adult programs are at least willing to look at them on a case-by-case basis. You have a better chance with basic distribution courses that don't change much, and that you can show you've been using in your life - introductory math courses, for instance. You can pretty much forget about fifteen-year-old computer courses.
Some schools put limits on how many transfer credits they will accept for nontraditional courses. Usually this is intended to apply to correspondence courses and other forms of distance learning, but if you're not careful, schools may refuse to accept credits for prior evening or weekend courses.
How about life experience credit? How do I assemble a portfolio? And how much should I expect to pay? Many adult programs will grant credit for prior learning that is equivalent to what you might have learned in a college course. Although there are a number of ways to assess prior learning, by far the most common is through portfolio evaluation. You assemble a portfolio - which may consist of life-learning essays, letters from employers, or other documentation - that demonstrates how the material you have learned is equivalent to a particular course offered at the college. The portfolio is assessed by one or more evaluators - usually someone who teaches the course in question - and a decision is made on whether or not you've actually earned the credit you're applying for.
In practice, you should have a pretty good idea whether you're going to get credit going into the evaluation. Many programs require you to take (and pay for) a portfolio development course before you assemble your documentation, and you will usually be given guidance along the way.
In addition to the cost of the portfolio development course, you usually pay twice for portfolio credit (although it's almost always much cheaper than paying for equivalent courses would be). There is an assessment charge, which pays for the time of the person who actually looks at the portfolio, and discourages people who don't have much chance of getting credit from clogging up the department with portfolios. There is also a charge per credit - sometimes for each credit you're granted, but other times for each credit you apply for, whether you get it or not. Usually, life experience credit costs between a third and half of what tuition for the courses themselves would be.
How do I get examination credits? There are a number of standardized examinations that it's possible to get college credit for, and some institutions will grant credit for departmental, or challenge examinations as well. By far the most commonly accepted exams are CLEP and AP exams. AP exams are for advanced placement in high school, and usually they can only be taken by high school students. They may or may not be accepted by colleges if they're more than a few years old. (AP exams are not listed in the entries because few adult students use them, but they are accepted by nearly every college.) CLEP examinations, the College Level Examination Program administered by the College Board, are designed to measure knowledge in adult learners. There is a general exam and there are also exams in individual subjects. Which of these you can credit for, and how much credit you can get, varies widely from school to school. CLEP examinations cost a little over $50 each, and there is usually no additional charge from a college for granting CLEP credits. Some other, less commonly accepted exams/standards are DANTES, which measures knowledge gained in the armed services, and the American Council on Testing's ACT PEP exams, which are most commonly accepted in nursing programs. Other exams are accepted regionally, and have been listed in the entries as appropriate.
It never hurts to ask about credit, if you think you've legitimately gained knowledge in an area (and can document it). Some colleges will grant physical education credits to anyone who's successfully completed military basic training, for instance.
Things to Avoid
How do you deal with the college bureaucracy as a professional adult without making deadly enemies?
The trick is to assess your college's bureaucracy as you would a business and act accordingly. Some college policies and procedures may seem arbitrary to you as both a student and a professional adult, but there is generally a reason behind most of them. That reason may be driven by federal, state, or institutional regulations - or may be a quirk of your college's administrative structure that the administrators you're dealing with don't like any more than you do but have no power to change.
The first and last rule in not making deadly administrative enemies is a simple one: be polite. No matter how frustrated or upset you are or how just you believe your grievance to be, screaming at an administrator is not going to help your cause and will get you tagged as a “problem” student.
Administrators and faculty members talk to each other more than students may realize; if you blow up at a financial aid counselor and start screaming and calling him or her nasty names, he or she may mention it to your adult program advisor, who may then mention it to your professors, and both the financial aid counselor and program advisor may make notes in your files in their offices (especially if you lost control enough to make threats), and you may have ruined any possibility of making allies in several very important offices.
If you lose your temper - lots of students do, sooner or later - take a deep breath and apologize as sincerely as you can. Most administrators understand your frustration better than you think. They've seen it many times before, and they may be just as powerless to do anything about it (especially if it involves federal or state regulations), but that doesn't mean they don't empathize with you. However, as an adult student, the onus is on you to act like an adult.
Don't yield to the temptation to treat an administrator who looks younger than you - or is dressed more casually than you feel appropriate for work - like a child. Appearances can be very deceiving, depending on the college's office culture. That twenty-something administrator wearing jeans may be controlling a key financial aid program or be in charge of evaluating your transfer credits.
Try to get names and titles correct when corresponding with administrators and professors; a letter of complaint or appeal addressed “Mr. So-and-So” to a program director with an obviously female name (“Sally So-and-So, Director of Admissions”) may not make the impression you wanted. Titles are important in the college community just as in other business communities, and sometimes more so.
Finishing a Degree
How can you graduate as quickly as possible without having a nervous breakdown? Is an accelerated program beneficial, and how will it affect your financial aid and job possibilities?
In general, it's to your advantage to finish school as quickly as possible. You aren't eighteen years old; you aren't going to college to soak up the experience of academic life and gradually ease your way into adulthood. You're going to college to get your degree, because that degree (and the knowledge that you pick up in the process of getting it) is going to help you in achieving other goals. When you decide how quickly you want to pursue your degree, you will need to think out how you want to balance your life for the next few years. If you take things too quickly, your academic work may interfere with work, family, and other aspects of your life, causing tensions that will make both school and life much more difficult. If you take too long, other problems in your life are bound to crop up and demand your attention.
Here are some things to consider in deciding what balance is best for you:
How much time can you devote to classes every week? Remember that college classes take up much more time than just the hours in class - no matter what the program brochure says. You will probably spend several hours reading for every hour you spend in class. You will spend time researching, writing papers, and studying for exams. You will spend time traveling to and from classes, and time talking with the other students before and after class. All of these things are important to the learning process, and you can't cut too many of these corners and still expect to do well. Be realistic about how much of a time commitment you're planning to make to your education. It's easy to underestimate how much time classes will take up - and adult student programs often play down time factors as well when they're trying to land a prospective student.
How much time do you need to keep free for your family's needs? While you may be careful to keep your classes from interfering with your job, don't forget to leave enough time for your family. It's fine to ask your kids and/or spouse to chip in more while you're working on your degree (it can be a good thing, since it makes them feel like they're participating as well), but if your family feels like they're being ignored they will start to resent your classwork at a time when you will need all the support you can get. When you plan your class schedule, make sure you leave enough time to keep your family running smoothly - and make sure your spouse and kids know beforehand how much time you need to spend on your education every week, and for how long.
How much time do you need to keep free for yourself? Don't assume that you will be able to spend every free moment working on class material. While there will be days (and sometimes weeks) when you will need that kind of intense focus, you will not be able to absorb what you are learning if you never get away from it. Make sure you leave time for your own needs, as well as those of your family and employer. Don't overschedule classes to the point where you begin to resent school instead of enjoying it. Do not allow yourself to get burned out from overwork and lack of time to yourself, or put yourself in a position where you are forced to make choices between family, work, and your education. It's better to take a little longer and actually finish the degree with your life and sanity intact than to push through half of the program at lightning speed and find yourself forced to drop out.
Are there special reasons why you have to move quickly? If you are a university employee, have a scholarship or grant offer, or work for an employer with a soon-to-be-phased-out tuition reimbursement program, or know that your work or family responsibilities are likely to significantly increase in the next several years, you may want to accelerate your studies, even if it means making temporary compromises elsewhere in your life.
When is summer school a good idea, and when is it a waste of time and money? Is there financial aid during the summer, or does it subtract from your fall and spring eligibility?
Summer school classes have a very different feel than traditional college courses. Generally they cram an entire semester's worth of work into about six weeks of several-times-a-week sessions. You can expect to do significantly more work each week than in a normal course, and if you fall behind, it is very difficult to catch up.
Except under certain conditions, summer classes are probably not a good idea for adult students already enrolled in a full-time program. If you're already juggling classes, work, and family during the rest of the year, it's important that you leave some time when you can take it a little easier. You won't be able to maintain the pressures that go with a full-time adult program year-round for four years without burning out. It may seem possible in the excitement of the first couple of semesters, but by the fifth consecutive semester without a break, you will be looking for excuses to drop out. It's better to pace yourself, and give yourself some time with a little less pressure, preferably when the weather's nice.
If taking one or two summer classes can help you graduate a year earlier, or if there's a course that you really want that will be difficult to take during the year, it may be a good idea to make an exception to the general rule (just for that one summer, though - and take some time off before classes start in the fall). Be prepared to do a lot of reading. Leave more time than you think you'll need; it can be hard to keep yourself working on schedule when the summer weather is at its nicest.
Summer classes do have some nice features. Traditional classes tend to bog down around week six, when it seems like the semester has been going on forever, but the course is still less than halfway complete. Summer classes are already wrapping up in the sixth week, and that intensity and fast pace can be exhilarating. Summer classes also tend to get a more eclectic mix of students, even outside of adult programs. Traditional students home for the summer frequently take classes for transfer credit, leading to a more diverse and dedicated (i.e., willing to give up their summer vacations) group of students than you might expect.
At larger schools, summer courses are generally taught by graduate students or very junior faculty, since most of the full-time faculty members will be on vacation as well. If you expect to have trouble working with a professor who's younger than you are, you probably ought to avoid summer classes.
If you receive any sort of financial aid, summer classes can affect your eligibility (although many schools do not offer aid for summer courses). Federal loans taken for summer courses count against your total loan eligibility for the school year. Consult the school's financial aid office well in advance of summer registration to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Should you audit courses? If so, which ones, and when? What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking courses for credit vs. auditing them?
In theory, auditing makes a certain amount of sense: auditing allows you to sit in on a course and participate in discussion without receiving a grade or having to fulfill course requirements. It often costs less to audit a course (although you don't want to assume this without checking). There's very little pressure, and if a crisis at work disrupts the middle of your semester you usually aren't looking at a failing grade on your transcript.
On the other hand, auditing courses doesn't get you any closer to your degree, and because you aren't required to take exams or write papers, it's very tempting to slack off on the reading as well. It's extraordinarily rare for a student to get the same value from auditing as from taking a course for credit. Remember that employers will usually not pay for audited courses, particularly since there is no grade assigned and most employers require a B or better for tuition reimbursement.
What sort of auxiliary services should you look for in an adult program? Are they always the ones you want and/or need? Are adult or traditional programs more likely to offer them?
Many schools offer both traditional and nontraditional students support services in addition to academics, ranging from day care to extended student service office hours. Some of them may be limited to extra academic tutoring and study sessions for adult students only; others offer academic support within the adult program office but rely on the school as a whole to provide larger services (such as school day care centers, evening and/or weekend bookstore hours, or food service facilities open on weekends).
Generally, the larger or more residential the school, the more possibilities there are for late-night and weekend services (since the dormitory population requires care and feeding ven days a week). However, a small school may be surprisingly well-stocked with weekend support services.
Some common services that may make your life much easier as an adult student are extended student service office hours and phone/fax/online services, so you don't necessarily have to leave work or other obligations to handle all your school-related business; security shuttle services or campus escort services, especially if you're taking classes in the evenings and have a long walk to your car or mass transit station; day care, if the school offers it, the hours fit your schedule, and you're comfortable with the day care facility (some university day care centers are staffed partially by education majors completing practicums, which may not fit with your parenting philosophy); lounges specifically set up for adult students, with phones or computers available for student use; on-campus food service options that are open evenings and weekends, not just weekdays; and extended library and/or computer lab hours year-round, not just during finals week. Some schools even offer adult student housing, or week end housing for students commuting a long distance to weekend classes.