Returning to College as an Adult

Episode #36. ***Please note that some details about the FAFSA in this episode are now outdated. Please reference for updated information.*** Host Jonathan Hughes first talks to his co-host Julie Shields-Rutyna about the financial aid season. They discuss filing the FAFSA and CSS Profile® as well how MEFA and other organizations can help families with that process. Then, they dive into the MEFA Mailbag to talk about a guardianship question related to financial aid. Finally, Jonathan talks to his wife, Cathy Hughes, to hear about her experience finishing her college degree later in her life. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.

Listen on apple podcasts          Listen on spotify

Resources Mentioned in the Episode:

Upcoming MEFA Webinars

Recorded MEFA Webinars

Thinking of Going Back to College? Read This (Part 1)




0:00 Intro 

1:49 Julie and Jonathan discuss financial aid season 

7:42 MEFA Mailbag 

10:22 Interview with Cathy Hughes 


Jonathan Hughes: [00:00:00] Hello everyone and welcome to the MEFA Podcast. My name is Jonathan Hughes.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: And I'm Julie Shields-Rutyna

Jonathan Hughes: And oh boy, what a show we have for you today. Now, you may notice as you've been binging through our shows, as I know many of you do, that we talk a lot about students and families and how families afford college and how families can help their kids save and pay for college. Well, guess what? Today we're going to be talking about adults. That's right. Today we're going to be talking about the experience of attending college undergraduates, specifically as an adult. Now, I want to be clear here what I mean by adult, because certainly legally over the age of 18 students are adults. But what I really mean in terms. Going to college as an adult is really what we term in financial aid, non-traditional students, which is somewhat ironic because most students are [00:01:00] actually non-traditional students. But in terms of age, what that means is, you know, over the age of 24, if you're supporting yourself, if you're on your own, if you're married, certainly if you have children, you are a non-traditional student, these are the adults that we are going to be talking about today.

You know, ones who may be getting their undergraduate degree. As an adult and to do this, we have on the show my wife Cathy, who went to school, finished and got her degree as an adult in her thirties. So I know you want to stick around for that. I know she's got a lot of great things to say about it and I can't wait for you to hear that conversation. But first, Julie, it has been so long since we sat together to do a show that we're already in the middle of financial aid season

Julie Shields-Rutyna: We are indeed.

Jonathan Hughes: So tell people what I mean by financial aid season and what that means for, for us and for-

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yeah. So sure. It means that on October 1st, the FAFSA, the Free [00:02:00] Application for Federal Student Aid and the CSS Profile from The College Board®, the two main financial aid applications that need to be completed to apply for financial aid, become available.

So anyone who is a senior in high school or anyone who is planning to attend college next fall. So Fall '23, Spring '24, should be completing these financial aid forms. So file, I, will say file a FAFSA as as soon as as you can. And it has to go to every college that you're applying to, where you would like to apply for financial aid, which should be all of the colleges you're applying.

Jonathan Hughes: Okay, so you recommend obviously to do that with the FAFSA. So what about the other form that you mentioned, the CSS Profile?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes. So let me, let me just give one quick back step back to just say that, colleges all have their own deadlines for when financial aid applications are due, just like they have admissions deadlines.

So it's important for students to know what those deadlines are. [00:03:00] Sometimes colleges have multiple deadlines, like if a student is applying early, there might be an early admissions deadline, an early financial aid deadline. If they're applying regular, maybe one later. Understand those deadlines, but the key is to apply for financial aid by the earliest deadline or even easier just apply right now. Apply if you haven't already. Do it soon. Okay? So definitely do the FAFSA. And what you also wanna find out from colleges is if they require that other form, the CSS Profile form, they all will require the FAFSA, but some will also require the CSS profile form from The College Board, and if they do, you need to complete both.

Jonathan Hughes: And so how would people know whether or not their colleges do that? And which colleges may?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Those colleges usually have a lot of their own scholarship and institutional dollars, and they feel they need a little more information than what is on the [00:04:00] FAFSA. So the CSS Profile has more questions, gives students a chance to tell more about their financial picture and so the way they could find out is to either look on the college. And see what forms are required for financial aid and it may say CSS Profile. And another way is they can go to the CSS Profile website, and look up participating institutions to see that's another way. So sometimes they can do

Jonathan Hughes: These forms drive a lot of questions and sort of raise a lot of nerves with parents and with students. So what is MEFA doing? To help with that situation?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes, so MEFA has held a lot of webinars over the last month and a half, and we call them Financial Aid 101 trainings, and we've done this both in person and virtually, and they go over the basics of financial aid what it is, where does [00:05:00] this money come from? Federal government, state institutions. And we also have webinars specifically on completing the FAFSA and completing the CSS Profile. Finally, we have also, we had a what we called a FAFSA festival, which was on October 24th where students could join a Zoom call like this and be paired up with a financial aid expert and share screens and get their FAFSA done right online. So we, we did that in conjunction with many expert financial aid administrators around, neighboring colleges. I think we had 97 families complete the FAFSA that night.

Jonathan Hughes: But what if you missed those events?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes, well we at MEFA, we record all of our webinars and we post them to our YouTube channel and to our website. So if families go to the MEFA website and maybe we can put some links in as well, people [00:06:00] can find recordings of these different webinars and they can also call us or email us anytime. With questions. And lastly, another organization called fafsa They will continue to have some events like the one I described, the FAFSA festival one a month for the next few months where students can also complete their FAFSA online with an expert help. And there's, Spanish speaking help on those webinars as well.

Jonathan Hughes: So how do people find information? You know how to register for FAFSA day?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes, go to and right there it will list the, the three or four upcoming events. And I know we like to, to, in our Financial Aid 101 presentations and, and everywhere we can really talk about other free resources that are available to people.

Jonathan Hughes: So, could you give an example? A few, of those?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yeah. We have another great organization that we work with called [00:07:00] MassEdCO and so And they are an organization that will help student. Both traditional and non-traditional students, they really have a, have a wide, a wide group of people that they help to complete these forms. So that's, and you can do that in person or virtually. So that's another good organization to connect to as well as connecting to MEFA.

Jonathan Hughes: I want to actually see if you can mention, the guidance that MEFA can offer one on one.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yes, absolutely. So that, if people ask to have a one-on-one appointment with us, we can do that as well.

Jonathan Hughes: Yeah, that is great. Now it's time for us to move on to the MEFA mail bag, and these are questions that have come into us from customers over the past few weeks. So remember, if you have any questions about planning, saving, and paying for college or career readiness or reaching financial goals, please reach out to us at [00:08:00] 1-800-449-MEFA. You can email us And you can reach us on social media, on Facebook @MEFAMA, Twitter, on @MEFATweets and on Instagram @MEFA_MA. So today's question comes to us from Victoria who writes, the biggest question my aunt and I have is about how to fill out the FAFSA in the CSS profile because I've been in a permanent guardianship. Let's talk about legal, guardianship and dependent and independent students and FAFSA and CSS Profile.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: On the FAFSA, the FAFSA wants to collect information from you, the student and parents. So FAFSA does not collect information about legal guardians, so when Victoria files the FAFSA, she should complete it and she will be considered an independent student. [00:09:00] So, that, that's how that will work on the FAFSA because -okay.

Jonathan Hughes: And, and what is meant by an independent student?

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Yeah. That, that she will not need to provide parent information.

Jonathan Hughes: So all, all the, her, need based financial aid will just be determined based on her financial information.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Exactly. And then the difference is, and this is confusing, when students are filling up both of these forms, the CSS Profile does things a little bit differently. So on the CSS Profile I already mentioned, the CSS Profile collects a lot more information from a family. And the CSS Profile is really, trying to get a sense of actually what's going on, who the student's living with, what picture this looks like. And so they collect more information. And so those schools, that are requiring a CSS Profile may look at that additional information.

Jonathan Hughes: All right, remember, if you have any questions, you can call us up. Once [00:10:00] again, I'll say at 1-800-449-MEFA emailing us at We have a bench of college guidance experts waiting to answer your question. Now, let's get to my conversation with my wife, Cathy Hughes, to talk about earning your undergraduate degree as an adult.

So I talk about your college experience quite a bit in my professional life. So first of all, let me say Cathy, welcome to the MEFA Podcast.

Cathy Hughes: Thank you.

Jonathan Hughes: So can you tell everybody the story of your college education?

Cathy Hughes: So let's just say that when it came time, to, when I was like, I am going to get my degree. This time I had about, seven schools, I had to get transcripts from. So I am one of those people that, [00:11:00] I just think of movies like, "What's Up Doc?" Where, she's like, gone to so many different colleges, you know? And, and that was just me. Initially out of high school I applied and ended up going to Emerson, as you know. And then some family troubles came along and I wasn't able to complete. So I went for a year. And then, and then I was out into the workforce after that. And it, it's not easy to find a job as not having a degree, or it least it wasn't then, I don't know if things have changed a little bit now. I, I discovered temp agencies and that was how I ended up getting jobs was through going through a temp agency because people got to experience working with me and realize that I'm very good, even though I don't have a degree. And so that's how I was able to get the jobs that I was able to get and then I just kind of kept trying to finish school, but things got in the way. The timing wasn't right. You know, had full-time jobs and juggling everything was kind of challenging and it never really clicked. Until fast forward to 2017, [00:12:00] I, you know, finally felt like, okay, I am ready to do this and I am going to, and so I to Leslie University and, ended up going there. I had enough credits from all of this past experience that I only had to go for about a year and a half, which was amazing. And I, and I graduated Summa Cum Laude and, you know, it was the best experience I feel like and the timing finally was right for me.

Jonathan Hughes: You know, you mentioned all these different colleges and a lot of, I won't say false starts, but kind of false returns to college. Right. So I think that's really, I think that is common.

Cathy Hughes: Yeah. I mean, it was, it was really hard. I would feel very gung-ho and ready to do it. And then, just the workload and I think my perfectionist nature ended up being too much. So it was very hard in, in that way. And I think I was just young. I know it's such a loaded thing to say. I think sometimes, like you're in your thirties, how are you really young. But I don't, I think it felt like I was very young [00:13:00] at that time. You know, one of the things that happened that I laugh about now, but at the time I took. I was going to Quincy College, and I was taking these classes and I was doing really well. You know, I really loved it. I, I loved to learn, so it was really exciting and, but there was this art class I was getting all A's, and then there was this art class, this watercolor class, and I had not had any experience with taking art classes in college up until that point. Not knowing that it is probably, honestly, to me, one of the hardest degrees anybody could ever try to get. And do well in so I took this watercolor class and I got a b plus and it just ruined everything for me. It was so silly, but it really did. And I stopped going to school at that point because I was just like, I'm not going to do this if, if I'm going to work so hard in a class and get nothing in return, and that's where I think I, when I said I was young, I learned to deal with that, I think a little bit better as the years went on.

Jonathan Hughes: What [00:14:00] changed when, when you. Decided to go to Leslie. When you decided to complete your degree, you know, the, the time it stuck, essentially.

Cathy Hughes: Yeah.

Jonathan Hughes: Was there, what was the impetus to, do that?

Cathy Hughes: So we had just had our son, so when it came to the time when Malcolm was old enough that I had a little bit more energy to do things and I, I realized I didn't wanna go out into the workforce and be a temp again and try to find my way into another job that probably would've been. Area of admin assistant, which I like that kind of work, but I also wanted more, you know, from a job and I didn't think I would be able to do that without a degree. So that was one of the major things. But the other thing is I wanted my degree, just to have it. I was so, I tried so many times and, and I just wanted it, and I wanted it in a weird way for Malcolm. I don't know if that makes any sense, but it just felt like, you know, to be able to tell him the story of how I got my degree [00:15:00] and how he was a baby and I really wanted to do it for the family and all of that stuff.

So there was a little bit of maybe pride in there, spurring me on. And then the last thing was that I knew I wanted to go for counseling. And it was the first time I, I think one of the struggles and one of the struggles maybe, other students who are so young can identify with is you don't really know what you want to do. Some people are amazing and they know right out of the gates, I'm going to go and I'm going to be a doctor and that's what I'm going to do. That was not me at all.

Jonathan Hughes: And so how did you decide? Study where you studied?

Cathy Hughes: Well, and this is a really important question for people who are looking to go back to school as adults. I knew I always kind of liked Leslie in general, just something about it really appealed to me. But the other element to this is that they have a really good program for adults going back to school to get their degree and. Is, I think one of the biggest things that made me successful in [00:16:00] that I had a person, I can't remember the name of the program, but, in the program they have, you have a counselor that you work with directly.

You meet with them on a regular basis. They work with adult. Students who are working to get their Bachelor's Degree, and just having that support there and that person to talk to and commiserate with. And even during orientation, you know, there was a part of orientation where you were with all the students, but then there was also a part of the orientation where you were with people in your, in like the older age groups. And that was a really wonderful thing to have that support and to have those people that I knew in the school, "oh, this is an adult learner here" and I know them from this, and we're going to, and I was able to kind of feel closer to those people and feel like I still had an anchor in this school, even though I wasn't a traditional student. And I really recommend anyone looking to go back to college like that, to find a college that has a program like that. It made all the difference. [00:17:00]

Jonathan Hughes: What else did we do to prepare for this? I'm trying to think.

Cathy Hughes: I think we just kind of figured out, like you said, we used the net price, and once it was a little different because I knew I wanted to go to Leslie and I didn't apply to any other colleges or anything like that. So once we knew what the financial aid package was and we kind of knew what to expect because of this, you know, the Stafford loan and. They usually give people, and you know, one of the questions was what year was I entering into? So how much would they give us? But once all that was established, we kind of just knew that the rest was going to be taken out as a loan.

Jonathan Hughes: Do you remember doing the FAFSA?

Cathy Hughes: Yeah, it was so easy. That's what I remember. I remember we just needed our taxes and a lot of stuff prepopulated. It's a really pretty streamlined system. I was actually quite impressed.

Jonathan Hughes: I left the room for a minute and you had already done it.

Cathy Hughes: I think I did it on my phone.

Jonathan Hughes: But also too, remember there was, now it's all coming back to me. There was, you had to get your medical. Too, right? You had to do all this, like these things are sort [00:18:00] of complicated.

Cathy Hughes: Oh, right. My, yes, that's right. I had to prove that I had the health insurance and then I also had to get all my immunization records and the, and getting the transcripts also was a big thing. I mean, that took a lot of. Time and it's, it says it's not cheap to do if you're, if you've gotten to like seven colleges, because typically you have to pay to have those sent and you have to have them sent, directly to the school and by registered mail I think it's a complicated kind of process and that was probably the most daunting part of the whole, going back to school was getting those transcripts.

Jonathan Hughes: Now let's get to how we actually paid. For Leslie, right?

Cathy Hughes: Yep.

Jonathan Hughes: So did the FAFSA. The FAFSA was the only form that they required. We were able to get the aid that we were eligible for. You got a work study award, right?

Cathy Hughes: Yep.

Jonathan Hughes: Of, do you remember how much it was?

Cathy Hughes: Nope.

Jonathan Hughes: [00:19:00] I think it was $500 You got.

Cathy Hughes: That was it? Huh?

Jonathan Hughes: So we got work study, we got the federal loans. We got some other, we, we used a monthly payment plan too.

Cathy Hughes: We did, yes, that's right.

Jonathan Hughes: That's something I talk about too, that I think everybody, not everybody knows about them, but like their interest free monthly payment plan. So whatever you can pay on a monthly basis, you set up this payment plan and I don't know what it was for us, two or $300 or something like that.

Cathy Hughes: Yeah.

Jonathan Hughes: And that was, we paid every month and, and so that was coming directly off of tuition. And then we did have to borrow a private student. Yes, as well. So that was how we finished. We kind of used, you know, a bit of everything. We get some of our money did the payment plan and, and borrowed.

Cathy Hughes: Mm-hmm.

Jonathan Hughes: it's time to start school now. Can you talk about. What, what was that like? What were you feeling when it was time to start? What was that experience?

Cathy Hughes: As I said, like I knew some of the people that were in the adult program from the, the [00:20:00] orientation. So that was nice because I would see people in the halls or be, have like one or two in a class.

And I, and it was, it just, that was helpful but I do remember like some people, there was this one kid in particular, who was, you know, like right out of high school, like a lot of them were, but you know, some people seemed younger than others. And, and he was in this music class that I was taking and he just looked frightened by my presence in the room. Like he, you know, when, when I told him how old I was, because I, looked kind of young for my age at that point, and. And so people were surprised if I had, if I said how old I was. And so he, when he knew that I was older, he looked a little scared and it was really kind of funny to me.

Jonathan Hughes: And how old were you, by the way? Just throw that out there.

Cathy Hughes: So I was 37 I think or 38 when I started. So it, it, and it was interesting like, I don't know. It wasn't really that hard for me to be [00:21:00] around those younger kids, I thought it was kind of humorous at times because their approach and outlook at life is so very different. Their experiences are very different from mine and what they bring to college is different than what I have to bring. So that's not a judgment, but just a fact, you know? So they had more enthusiasm for certain things or their opinions were different, and I just found it very. interesting and one of the things that was very striking to me being with these younger students is like, I, you know, I made friendships and everything and there were people I really cared about and I could feel very keenly. The, the sense of aloneness of a, you know, a young kid going away to college for the first time and like not having that. You know, some of these, they stay in a dorm. They're not with their families anymore. And I just, I could really feel that like, that feeling of like being out in the world alone and missing being home. And so some of them, you know, I wanted to bring them home for dinner or [00:22:00] something and I just ended up feeling really lucky to have this. Like, I get to go home to my house that smells like my house that has dinner ready for me, that has my fridge. And it's not like I'm going to a dorm with all these kids and it's loud and you know, like, it's just such a different feeling to have a home base instead of being out there in the world. And so I really came to really appreciate how challenging it is, to be a young student who is not living at home and going to college. And also to appreciate that I wasn't in that position, was really nice. And I think that, you know, thinking about it now probably was one of the things that made college challenging for me was, not really having that sense of security that comes with home.

Jonathan Hughes: You were a full time student and you know, the classes that you, some of them you had to pick obviously for your major, which is counseling. But then you had, you always made sure to take one class. [00:23:00] That was-

Cathy Hughes: Yeah, so I wanted to, I wanted to just take advantage of learning something that I wanted to learn. So while I had the classes I was retire required to take, I also made sure to take a class I was really interested to do. So for example, even knowing how challenging Art classes were, I took a pottery class. I had, I took, I took two classes, one was hand building and one was wheel throwing. And both were 1.5 credits each. So together, they made up one class. And again, that was probably the most demanding class that I took out of all of them. The amount of time and work I put into, it was amazing, but I, it was also so rewarding and lovely and I would never do it differently. But there was a month there where I thought, what did I get myself into? But yeah, so, so that was, that was it. It was like making sure that I had something that I was excited to do, that I was interested in, and that was something I wouldn't have the opportunity to learn outside of college. [00:24:00]

Jonathan Hughes: Is there value to being older and knowing exactly what you're spending? And what you're investing

Cathy Hughes: Yeah.

Jonathan Hughes: And what you hope to get-

Cathy Hughes: yeah.

Jonathan Hughes: Out of an education or a degree?

Cathy Hughes: Yes, absolutely. I think that me going back, like I said, like how I took a fun class, that was something I was interested in, that I knew I wouldn't be able to do again, or yeah, the knowing how much we were paying it, it, it didn't put like that much more pressure, but it did add this level of awareness that I don't think I know I didn't have when I went to school in the beginning.

Also, just. You know, being in a, a place in my life where my, where I could let my brain be a sponge and just take in everything and, and not have to worry about so much. You know, growing up my family life was really crazy and it was very difficult to pay attention at school. And that was a real challenge for me. And that was one of the things that made it very hard to, to be [00:25:00] in school, you know, in my younger years. But being older and not having those stresses and knowing, you know, exactly what was going on in my life because it was my life. It was, it was huge and it made it much easier.

Jonathan Hughes: What would you recommend to somebody who is, you know, working and supporting themselves or their family and, and they, they are not sure they kind of want to go back and get their undergraduate degree or go back to school in some, some way what would you recommend?

Yeah. So

Cathy Hughes: I think, you know, there were so many ways that I tried to figure out how can I get my degree while I'm working? And it's going to be different for everyone. Of course, different things will work. So there's the option to be at a job where you know that you have the benefit from your job of having, school paid for, at least in part, working at a college is an option if that's an option for you. So that's one thing that I always kind of thought had on my mind, but never actually did. But like, if you got a school, if you got a job working at somewhere like Leslie full-time, oftentimes the benefit included is to be able to [00:26:00] get a degree from that college for free. So that's another option. So like figuring out how you can creatively solve the challenges that you have, I think is really, the key. And to know that there are creative solutions available to you, like going to a two-year school. Like, like a Quincy College and graduating and then being able to go onto a four-year college after that is, is, you know, a great option for some people. So just trying to just be creative, and use resources like MEFA. You know, I think you having the background at MEFA and I worked there for a time also knowing about things like a monthly payment plan for a school and you know, just kind of getting all the information you can beforehand about how to make that work. As well as just thinking about how you're going to make it work in your personal life. You know, how when will you have time to do. School work. When will you have time to work? And just kind of playing it all out to the best of your ability I think is really good. [00:27:00] And then also, as I mentioned before, going to a school that has support systems already in place for adult students or non-traditional students is a huge deal too.

Jonathan Hughes: Finally, my last question is, you know, when you look back, are you glad. You did this and why?

Cathy Hughes: Absolutely. Yes. I have to tell you, after, you know, 20 years of, well, not 20 years, but after all of the times, applying for a job and not having that degree, and then now with applying for jobs online where you just check a box and it says you have a degree or you don't.

So for just for that alone, it was worth it for that peace of mind, for knowing that I could say I have a degree. But beyond that, you know, I had, I, I got a job that I really love. I got to, do things like, like counseling women in jail, which was amazing. You know, I got to make, I have sitting near some of my creations that I made in pottery class, you know? I really think, you know, in every [00:28:00] way it was, it was an incredible experience.

Jonathan Hughes: Well, Cathy, thank you so much. It was great to speak to you.

Cathy Hughes: Yeah. Thank you very much. And I just want to say that I just think this is a really good podcast. I know you're my husband, so I'm going to say this, but I do, I wish that. You know, when I was at school I did not know about MEFA, and I don't think MEFA was quite as robust as it is now. And it's a, it's a really an amazing service that you guys provide in helping to people find those creative ways to make it happen. So thank you for that.

Jonathan Hughes: All right, Kathy, thank you.

Cathy Hughes: Thanks.

Jonathan Hughes: All right, well that about wraps it up for us. Once again, thanks to Kathy for joining us today. And folks, if you liked the show today and you want to hear more from MEFA and all topics related to planning, saving, and paying for college and career readiness and reaching financial goals, please subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts and whether you're a new or a regular listener, please [00:29:00] remember to write and review us so we can keep doing what we're doing. And getting this show out in front of folks like you. Julie, thank you so much.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: You're welcome. Thank you.

Jonathan Hughes: Nice to talk to you again today.

Julie Shields-Rutyna: Same.

Jonathan Hughes: Thank you to our producer, Shaun Connolly, and once again, my name is Jonathan Hughes and this has been The MEFA Podcast. Thanks.

Read More