Going to College for the First Time - What You Need to Know

You are just a few steps away from going to college.

Going to college as an adult can be a daunting (sometimes even scary), but very worthwhile experience. We all know that there are many talented and accomplished individuals who never went to college or for some reason or another were not able to complete their degree. For many, earning that "piece of paper" can make a significant difference in their professional or personal life (the achievement of a lifelong dream) - but the idea of returning to school after a long absence can present quite a challenge.

Below are some great steps to take to get the ball rolling on getting a college degree:

Talk to an Advisor

You’ve made the decision to go to college. Now what? Talk to someone who can help you navigate the application and enrollment process and enlist friends and family to support and encourage you on this journey!

Talk to a Reconnect Navigator: 

Tennessee Reconnect has qualified staff to answer your questions about going to college, assist you in the decision making process, help you with the FAFSA form, and navigate your educational pathway. Contact you local Tennessee Reconnect Navigator to learn more about the services they offer. 

Talk to an Adult Student Contact at your college:

Every college and university has an office or individual ready to help you navigate your way to and through college. Check out your school's College Portrait page to find out how to contact them. They can also connect you to campus resources and support systems.

Enlist your support system:

Deciding to go to college, selecting a major, finding the right school and figuring out how to pay are all necessary steps to becoming a college student. It is a life-changing experience from the very beginning and it will be easier if you have people who support you. To be successful, you need to identify your support system, both on and off campus. Family, friends and co-workers can provide encouragement and understanding. There are also support systems on campus—classmates, instructors and adult learner offices.

Choose Your Path

Identify Your Career Goals:

Do you want to increase your earning power? Prepare for a different career? Learn something new? By visiting this site, you have already taken the first step to your future. Use some of the following free resources to find careers that are in demand and interesting to you:

  • CollegeforTN.org: Evaluate your interests and skills and compare careers side by side

  • MyNextMove.org: Explore what you want to do for a living

  • O*Net: Browse occupations that are expected to grow rapidly in the next several years nationwide, will have large numbers of job openings, or are new and emerging occupations

  • EduTrendsTN.com: Compare the earnings of Tennessee graduates across colleges or academic majors

Choose a Program:


  • First, match your career goals to the available degree or certificate programs that can get you there.

    What can I do with this major
  • Next, search for schools that offer that degree program here. There are programs convenient for you that meet your interests and career goals.

    Search for Programs
  • Then, see if the program is offered in a way that meets your needs. Many programs in Tennessee offer flexible options, online courses, and accelerated programs for working adults. Most of the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, community colleges and universities also offer classes in the evenings. Call your college to find out more.

Choose a School

Visit our school portrait section to learn more about the different types of schools in Tennessee, who to contact, available flexible options, and if there’s a campus near you. Every college has a contact for adult students listed in the school portrait.

  • Select a college because it offers the program you want: If you haven’t already, use this search tool to find out what colleges offer what programs.

    Search for Programs
  • Select a college because it is in a convenient location: Start by looking at institutions close to your home or work and learn about what each type of college can offer.

    Search College Portraits
  • Consider online options: If you have a hectic schedule that makes going to class at the campus difficult, then check out online options. All public institutions have some online or hybrid learning options. For more information about online options, visit the Tennessee Online Programs page.

Visit our Tennessee Colleges and Universities page for a full listing of Tennessee colleges and universities.

TNReconnect Colleges and Universities

Learn About TCATS

Create a Plan to Pay for College

You need to have a plan to pay for college. Your college costs will depend on what school you select, how many classes you want to take, and for how much aid you qualify.

Find ways to save:


  • Help from your employer: Many employers in Tennessee offer tuition and education benefits for their employees. Check with your employer’s HR office to determine if your company offers tuition benefits or flexible options for adults looking to return to college.
  • Save time and money with TimewiseTN: If you have years of valuable work or military experience, you may already be eligible to receive academic credit. Check out the TimewiseTN program for more information.

Investigate financial aid opportunities:


  • From the federal government: Close to 60% of adults attending TN schools receive federal aid in the form of Pell Grants. Students who demonstrate need can receive up to $5730 per year in federal aid. Learn more about Pell and other Federal grants.
  • From the state: Qualifying Tennessee adults can receive aid to attend a TCAT, community college or university. Read the Paying for College: Financial Aid Information page for more details.
  • From your college: Your college’s financial aid office will be able to tell you if there are additional scholarships and grants available to you.
  • From lenders: Direct Loans are low-interest loans to help pay for the cost of your education after high school. The lender is the U.S. Department of Education. However, most of the contact will be with your loan servicer. Subsidized loans have no interest charged while you are in school at least half-time, during the grace period, and during deferment periods. Unsubsidized loans are not based on financial need; interest is charged during all periods, even during the time a student is in school and during grace and deferment periods.

Apply for financial aid!

Don’t miss your chance to receive grants – fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) here. Be certain to file through this website only—this application for federal financial aid is FREE!

Apply For College

Generally, you apply to college online. Each institution has an admissions application to complete and submit online. If your institution requires an application fee, that can be paid online using a credit card. If you do not have a credit card, and many applicants do not, the site will advise you how to pay the fee. You will need to submit your academic records (high school transcript/GED). Note: Some schools have specific application deadlines; you will need to submit your application prior to the deadline for that semester.


The journey does not end once you have enrolled. In fact, it is just starting!

Develop your academic plan


  • Meet with your academic advisor. Map out what courses you will need to take and when you will need to complete them for your program of study.
  • Familiarize yourself with Tennessee Transfer Pathways if you plan to transfer from a two-year to a four-year college or university.

Take advantage of the academic support available at your school.


  • Seek out free tutoring services available through your school in courses where you need support. Also, visit your school’s writing center if you need assistance writing papers, personal statements, or other assignments for courses.

Keep on top of deadlines.


  • Register early for classes each semester.
  • Fill out the FAFSA every year from January 1 – June 30 at www.fafsa.ed.gov in order to reapply for financial aid and scholarships. The earlier you apply, the better financial aid package you are likely to receive.

Celebrate your successes along the way!


  • Keep track of your progress and celebrate as you cross off certain milestones, whether that’s completing a particularly challenging course or walking across that stage with diploma in hand!