Returning to School

Adults who want to change careers or advance from entry-level medical positions may benefit from medical assisting programs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a job growth rate of 29% between 2016 and 2026 for medical assistants. Many nontraditional students will decide to attend medical assistance programs in the coming years. Some nontraditional students may come from medical professions, such as phlebotomy and medical reception, while others come from entirely different careers.

Medical assisting may appeal to nontraditional students because the programs often accommodate their busy lifestyles. Many programs offer online options and evening classes to fit around students’ work and family obligations. The programs can take as little as nine months, which means many people can switch professions within a year. Furthermore, medical assistants can earn a decent wage with consistent hours. With an above-average growth rate, people in this field can expect job security as well. Medical assistants also play a vital role in helping patients, which can be personally fulfilling.

Returning to school can be as challenging as it is rewarding. Students may struggle to balance demanding school schedules with work and family obligations. Some learners may struggle to pay for classes or stay motivated through the program. While students face plenty of challenges, they can overcome these obstacles with knowledge and discipline. This guide outlines ways that students can get through school quickly, find financial assistance, and successfully complete their programs.

Benefits of Returning to School for Medical Assisting

Although some people become medical assistants with a postsecondary certificate, earning a diploma from an accredited program increases a professional’s salary potential and job prospects. An associate degree shows employers that a candidate is willing to go above and beyond the minimum. A bachelor’s degree further demonstrates an applicant’s commitment to the career and provides well-rounded knowledge of medical assisting. estimates that medical assisting professionals with associate degrees can earn about $1,000 more per year than those with certificates, and medical assistants with bachelor’s degrees increase their earning potential even more. For this reason, many medical assistants return to school for a four-year degree.

In addition to higher wages, bachelor’s programs offer students the opportunity to specialize. Medical assisting concentrations include epidemiology, health promotion, pathology, and health services management. Specialties like these allow graduates to find jobs in positions that interest them most. A bachelor’s degree can also make it easier for a professional to move up the career ladder, as many managerial positions require applicants to have a four-year degree.

Average Salaries for Medical Assistants by Educational Attainment
Associate Bachelor’s
$32,543 – $34,098 $32,981 – $34,462

Online Medical Assisting Programs for Returning Students

Medical assisting students do not need to be new high school graduates to succeed. In fact, many schools design their programs to fit the needs of working professionals and parents. Just over 34% of medical assistants are health majors, with the rest majoring in unrelated areas like business and agriculture. This data suggests that many medical assisting students come from other careers.

Students should choose programs accredited by the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools. These programs offer lower tuition rates and more prestige. However, learners do not have to sacrifice convenience and flexibility for this respected education.

Returning students who need flexibility in their schedules should find programs that have at least some asynchronous online learning options. These portions of the programs allow students to study anywhere at any time. Furthermore, learners can save money and time on commuting. Due to the nature of medical assisting, learners must attend some in-person classes and clinicals; however, many programs offer evening and weekend options that are local to students.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Students with some college experience can often transfer previous credits to their new programs. To do so, learners should first contact their previous institution. In many cases, the school has a way to do this online. Students can request an informal copy for their own records, which will help with the credit transfer process. Next, degree candidates should review their new programs’ curriculum and compare it to their transcripts. If there is overlap, a learner may be able to transfer that credit. However, there are typically some restrictions.

Most schools only accept transfer credits from accredited schools. Therefore, if the student took the class in question at an unaccredited institution, it is unlikely to count toward a degree at the new school. Some medical courses expire after two to five years if the student has not been working in the field during that time. For example, returning learners who previously took biology may be barred from applying those credits to their medical assisting degrees if they have not been working in medicine. Some schools may also restrict students from transferring too many credits. Institutions typically require a significant percentage of the credits to come from the school that issues the diploma.

Transferrable Credits

It’s often easiest to transfer credit between regionally accredited, in-state institutions, as there are commonly agreements between the schools. Similarly, many accredited programs allow learners to transfer credits between them. Ultimately, only the school can decide whether or not to accept a credit. Before officially enrolling in a program, degree candidates are wise to discuss this subject with their new institutions. Knowing what will likely transfer helps learners plan their education.

Course Equivalency: The first criterion a school uses to evaluate a transfer credit is course equivalency. This indicates whether the class the student took is equivalent to the new class they want to receive credit for. The key here is the content of the course, not necessarily the course name or number. For example, one school could call a class medical terminology 101, and another could refer to it as Vocabulary in medicine 1301, with both covering the same material.

Course Level: Colleges often divide courses into lower-level freshmen and sophomore courses and upper-level junior and senior courses. Students can only transfer classes that are from the same level. A class called biology 101 at one school is unlikely to replace biology 3201 at another school. The key here is to understand each school’s course numbering system.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Students that attended school with a quarterly schedule can transfer credits to schools on a semester schedule, and vice versa; however, this process is trickier than it would be with institutions that use the same scheduling system. Students can use this chart to get a rough idea of how these courses will translate.

College Credit for Work Experience

While college courses are great for learning, there are many other ways to gain knowledge. Many medical assisting programs honor the learning that occurs in workplace training, independent study, and military service. These schools recognize that the skills acquired in these settings may apply to specific classes. For example, someone who already works in the medical field may use that experience toward courses like medical terminology and introduction to allied health. Institutions use a process called prior learning assessment (PLA) to determine how much credit to give students for previous experience.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

According to the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, schools use four PLA methods to assess a student’s knowledge. The first two are exams in which students prove their knowledge of the subject at hand. The last two involve assessments of either the learner’s experience or the program through which they gained the knowledge.

Standardized Exams: For core education classes like biology and English composition, schools use the College Level Exam Program or DSST Examination Program to test students. Many schools across the nation use these exams, and a passing score allows for credit transfer between institutions. These tests cost less than the classes they replace, so degree candidates can save a lot of time and money with this PLA option.

Challenge Exams: Sometimes students want to test out of classes that do not have standardized exams. When this happens, learners can take challenge exams. A member of the school’s faculty — usually the professor who teaches the class — creates a test that covers the material. For example, the pharmacology faculty may design a test with drug classifications, dosage equations, medication mechanisms, and common adverse reactions. Students who pass the test do not have to take the corresponding course.

Individual Assessments: Some students have complicated professional backgrounds that do not fit the mold of the average medical assisting student. When this happens, faculty and staff from the school evaluate the student’s training history and identify any potentially redundant classes for the student.

Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training: When a student has completed training that was not at a higher learning institution, the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) or the American Council on Education (ACE) can evaluate the program in question to determine which classes it may replace. If a learner completed private employer training in allied health ethics, the NCCRS or ACE could determine that the degree candidate does not need to take a similar course for credit.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Not only do institutions use several methods for PLAs, but they also handle the credits from these assessments differently. Some schools waive the need for the class entirely while other institutions put the credit on the student’s transcript.

Before attempting any PLAs, degree candidates should research the school’s transfer and credit policies. Many institutions have caps on how many credits a learner can transfer from other schools or work experience.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Nontraditional students may worry about paying for an education. While these learners often have more financial responsibilities, they also have plenty of options to help pay for school, including loans, grants, and scholarships.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

Age is not a factor on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which is the foundation for most college financial aid. However, applicants must meet a few fundamental eligibility requirements, including being enrolled as at least a half-time student and maintaining good academic standing. The Department of Education, which is the agency behind the FAFSA, requires applicants to be in a program that leads to a degree or certificate.

The FAFSA is a form that helps organizations understand a student’s financial need and eligibility for assistance. The department consults each higher learning institution to determine the cost of attendance. Then, students provide information that identifies how much they can pay for their education. The difference between these figures is how much need-based assistance the learner can obtain. In addition to this aid, a complete FAFSA makes a student eligible for certain types of non-need-based assistance from the federal government. Other aid sources, such as private organizations and schools that offer scholarships, may also require applicants to submit FAFSA forms.

To receive assistance from the federal government, candidates must fill out the form annually. Other organizations may also rely on the information from the FAFSA form to award aid. Students can submit their forms as early as October 1 before the school year for which it applies. While the application remains open throughout the relevant school year, students should complete it as soon as possible to avoid payment delays.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

  • Social Security Number: In almost all cases, students must have a Social Security number to fill out the FAFSA. This requirement also applies to DACA recipients, but these learners can sometimes apply for state-run aid and nonprofit scholarships that specifically help DREAMers. Students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau do not need a Social Security number.
  • Driver’s License Number: Applicants who do not have driver’s licenses can leave this section of the FAFSA blank. However, those who drive should carefully enter their driver’s license numbers and corresponding state.
  • Federal Tax Information: To accurately assess each student’s financial need, the Department of Education must obtain necessary income information. Therefore, students are required to submit information from their tax returns. While younger learners are sometimes dependents on their parents’ taxes and enter that information, nontraditional students should refer to their own tax documents.
  • Records of Untaxed Income: Since the FAFSA form analyzes all income, students should add information on untaxed income, such as child support payments. This helps the government get a more accurate picture of each learner’s financial situation.
  • Information on Assets: While income is important, it is not the only factor in determining a student’s wealth. Applicants must represent cash, money in checking accounts, investments, retirement accounts, stocks, and real estate on the FAFSA form. However, learners who own their homes do not need to include their primary residence in this section.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

The Department of Education collects all of the FAFSA information to assess a student’s financial need for college. While it can be intimidating, breaking down the FAFSA’s process can help students understand their results and opportunities. First, the school in question provides an estimated cost of attendance (COA) to the Department of Education. The COA includes tuition, fees, books, and room and board. For students who need it, the COA also allows for childcare or disability services. An individual’s COA may vary based on enrollment status and eligibility for in-state tuition prices.

The department then takes the learner’s financial information and decides on an estimated family contribution (EFC). This figure represents how much money the government expects the student’s family to pay toward the COA. To determine any learner’s need, the EFC is subtracted from the COA.

The result of that equation equals the amount of need-based aid that the student is eligible for. Need-based aid includes the federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, direct subsidized loans, federal Perkins Loan and federal work-study. Additionally, applicants may qualify for non-need-based assistance such as direct unsubsidized loans and federal PLUS Loans.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


  • Scholarships: Scholarships are among the most desirable forms of financial aid because students do not need to repay these awards. They can be based on merit, need, or a combination of both.
  • Grants: Like scholarships, these awards do not need to be repaid. However, grants often come from the government rather than private sources and are typically competitive.
  • Federal Loans: Often, grants and scholarships are not enough to cover a student’s need. In this case, the learner can apply for low-cost federal loans that require no payments until after the student graduates.
  • Private Loans: Private loans are often last-resort aid sources because they require repayment and have higher interest rates than federal loans.


  • School Aid: Higher learning institutions may offer scholarships to attract top talent. They may also offer loans that help bridge the financial gap for struggling students.
  • Federal Aid: Through its loan and grant programs, the federal government provides a large percentage of aid to students each year.
  • State Financial Aid: States often offer scholarships, loans, and grants to students who demonstrate need or academic rigor.
  • Privately Funded Scholarships: Companies and nonprofit organizations that are interested in furthering the cause of higher education fund scholarships for all types of learners.

Scholarships and Grants for Adult and Mid-Career Students

American Medical Technologists Outstanding Student Award

Who Can Apply: Medical assisting students who demonstrate financial need may apply.

Amount: $500

Zelda Walling Vicha Memorial Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Students who are currently enrolled, maintaining a strong GPA, and are interested in podiatric medical assisting may apply

Amount: $2,000

Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions

Who Can Apply: Allied health students who demonstrate academic excellence may apply by submitting an essay.

Amount: $1,000 Health Care Leaders Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Health students who show a commitment to leadership in the field may apply.

Amount: $1,000

Medical Assistant Courses Online

Who Can Apply: Current and prospective students who submit videos regarding their desires to become medical assistants may apply.

Amount: $2,000

Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation

Who Can Apply: Low-income mothers who wish to pursue higher education, especially in fields of service, may apply.

Amount: $5,000

Tips for a Successful Return to School

Adjusting to life as a returning student is difficult for some; however, the value it provides may be well worth the struggle. The following tips help learners balance work, family, and school.

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Many medical assisting courses have online components that require an understanding of technology that may be unfamiliar to a student. Before beginning a program, learners should review relevant technology and software so that they can readily absorb and apply course material.

Find Support Network: Learners benefit from building a strong support network to help them through school challenges. Things like backup babysitters and study buddies can be immeasurably valuable to a student’s success.

Choose a Flexible Program: The more flexibility a program has in its course scheduling, the better learners can tailor courses to their schedule. Learners may benefit from seeking programs with online components and convenient, in-person course times.