Competitive Advantage

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Competitive Advantage

Delivering Tips, Insights and Resources for Success

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Considering Returning to College? Finally, college lingo demystified!


Honesty time: Did you drift through your early college days without really understanding any of the “lingo”?

When we tumble out of high school into our first college classes, we have a lot of help. There’s generally a lot of guidance available since counselors tell us what to do and how to get started on our classes.

But if you’ve decided to go BACK to college to finish your degree, everything feels overwhelming. There’s no guidance counselor, and no crowd of friends going through the same process.

It can be hard to understand the words about college. College has a whole lingo that most of us don’t use every day… and truly, some of us never really knew what the admissions counselor was talking about anyway when she rattled off all those words like “post-secondary”, “audit”, and “matriculate.”

It’s okay. If you’re like most of us and don’t speak college-ese fluently, then this article is for you! It’s a cheat sheet to fill in some blanks so you feel confident when you’re ready to go back to school.

We’ve organized these as you would encounter them on your “pathway” as you go back to college to complete your degree. Follow this path to your degree… and expect a brighter future ahead!

This article also includes some terms that may be unique to the Complete 2 Compete (C2C) program. C2C offers specific resources for adults who have some credits but who want to return to college to finish a degree. C2C can be a resource for anyone who wants to attend a community college or public university in Mississippi. Even if you choose not to use the free C2C resources, this is the pathway you’ll most likely follow to return to college and graduate with a meaningful credential.

Choosing your institution

Your degree is going to come from an “institution of higher learning.” Here are the typical options:

  • Community colleges are locally-based colleges. Community colleges usually attract nearby students who usually drive to attend classes instead of living on campus. Traditionally, community colleges offer 2-year (associate) degrees. Many students pursuing a bachelor’s degree start their studies at a community college to complete their General Education credits, then transfer to a university to complete the coursework specific to their major.
  • Universities tend to attract students from a wider geographic area and offer a wider range of programs and services. To be called a university, an institution must offer not only four-year bachelor’s degree programs but also graduate programs (like master’s and doctoral options).
  • College tends to be a generic term that can refer to either a community college or university. It’s fine to use the term college when referring to any post-secondary institution.

At college, there are two main options for degrees:

  • Post-Secondary Degrees – Post-secondary degrees are degrees earned after high school. There are two post-secondary options:
    • Associate degree – Typically requires 60 credits to complete and are sometimes called 2-year degrees.
    • Bachelor’s degree – Typically requires 120 credits to complete and are sometimes called 4-year degrees. A bachelor’s degree is also called an undergraduate (or undergrad) degree.

    (In case you’re wondering how master’s and doctoral degrees fit in: these are called graduate or postgraduate degrees. Some people complete them after their bachelor’s degrees.)

College: It’s not what it used to be

College used to be synonymous with brick halls and magnolia-lined sidewalks. These days, college is MUCH bigger than any campus, and many of the students are not fresh high school graduates who attend school full-time. Here’s what to know about this next-level college experience!

  • Traditional / Nontraditional Student: A traditional student could be called stereotypical… a student who attends college right after high school graduation. Traditional students usually attend school full-time, and often live on campus. A nontraditional student could be anyone who doesn’t fit the normal mold. One or more of these categories might describe a nontraditional student:
    • 21+ years old
    • Have kids
    • Work part- or full-time
    • Attend college online

    Don’t feel alone if you aren’t a traditional student. Despite what you commonly see in the movies, a large percentage of college students are older, have kids, have work commitments, or don’t live on campus. In fact, 74% of students claim at least one “nontraditional” characteristic!
  • Commuter Student / Commute: In the college context, a commuter is a student who doesn’t live on campus. If you’re an adult going back to college, you probably aren’t going to quit your life and move into the dorm, so you’ll most likely commute. Of course, online classes are an alternative to commuting!
  • Online programs & online classes: A global pandemic taught us that a lot of good things can now happen online. College is no exception. All of the higher education institutions in Mississippi offer online classes, and many offer online programs! What’s the difference?
    Online programs mean that a student can complete the entire degree program online… it’s not necessary to ever go to the campus!
  • Online classes are of course classes that can be done wherever you have an internet connection… you don’t need to attend class in-person. Many degree programs now offer the option of at least some online classes, even if it is not an online program.

    A note about online classes: Some online classes still require you to “attend” a live class at a certain time, even if you’re at joining the class via your computer or smart phone. This is called synchronous learning because students participate at the same time but not in the same place. If you need a more flexible schedule, look for online classes that have recorded lectures or that have classes times that work for your schedule.
  • Credit for prior learning: Typically, you earn college credits by attending classes, participating in projects, and completing assignments. Credit for prior learning is another option that can allow you to get college credits for classes you’ve had previously. Maybe this training was work-related (like training you got in the military or other professional settings). College admissions counselors or coaches might be able to help you get credit for learning you’ve had outside the classroom. It is worth it to ask your advisor about credit for prior learning especially if you have a lot of life or work experience.

Terms to know when you’re going BACK to college

Here are some foundational terms that are easy to mix up:

  • College degree (“degree”) – A credential that shows you have finished a standardized course of education. There’s no way to truly PROVE that a person actually learned things just by being in school (are you thinking of “that guy” who sat near you in high school chemistry class?). However, college degrees are still the most-renowned certification of study and learning. Having a two year associate degree or four year bachelor’s degree signifies that you did the work and completed the studies needed to graduate… your college professors and institution won’t give you the degree if you don’t earn it.

    Degrees are composed of credits (see below) that are routinely organized as General Education Credits and Degree Specific or Area of Study courses and electives.
  • General Education Courses: These classes make up the first part of any degree. Almost all college students spend time studying a wide variety of basic courses like math, science, literature, and more. These are sometimes called “Gen Ed” or Core Curriculum courses. This is one reason that having a degree matters… it shows that you have a recognized foundation in a wide variety of subjects.
  • Area of Study Courses: Degrees are awarded in a particular concentration or major. Along with your General Education courses, you’ll complete many classes in your “area of study.” Your major is the topic that you focused on, like business or journalism or animal & dairy science. The classes in your area of study are important because you’ll learn the information and skills that you need to enter your chosen career field. Many students also gain degrees that are more general and include a wide variety of subjects. These degrees might be called Interdisciplinary Studies or University Studies degrees.

  • Credits / Credit Hour – A “credit” is the small unit that makes up a degree. It’s what we use to measure college classes and study. A credit is like the reward you earn for attending classes, completing assignments, and doing other activities. Most college classes are worth 3 “credit hours” of learning.
  • Apply/ Application & Enroll: As you head back to college, you’ll hear the terms “Apply” and “Enroll” regularly. It’s important to understand the difference:

    • Apply: You may need to complete a few different applications as you head back to college:
      • C2C Survey Application: To see if you are eligible for unique services and grants available for adults returning to college in Mississippi.
      • Institution Application: To see if you are accepted at the college or university you’d like to attend. You will need to apply by completing an application in order to be admitted to the institution.
      • C2C Grant Application: To see if you can get a renewable $1,000 grant to cover college costs.
      • FAFSA / MAAPP: To see if you qualify for any federal or state-specific financial aid.
    • Enroll: Enrollment happens AFTER you’ve applied to the institution and been accepted. Enrollment means that you actually sign up for some classes. You’re not really “back to college” until you enroll and start learning again.
  • Transcript – A transcript is the official record of your progress toward a degree. It shows the classes you’ve completed at a college, the credits you’ve earned, and your grades or GPA (grade point average).
  • Transfer – Transfer is what happens when you move credits gained at one college to another. There are all sorts of reasons that someone might take classes at more than one college or university. Maybe this is you too… maybe you moved away from the community where you started college, or maybe you need to go to a larger institution where they have the degree program you want to complete. Whatever the situation, it’s very normal to need to “transfer” credits from one institution to another.
    This just means that you are applying classes you took at one college to the degree program at another college. 

  • Audit (degree audit) – Here’s a bit of background on degrees: every different degree requires a different set of classes that needs to be completed. It’s like there’s a “recipe” that needs to be followed before the school can award it. For instance, a bachelor’s degree in business might require 60 credits in various business topics like management, accounting, and business strategy, but it also requires 6 credits each of science, literature and arts, history, and other general academic topics. You might be able to take classes in biology, chemistry, astronomy, or something else to fulfill the science credits needed for your degree’s “recipe.”

    When you’re ready to go back to school, your C2C coach and/or admissions advisor will perform a degree audit to see how the classes you’ve completed in the past fit into the degree “recipe.” They’ll review your transcript(s) to evaluate what you have already studied and what kinds of classes you might still need to complete your degree. After your degree audit you’ll know what you need to do next to head toward graduation.

    Note: You might also hear the term “audit” to refer to a person who attends a college class without earning credits. Like this: “She audited the drama class at her local college because she wanted to become a better actress.”
  • Graduation Plan or Pathway Consultation – Your college should help you create the shortest path to the degree that’s right for you. This plan will include a degree audit of your current transcript(s) to ensure that you’re able to efficiently use the credits you’ve already earned.

These terms can feel confusing, but don’t worry: there is a step-by-step process for applying and enrolling and a C2C coach or admissions advisor can help you move right through each milestone… even if you hate paperwork.

But what about the money?

The MONEY terms for college can feel downright baffling. There are many different ways to pay for college, so there’s more to it than just “cash or card.” But don’t you worry, here’s a quick overview of common college money words:

  • Tuition & fees: Tuition is the cost of a year (or other term) of college. Most colleges mention a cost per credit hour so that you can easily compare prices between institutions, but sometimes they add additional fees (for things like technology, credit transfers, etc.). These fees can add to this stated tuition price.
  • Financial Aid: This is the general term for all the ways that you can SAVE money on the tuition. Thanks to financial aid, most people pay less than the college’s stated tuition. Here are some of the different financial aid options you might hear about:

    • Student loan: This is money that you can use to pay for student expenses but that you must eventually pay back. Some students get loans from the U.S. government or from private sources like banks.
    • Grant: A grant is money you can use to pay for college, but you do NOT need to pay it back. If you receive a grant, it’s typically a direct discount on the amount that you need to pay. Pro tip: If you live in Mississippi and you’re going back to college, you might qualify for the renewable C2C Grant. Learn more here.
    • Scholarship: A scholarship is a specific kind of grant. You don’t need to pay it back and it is money that can be used for college costs. Scholarships are usually awarded to students for a specific reason (i.e., they are playing sports for the college or they were part of a club like FFA (Future Farmers of America)). Sometimes scholarships require students to do certain things (like maintain a certain GPA) in order to keep the financial aid.
    • FAFSA: FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the application that students can complete to see if they qualify for money or loans from the U.S. government to help them pay for college. Completing the FAFSA helps you discover whether you can get a Pell grant or a federal student loan.
    • MAAPP: This is the Mississippi Aid Application. Students complete this to find out if they can receive grants or loans from the state of Mississippi. If you’re not a MS resident, don’t worry: your state probably has a similar option for financial aid.
    • C2C Grant: If you’re a Mississippi resident, you may also qualify for the C2C grant. It’s a renewable $1,000 grant that many students can use to pay for college costs each semester. Learn more here.
  • Financial Hold: Some students may have a financial hold at a college. This means that they owe the institution money, which prevents the institution from releasing their transcripts so that they can continue to attend the institution or transfer their credits. (Good news for C2C grant recipients: the C2C grant can be used to pay off this financial hold/debt.)

Other big words you can use at the pool party

There are a few other college vocabulary words you might hear. These words are not necessary to know but maybe you’ll feel smarter if you know them!

  • Matriculate: This is a fancy way to say “going to a certain school.” Like this: “I am matriculating at Jackson State University” or “My son Ke’il will matriculate at Hind Community College”
  • Articulation agreement: You might hear this term in the context of transferring credits. An articulation agreement is a formal pathway between colleges that ensures that credits can be readily transferred between the institutions. For instance, College A & University B might have an articulation agreement in place so that students can take classes at either place knowing that they will apply to degrees at the other college.
  • Commencement: This is fancy word for “graduation,” as in “I’m going to my dad’s commencement to watch him turn his tassel.”

The good news: You don’t need to keep all of these words straight

It can be confusing to keep up with college lingo, but it can feel even more terrifying to go back to college. There’s some good news for returning adults though: You don’t have to do it alone. In Mississippi the Complete 2 Compete (C2C) program offers unique opportunities for adult students who have some college credits but no degree.

Don’t waste your time memorizing all the lingo. Just complete the quick, easy survey to see if you might qualify for the C2C program. C2C participants get connected to an expert coach who helps them through the whole process of going back to school and graduating. Start now.

By the way, it’s FREE to participate in the program and many students even get renewable $1,000 grants.

Here are some recent comments from C2C participants:

“I participated in this program and was awarded my Associate degree in 2018 without having to complete any more schooling. This program was definitely a blessing for me.” – Yushikie

“I used the program, and my coach was AWESOME and very attentive to my needs. Alcorn State University Spring 2021 graduate.” – Chasity

“I was in the C2C program at JSU. My coach was so helpful. I was so thankful that I could go back to school after 10 years to finish my education. JSU 2021 summer graduate!” – Kamiko

C2C exists to make college attainable for adults who have some credits but no degree. Don’t stay confused… complete the quick survey application today to head toward your degree finish line!


C2C is a state program that helps Mississippi adults who previously attended college earn a degree and create a brighter future.