Various changes in your financial, professional and personal circumstances can force you to consider going back to school, whether it’s to earn your first degree, finish one you started long ago or change careers altogether. And you’re not alone. The number of adult, or nontraditional, students is increasing and makes up close to 40 percent of the college-going population, according to the American Council on Education.
Many factors should be considered before you can even think about enrolling in a college or signing up for classes. A good first step is to define your educational goals. Why are you choosing to go back to school? What kind of degree are you wanting? In what field(s) are you interested? With those beginning answers in hand, a simple Internet search will garner you a list of possible schools.
Taking a few more criteria into consideration will help you narrow down your options. Do you want to attend full time, or do you need to work a day job while attending classes part time? Are you comfortable completing a degree online, or do you prefer a physical classroom? Are you willing to relocate? What is your education budget?
Keep track of the information you collect, perhaps on a spreadsheet. Noteworthy details include:
- Location: Where is the school? If you are unwilling to move, is the location compatible with your current commute to work, family obligations and personal commitments? Does the school offer online courses? Can the entire degree be completed using distance-learning? Does the college offer night or weekend classes?
- Accreditation: Accreditation ensures the college meets standards of quality, recognized by potential employers and other schools. The U.S. Department of Education hosts a database listing all postsecondary schools and their accreditation status.
- Cost: For many adults, cost is a key factor. How much does a course cost? How many credit hours make up the degree program you are considering? Is this affordable for you?
- Financial Aid: Financial aid comes in many forms–grants, scholarships, assistantships and loans. Most, but not all, schools offer some form of financial aid. If financial aid is important to you, be sure to contact the school to discuss your particular situation to see what you’d qualify for when applying.
- Graduation Rates: What percent of students graduate from that college? For many programs, you can find this information on the school’s website. If you cannot find it, don’t be afraid to ask the school for it. This small piece of information will give you important insight. A low graduation rate indicates the school may not be providing a valuable, supportive environment for students.
- Support for adult learners: On that note, what extra services and support does the school provide for adult learners? Some schools offer free technology classes, writing labs, academic tutoring and low-cost childcare.
In addition to the above factors, it is wise to research schools using national interactive websites that provide helpful statistics at a glance.
Although online research is the easiest way of obtaining helpful statistical data, it also can be useful to engage college advisors and alumni to get empirical data. After you narrow your choices, contact an advisor in your degree interest and ask questions. Make sure that the degree the school offers is in line with your educational and career goals. Ask for the contact information of a few of the program’s alumni to talk about pros and cons of the program, what kind of work they are now doing, and how well the degree program equipped them for their current jobs.
Going back to school is not a decision to make lightly, but with a little patience and a lot of research, you can make a well-informed choice that will move you toward feeling personally and professionally satisfied.