No matter your situation — whether you never went to college, you didn’t finish, or you’re considering going back for professional development — it’s possible to restart your academic career. In fact, you might even be in a position where you’re now better equipped to make decisions about your education that will benefit you and your career in the long run.
It is a great time to think about going back to school. With online learning more accessible than ever, there are even more options available for those who may be in a less traditional position for going to college.
Our back-to-college checklist can help you get started on pursuing your goals in higher education easily and affordably, no matter your age or previous educational experiences.
Why Go Back to College? The Benefits of Higher Education
You can reap a number of benefits by going back to college to complete your degree. The largest benefit may appear in the form of your salary. Generally, college graduates earn more than their high school diploma counterparts.
According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank in New York in 2022, young professionals with college degrees earned about $22,000 more per year than those with only a high school diploma. The median wage for a young, high-school-educated, full-time worker was $30,000, while the median wage for a college-educated full-time worker was $52,000.
In addition to a salary boost, going back to college can be a fruitful and fulfilling experience, especially if you’re looking to switch careers or take yourself to the next level in your profession. By taking the right steps, going back to college can be achievable for anyone.
The Steps to Going Back to College
Step 1: Do a Personal Assessment
As you prepare to go back to college, do a personal inventory. Ask yourself some important questions and be honest with your answers so you can set realistic goals and discover a new, fulfilling path. Consider asking yourself:
- What skills do I have? Make a list of past work experiences, tasks, or achievements. Were you good at them? What did you like about that job? What did you dislike?
- What interests do I have? Consider the activities you enjoy. What are you naturally good at? What makes you happy outside of work? What don’t you like doing in your spare time
- What work values do I have? Consider what kind of work environment or projects you’ll be the happiest with. Do you prefer to work alone or with others? Working with your hands or mental work? Indoors or out? Office or home? Do you thrive under tight deadlines? How well do you handle chaos?
- What’s my current situation? Keep in mind your specific circumstances and goals. Did you never go to college in the first place? Are you going back to finish a degree? Are you hoping to pursue some professional goals? Do you have other personal obligations outside of academic work?
Once you’ve taken the time to be reflective, you’ll have a better understanding of your interests, needs, and the sorts of academic and professional pursuits that will be fulfilling for you. Take your findings from this personal inventory and start investigating career paths, colleges, and/or course options that align with your skills and interests.
It’s never too late to ask yourself, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Going back to college can help you get there.
Step 2: Compare Your Options
Now that you have a better idea of the path you want to take, it’s time to consider the different options you have for going back to school. Just like it’s important to understand your needs, interests, and strengths, it’s also important to make a careful and informed decision about how you go back to pursue your degree. Different pathways work better for different people.
Here are some aspects of education programs to keep in mind when comparing your options:
- Schedule flexibility: Some schools or education options may have asynchronous classes, meaning you watch lectures or instructional videos on your own time and at your own pace. Others have synchronous classes, where you’re expected to be in a classroom or on a video call at a given time.
- Cost: Various educational options will have different costs associated with them including tuition, books, and other expenses like lab fees for science courses. If you choose to attend classes in person, make sure to also consider living or transportation costs.
- Prerequisites: You may have previously started a degree, or you might not have any college credits on your record. Regardless of your situation, you’ll have to be aware of whether the program you're considering has any prerequisites you need to complete before getting started.
With these variables in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of your options for going back to college.
Open Enrollment & Rolling Institutions
Open enrollment institutions are places where you can register to take classes as you need, as long as you pay the tuition and fees. Online and community colleges often offer open enrollment and provide a variety of developmental classes for students who need to address educational gaps or take prerequisite classes before starting a different program.
One of the advantages of some online institutions is that in addition to open enrollment, they also offer rolling enrollment. This means you can start and finish your courses at your own pace rather than according to a calendar schedule. For some, this may mean taking a class quickly; for others, more slowly.
Associate degrees are a type of undergraduate degree that you can often earn in two years. It’s the level of qualification above a high school diploma, but below a bachelor’s degree. Typically, online colleges or community and technical colleges fill this niche.
For many, an associate degree can lead to a bachelor's degree through credit transfer to a 4-year public college, particularly for those who start at a public community college with transfer agreements at their state universities. The majority of students attending associate programs are commuters and don’t live on campus. Only 28% of community colleges offer on-campus housing with only 1% of community college students choosing to live on campus.
Bachelor's degree programs are the most common and traditional form of college education. These are 4-year degree programs where you study a specific subject within a major or a certain program. Almost all traditional colleges offer bachelor's degree programs, but some colleges are more selective in admitting students than others.
There are plenty of online institutions that also offer bachelor's degree programs. Students earning a bachelor's degree, depending on the type and location of the institution they attend (online, regional, etc.), vary in terms of on-campus or off-campus living choices.
There has been a rising popularity in recent years for online or non-traditional bachelor’s degree programs. The growth away from attending traditional campuses has less to do with the amenities these colleges provide and more to do with the flexibility and low cost that online programs offer. For some students, the ability to take classes anywhere and at any time is a huge advantage. For others with fewer obligations, a traditional campus can work.
Online Education Options
Online learning is a great option for many people looking to pursue a college degree in any form. Many online education programs offer a variety of degrees or courses that students can take to earn credits.
Most online education providers also offer opportunities to transfer credits from their classes to other institutions of higher education. They’re also a great way to fulfill any prerequisites you might need for a particular major.
StraighterLine, for example, offers over 60 courses that our students can take to earn credit and transfer to one of our partner colleges where we can guarantee your transfer of credit.
Step 3: Learn About the College Credit Transfer Process
Depending on the educational option you decide to enroll in, you may need to become familiar with the credit transfer process. The process can seem ambiguous, but some institutions will help guide you through the process, particularly if they have partner relationships with other schools.
Others may require you to do more digging on your own. Be sure to contact the appropriate office of the college to which you plan on transferring to understand their policy and what they will consider as course equivalencies. A course equivalency maps out which classes taken elsewhere are equal to specific courses offered by the receiving institution and are therefore acceptable as transfer credits.
Make sure you have access to previous transcripts earned at other institutions and can provide the necessary information to the school you’re looking to switch into.
There are some common scenarios in which you may find that you have to transfer credit:
- Previous college experiences
- A two-year degree program
- Prerequisite or general education courses taken online
- Past work experience/continuing education exams
- Military training
Usually, there’s no guarantee that credits you’ve previously earned will be accepted at a school to which you’re looking to transfer. Accepting these credits is up to the receiving school. Some schools have partnership agreements that will guarantee transfer credit, like StraighterLine. StraighterLine partners with over 150 colleges to guarantee credit transfer to any of these institutions.
Familiarize yourself with common pitfalls to avoid when transferring college credits.
Step 4: Have a Good Grasp of the Cost of College & Your Finances
While going back to college may seem like a major financial commitment, it’s important to remember that your education is an investment. You’re spending money now that will pay off throughout the rest of your professional life.
In most cases, you’ll be paying to go to college. How much you pay, however, largely depends on the type of institution you choose. So, the biggest question on your mind is likely, “How do I pay for college?” And, “How do I make it as affordable as possible?”
To make sure that you’re setting yourself up for success — academically, professionally, and financially — it’s crucial to consider all of your financial aid options.
Federal loans are offered by the U.S. Department of Education, and they’re divided into two categories: subsidized and unsubsidized.
Subsidized loans are determined based on your financial need, and these types of loans will not charge you interest while you’re in school. To be considered for a subsidized loan, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
To receive an unsubsidized loan, you do not need to demonstrate financial need, but these types of loans will immediately start to accrue interest, even while you’re still in school.
Private loans are loans that you can take out from a bank or another financial institution. These loans may be more expensive and have higher interest rates than federal loans.
Federal & State Grants
The federal and some state governments offer a variety of grants that you may be able to apply for and use toward your education. There are three common types of federal grants:
- Federal Pell Grant: these grants are awarded to students who display exceptional financial need and are working toward a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree. Pell grants do not need to be repaid.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): these grants are also awarded to students who display exceptional financial need, but they’re awarded directly through a school’s financial aid office. These grants do not need to be repaid.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant (TEACH): these grants include a condition that recipients complete a teaching service obligation.
For state grants, you can check your state’s education website for more information.
There are many institutions, organizations, and communities that offer scholarships for a wide variety of students meeting different eligibility criteria to attend college. Some even offer scholarships for “non-traditional” students, including adults who may be going back to college.
There are several websites, including Scholarships360, that keep updated databases of available scholarships and tips on how to apply.
Employer Tuition Reimbursement
Employer tuition reimbursement is when your employer covers some or all of the costs of your education. In many cases, this happens when you’re pursuing a professional degree or some sort of professional certification. Not all companies offer this opportunity, but if you’re working full-time and you’d like to increase your skills in your current career, this is a great option to investigate.
Check with your company’s HR department to find out if they offer an employer tuition reimbursement program.
Consider Non-Traditional Degree Options
Non-traditional degree paths, like taking certain courses online and then transferring the credit to the college of your choice, can have a huge impact on your savings. By taking courses online, and at your own pace, you can put your money toward the courses that matter most for your goals without spending thousands of dollars in tuition or room and board.
With StraighterLine, for example, the total average cost of one course comes in at $158 (the price of a monthly membership plus the average price of one course). That means you can start taking college courses on your own time, at your own pace, for just a fraction of what they would cost at a brick-and-mortar college.
Step 5: Consider Job Placement & Career Opportunities
If you’re going back to school because you want a new career or you want to shift direction, make sure to keep in mind what you’ll be doing after you get your degree. It can be an important part of making your decision about how and where you’ll go back to school.
Some educational institutions are better known for certain programs, or they have more robust job search and job placement support for their students. Others may have connections with certain companies or relationships within particular industries. If you have a good grasp of the professional trajectory you want to take after leaving school, making decisions based on these types of support can make a big difference once you have your degree.
Step 6: Plan for Success
Now that you’re ready to go back to college, it’s time to plan for success! Remember: you’re investing in yourself. Stepping back into the role of a student as an adult can be challenging, especially because your experience may be different from some of your academic peers.
They may live on campus, and you might not. They likely don’t have many other commitments, while you may have a family or are working a part-time or full-time job. It’s important to plan and prepare for these differences to ensure you achieve the educational success you’re working toward.
Here are some tips to make the most of this exciting opportunity:
- Assess the course catalog ahead of time to be prepared to take the classes most appropriate for your goals.
- Build a relationship with your advisor to help position yourself for success in your academic pursuits.
- Give ample consideration to your class schedule to ensure you’re setting realistic expectations for yourself and your school commitments.
- Prepare the important people in your life (boss, co-workers, family members) for what your schedule is going to look like now with your new responsibilities and priorities.
StraighterLine Can Help You Get Back to College
Become one of the more than 45,000 students a year taking advantage of StraighterLine’s proven education programs. With classes in diverse subjects and a guarantee of transfer credit to over 150 colleges and universities, StraighterLine is here to support you. Returning to college has never been easier with StraighterLine’s 24/7 student support services, wide array of classes, and schedule flexibility.
Preview a StraighterLine course or start browsing our courses to take the first step in going back to college online!
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