Deciding to go back to school is a big deal, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the elements likely to factor into your decision. Should you look for an online school or take classes in person? What should you major in? And what type of degree or certification do you need to land your dream job? Choose the path that’s right for you by asking yourself these three important questions.
1 - Why do you want to go back to school?
Going back to school can be an excellent decision, but when you’re a busy adult with competing priorities like a family and a job, finding the motivation to earn your degree can be hard. That’s why it’s important to focus on your reasons for continuing your education. Are you looking for a promotion or an entirely different career? Are you hoping to earn more money, or are you trying to maximize your flexibility? Is your employer recommending you earn your degree, or are you hoping to show your kids the value of an education? Knowing your why can help you stay engaged and goal-oriented.
2 - Should you go back to school online or in-person?
As you consider whether going back to school is right for you, ask yourself if you’re more likely to succeed in an online or on-the-ground program. You can earn a wide variety of associate’s, bachelor’s, and graduate degrees entirely online or in programs that offer face-to-face programs, so take some time to think about the advantages and disadvantages of both options.
- Flexible scheduling. Online programs often offer flexible term dates, and some programs like StraighterLine even allow you to work entirely at your own pace.
- Cost effective. Competency-based programs like those offered at Western Governor’s University or StraighterLine can save you thousands of dollars as compared to traditional programs. You pay a flat fee and then control how many courses you complete.
- Less time to earn your degree. Competency-based programs also save you time, because they allow you to demonstrate what you already know--no need to sit through weeks of material you may have learned on the job or in a previous course.
- Less structure. Some online programs are so flexible that people who thrive on schedules and due dates may find it difficult to stay motivated or keep up with work.
- Requires comfort with and access to technology. Going to school online is certainly easier if you have some tech skills, and a personal device and a good internet connection are essential.
- No face-to-face connection. While plenty of people feel they can connect with others virtually, some students find that a face-to-face connection helps them learn more easily and stay invested in course material.
- In-person communication. If you thrive on the energy of face-to-face discussions or want the ability to chat with professors and students after class, an online program may not engage you in a way that helps you learn.
- Local connections. Both community colleges and universities generally have relationships with local employers and agencies. If you’re looking to land a job in a specific geographic area, choosing a school with local ties may help.
- Less reliance on technology. If you’re not entirely comfortable with using technology, or if you don’t have reliable access to a good internet connection, a face-to-face program may offer you a better course experience.
- Less flexibility. Face-to-face programs have adapted to meet students’ needs somewhat, but most still operate on a fixed-term system.
- It’s certainly not true that all face-to-face programs cost more than online ones, but face-to-face classes at a university will generally cost you more than a term at a competency-based school. Also, if you’re taking face-to-face classes, you may need to factor in additional costs, like childcare or transportation.
- More time to degree. Depending on when certain classes are offered, or if classes are full, you may not be able to get into the classes you need as quickly as you’d like.
Can you afford to go back to school?
Paying for school is a major financial consideration, but a degree might not be as out-of-reach as you think. Both online and face-to-face schools offer scholarships and financial aid, so be sure to discuss your options with a prospective school’s aid office. (Depending on where you are in your career, though, you may want to take some time to research what you’re likely to earn with a specific degree or in a particular career to ensure that you’ll make enough money to pay back any loans you take out.) Remember, too, that you can save money by transferring in as many credits as possible, or by taking general education or pre-requisite credits through an online course provider like StraighterLine. We hope that once you’ve answered the three questions outlined in this post, you’ll feel more confident about whether going back to school is the right path for you. Anissa Sorokin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Stevenson University near Baltimore, Maryland. Anissa’s interdisciplinary background and extensive experience teaching research, writing, and study skills help her demystify college expectations for students online and in her classroom. Curious about what it’s like to take a class online? Try one of StraighterLine’s college courses, guaranteed to transfer to one of more than 150+ partner colleges, today.