Deciding whether to go back to school can be difficult, and you’ll need to consider a variety of factors to develop a plan that’s right for you.
Know why you want to go back to school
The first--and most important--thing to do is define your why. Are you hoping to land a new position in a career you’ve already established, or are you interested in working in a completely different field? Are you getting a degree to prove to yourself or your kids that you can do it, or to give your family a better life? Understanding your own motivations for going back to school will help you identify the degree options, programs, and schools that best fit your individual needs.
Do you need to go back to school?
Once you’ve identified your why, you might realize that going back to school doesn’t actually mean earning a four-year degree. If you’re hoping to be eligible for a promotion or to make a slight shift in your career, it’s very possible that just taking a few courses or earning a specialized certificate can give you the leverage you need to make that happen.
And if a certificate won’t do the trick for you, an associate’s degree might. Plenty of lucrative fields--nursing, for example--don’t require you to hold a 4-year degree in order to get a professional licensure. If you do find that you need to earn a 4-year degree to meet your personal and professional goals, there are lots of options that can make the process both affordable and convenient.
Know all your options to earning your degree
There are plenty of ways to tailor your higher education to your specific needs and preferences. Depending on where you live, you might decide to apply to a four-year institution or a community college nearby, but if you’ve got work and family commitments, getting your degree online can be an excellent way to save time and money.
If you’re new to online learning and want to try out some courses in a way that’s flexible and cost-effective, consider an online course provider like StraighterLine. StraighterLine offers more than 60 general education courses that have been accepted for credit by thousands of institutions in the United States. You can start your coursework the same day you enroll, and you can complete your classes on your own schedule.
If you feel ready to apply to an accredited institution, look for schools that understand and cater to the needs of returning adult learners. Western Governor’s University, for example, offers WGU Academy--a special admissions program that helps students who might not yet have all the requirements for full university acceptance demonstrate their college readiness and earn transferable credits that align to some of WGU’s most popular degrees. Many institutions offer similar programs, so check with the schools you’re interested in to learn about your options.
Your state may also offer some options to help you go back to school. For example, Louisiana residents can take advantage of the Compete LA program, designed to help adult students return to school and finish their degrees at participating schools in the Louisiana University system. Compete LA lets you choose from a wide variety of ways to restart your degree programs, and you can choose traditional, hybrid, or online learning options. As you begin exploring college options, do a little research to find out whether your state offers something similar.
Paying for school as an adult
As an adult student, you’re probably conscientious about money and wonder how you can pay for school in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the quality of life you and your family are used to. Fortunately, there are a lot of affordable options that can help you keep costs down while still enabling you to complete your degree at a reputable institution.
The first thing to consider when you’re thinking about affordability is credit transfer. The more credits you can transfer into a program, the more affordable your degree will be. If you’ve previously taken college courses, be sure to work with your school’s Registrar’s offices to see if any of your previous credits will transfer. However, you don’t necessarily have to have earned your credits from an accredited university to transfer them. You may also be able to transfer credit through programs like CLEP, StraighterLine, or other ACE CREDIT.
Program affordability is important, too. Online programs like WGU can be very cost-effective--instead of paying for credit hours each semester, you’ll pay a flat fee and you can take as many courses as you like. If you decide to attend a school that offers face-to-face or hybrid classes, try community colleges or state universities. Often, these types of institutions are much more affordable than your more traditional programs.
Remember that you don’t need to have all the money up front. Federal or private financial aid can be a big help, but it’s important to learn about the aid process and requirements. Talk to the financial aid office at your target school to learn more about your eligibility and the application process. Also, see if your workplace offers any perks. Many employers offer aid programs for employees that may discount or even eliminate the cost to you for getting your degree.
Checklist for Adult Learners Thinking About Going Back to School
So, if you’re considering going back to school, follow the five steps below to help guide you in your search for the right program:
- Define your why
- Determine your certification or degree needs
- Research potential programs based on criteria like your readiness, course needs, and state or employer relationships
- Explore your financing options by talking to a financial aid representative at the schools you’re interested in
- Choose the program that’s the best fit for you
If you’re still feeling stuck, give a StraighterLine enrollment counselor a call at (877) 787-8375 to talk through some of your options. You can do this!
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.
Looking for study tips for succeeding in online college courses? Check out this great article: Tips for Effective Online Learning