Thinking About Going Back To School?

Here's how to find a program that's perfect for your needs.

Nontraditional students over the age of 25 currently make up 39% of postsecondary students and are a growing number. And colleges are taking notice. If you’re considering going back to school, these tips could help you get to the head of the class:

  • Decide what you want. “Know what your long-term goal is and why you wish to continue your education,” says Jane Schoenfeld Shropshire, president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a Fairfax, Virginia-based professional association for educational consultants. If you’re unclear about your goals, attending seminars sponsored by professional organizations or taking classes at a local community college could provide clarity without full commitment to a structured program.
  • Find a way to pay. Mary Bulla, director of academic programs at Southwestern College in Wichita, Kansas, and executive director of the Association of Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education, advises first talking with your employer. Many companies offer tuition reimbursement, and those that don’t might be willing to offer at least flexible working hours. She also encourages adults to apply for financial aid from the federal government.
  • Study before you enroll. Gather all the information on educational requirements as well as current and projected trends for your intended industry. It’s important to also evaluate prospective schools’ placement rates and networking resources. Visit www.back2college.com, a Website dedicated to adult education. And consider reading A Guerrilla Manual for the Adult College Student: (Booklocker.com; $24.95).
  • Investigate accreditation For online programs it can be particularly difficult to distinguish between accredited programs and diploma mills that churn out degrees to anyone with a credit card. Check credentials with your chosen school’s admissions office or the state department of education. If the school is less than forthcoming, take that as a red flag that further research is warranted.
  • Seek help. With so many educational options for professionals and working adults, choosing the best program can be confusing. A consultant can help you wade through the selection and application process. Consultants can also help you package your educational and employment background to improve your chances for admission to the school of your choice. Educational consultants can be found through the IECA’s Website: www.educationalconsulting.org. In addition, the Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education (www.antshe.org) provides information for nontraditional students.
  • Give yourself credit. If you’re returning for an undergraduate degree, the College-Level Examination Program exam could save hours of class time and thousands of dollars in tuition. CLEP is accepted at thousands of colleges and, in a nutshell, gives students of any age college credit for life experience.

In addition, there are scholarships for adults from financial institutions like Sallie Mae. Talbots, the women’s clothing retailer, offers a scholarship for adult women seeking a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, or women who are returning to school at least 10 years after graduating high school or obtaining their GED. Also, use the Internet as a source. “There are a lot of free scholarship search engines,” says Bulla. They include www.fastweb.com, www.scholar ships.com and www.collegeboard.com.

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