The time has come. After 120,000 miles, long drives, and countless errands run, it is time to trade in my car and buy a new one. After watching a glossy commercial for a luxury car, I was tempted to run out to the luxury dealership with a down payment. Another day, I saw a commercial for a local showroom with great incentives. I was ready to head down and drive off the lot with the best deal I could find. Luckily, I didn’t do either. Instead, my wife and I spent the past few weeks doing our research. This included deciding what we can afford, what features are important, which aren’t necessary, calculating gas mileage based on our commutes, and generally becoming experts in the auto industry. Purchasing a car is a large financial investment. We plan on owning the car for a long time, so it will affect our day-to-day lives for the foreseeable future. It is an important decision that we cannot take lightly.
The same is true with a college education, but too often adult learners make hasty decisions when deciding to go to school. These quick decisions can be detrimental. They may take on too much debt, choose the wrong major, or select a school that’s a poor fit academically. So, what should adult learners consider when deciding to go back to school? Here are important considerations to take to ensure a successful academic experience that will pay off now and well into your career.
Online or On-Campus
Even before the pandemic, the trend in higher education was moving toward online learning. More and more schools were beginning to offer partially, or fully, online degrees. And it’s not just a handful of specialized schools. Virtually all colleges are offering at least some online coursework. The benefits for adult learners are obvious. The convenience allows them to maintain a healthy work/life/school balance. While the majority choose the online route, this shouldn’t be an automatic decision. Some majors like engineering are better suited for an in-person and hands-on environment. Other majors, like nursing and education, require coursework in-person to earn a licensure to practice. Young professionals may benefit more from the networking that is offered in on-campus classes. It’s important to balance convenience with these other factors when choosing your modality.
How and What to Learn
The landscape of higher education is constantly changing which can make it difficult to find the right academic program for you. Like most other industries, the rate of change is rapid. Our traditional idea of a college class might be a distinguished professor lecturing to a large class for 90 minutes twice a week and testing students with midterm and final examinations. But academics have realized that adults do not learn best in this format, and it’s incompatible with an increasingly digital delivery format. In other words, there isn’t a one-size-fits all curriculum anymore. This is especially true for schools that cater to adult learners. For instance, many colleges offer “competency-based” programs. This format is appealing because it allows students to complete coursework on their own time. They are evaluated by demonstrating real-world knowledge in required subject areas through projects or tests. You need to select both a program of study and how the content is delivered.
I started this post with the car analogy for several reasons, but mainly for the cost factor. Any time we make a big purchase, we try to minimize costs. A college education however is best seen as an investment rather than a cost; there are financial benefits to a college education after all. There are several ways to mitigate costs for adult learners. For instance, you can consider schools that will award credit based on prior work experience or training. Employers may have partnerships with colleges that offer discounts or programs that reduce or eliminate out-of-pocket costs. Working adults often have a tuition benefit from their employer that they can utilize. The federal and state governments offer aid programs for those that demonstrate need. Education is important for our workforce and society in general. And colleges recognize the knowledge adults have demonstrated already. Because of this, the “sticker price” is often much higher than what adult learners eventually pay out of pocket.
This is not an exhaustive list of what a typical adult learner should consider when going back to school but it’s a basic start. Many factors to consider fall within or are closely linked to these categories. In any event, a college education is an investment of both time and money. Like any big decision, you’ll have a better chance of making the right decision by giving it the proper consideration.