Back To School

By Ginny Frizzi

June 6, 2012 6 min read

Adults return to school for various reasons, including switching career fields, improving current skills or acquiring new ones to get a better job and earn more money. The many sources of education include technical schools, proprietary schools, online courses, community colleges and four-year universities and colleges.

What should adults pondering a return to school consider?

First, narrow your fields of interest. Do you want to become a teacher or a nurse? Have you always wanted to study business or journalism? Could you see yourself as a mechanic or a heating and air conditioning technician? Have you been interested in the medical field but aren't sure whether training as a technologist, physician's assistant or medical transcriptionist is right for you?

Once you have selected your main area of interest, begin researching the schools or colleges that offer it. Check out websites and other resources, such as online guides and the public library. If you know anyone who attended the program at the institutions you are considering, talk to them about it.

Make an appointment with the admissions office, and take a tour of the school, including any labs or facilities applicable to your major. If possible, talk to faculty members and students.

Most colleges and schools have staff members who work primarily with adult students and can answer questions about academics, costs and financial aid. They also may have adult student counselors and centers to help make the transition to school easier.

"Select the best college for you. Do not just do it to do it. Select carefully," advises Dr. Michael Provitera, author of "Mastering Self-Motivation."

Patrick Partridge, vice president of marketing and enrollment for Western Governors University, a nonprofit online university founded by 19 U.S. governors that provides affordable, quality education to working adults, offers suggestions when considering what school or college to choose.

"Does the school you are considering offer the degree program you need to advance your education and career?" he says. "If you're considering a teaching degree, will it prepare you to be licensed as a teacher? Is there a master's degree program that will help you progress in your profession?"

It is important to determine whether the school's programs are challenging and rigorous enough to be worth your time and money.

"Going to college requires a significant investment of time and money, so be sure to find out all you can about the coursework, quality of learning resources, and degree or program requirements. Easy isn't a good thing in this instance. When you finish, you want to know that you have successfully completed a demanding program that prepares you for career success," says Partridge.

It is critical to know whether the school is accredited. He points out that some online universities have regional accreditations, which is the same accreditation given to campus-based schools such as Harvard and Stanford.

"If the school you're considering is not accredited, your online college degree may not be respected by employers and graduate schools, so if it's not accredited, it's not for you," says Partridge.

Going back to school when you've been away for many years can present special challenges to adult students.

Provitera offers a number of practical tips, including preparing in advance by selecting your courses, getting the books and syllabus, and beginning to read as soon as possible, in addition to creating a personal library by collecting articles, magazines and books on your subject area.

"Know that you can do it. Many adults feel that they are weak in academics because they took so much time off. They are not weak; they just have to work a little harder to catch up," he says.

Provitera recommends planning well.

"Create space: School takes time. You will be putting at least 15 hours a week into school," he says. "Be aware of the professor. Professors are often in a place of pedigree, and they may look at you as a slacker or a late bloomer. Do not focus on that. They need you as much as you need them -- tenure or no tenure.

"Let your family and friends know that you will be busy for the next few years. Do not feel the stress or tension that comes with dedication to studies. Manage it all."

Get used to social media and email, advises Sean Cook of Cook Coaching and Consulting LLC.

"Make sure you know how to use the Web. It's not a fad but a basic skill," he says.

Another suggestion concerns living on campus, something that can apply to full-time students of all ages.

"If you plan to live on campus, be ready to compromise with roommates, and make sure you know residence life staff and policies. Many returning adults have difficult adjustments to campus living, and you don't want to be identified as a 'problem resident.' You will have to adjust," says Cook.

It is important to keep a positive frame of mind.

"Remember that you are better than the traditional student. You have experience, and that counts for a great deal," says Provitera. "Just jump in! Your future depends on it."

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