The adult learner’s guide to choosing a college
Choosing the right college can be a complicated feat for anyone. According to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, more than one-third of college students transfer schools before completing their degrees, sometimes more than once.
While this trend is becoming more common, transferring can extend the amount of time you spend in school and make the process more expensive. For adult students who have professional and family obligations to keep in mind, choosing the right college from the get-go can feel particularly important.
If you’re focused on choosing a college, know that one of the best ways to ensure you find the right fit is to have plenty of conversations with enrollment representatives from the schools you’re considering. Keep these 11 questions in mind as you approach these conversations — the answers they yield could lead you to the college that can help you make your career aspirations a reality.
10 Questions adult learners should ask admissions teams before choosing a college
As you continue your college search, consider these important questions. Then use our college comparison worksheet to help focus your options. Download your worksheet.
One of the first questions you’ll want to ask of the colleges or universities you’re considering is, “Is your school accredited?” Whether or not an institution is accredited by an agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation is important because, while you may assume accreditation is a requirement for all higher education institutions, it’s actually voluntary.
It’s also important to learn whether a school is nationally or regionally accredited. Regional accrediting organizations operate in specific areas of the country, while national accreditors can accredit schools across the entire country. The latter may sound like the better option, but it’s actually true that credits from regionally accredited institutions are more widely accepted—and thus more easily transferrable.
An institution must comply with rigorous standards to achieve accreditation. Schools must maintain a Campus Effectiveness Plan and undergo an annual review that analyzes everything from financial stability to student retention. They also need to allow announced and unannounced site visits from agency representatives—a practice accreditors utilize to ensure all standards are being met.
Why does accreditation matter? There are risks associated with attending a non-accredited school. Many employers will only hire job candidates who have earned a degree from an accredited college. Employers want to ensure the individuals they hire have been adequately prepared to work in their industries.
You may have garnered some college credits before either taking some time off from school or deciding to transfer to a different institution. If so, you’ll want to be sure you enroll in a college that will accept your transfer credits.
At Brandman University, for example, the process is fairly simple: you send your transcripts in for evaluation and then speak with an academic advisor to determine the best path forward with your hard-earned college credits. Institutions like this may also apply military service and coursework for academic credit based on American Council on Education (ACE) guidelines. And depending on the professional experience you’ve gained over the years, you may even be able to leverage some of your work experience for college credit at qualifying institutions by taking a prior learning assessment.
If the school you’ve set your sights on doesn’t have transfer policies in place that will help you apply as many credits as possible toward your degree, you might want to take that as a sign to look elsewhere.
Graduation rates can be an important indicator of a college’s ability to prepare students. If any of the schools on your list don’t make their graduation rates available on their website, understand that could be a red flag. If your discussion with an admissions representative reveals the institution doesn’t even track this metric, you may want to cross that school off your list.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), graduation rates are the calculated percentage of students who complete their program within a specified time frame. And while this metric may not seem that important at first glance, it’s helpful to consider the fact that schools with low graduation rates may end up harming students more than helping them, as students who don’t graduate end up accruing debt without a degree to show for it.
The NCES reports that the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree in 2010 was 60 percent. Other findings suggest that only 33.7 percent of non-first-time students completed their degree.
This knowledge allows you to view graduation rates — such as Brandman University’s impressive 82 percent graduation rate for non-first-time students — and understand how different schools compare to the national average.
The primary difference between public and private colleges has to do with funding. Most public institutions are government-funded, while private schools rely heavily on tuition and private donations. This is why it can sometimes be more affordable to attend a public university.
Public colleges also tend to be larger, which results in larger class sizes and expanded program offerings. The benefit private colleges is that class sizes are smaller and there’s often more support available to help ensure student success.
During your search, you may also come across both nonprofit and for-profit college options. A nonprofit college is publicly owned and is managed by a board of trustees — something that paves the way for the state and federal funding mentioned above.
A for-profit college operates more like a business. They’re launched and managed by shareholders who are looking to make a profit. In this sense, college rankings are important to for-profit colleges and often serve as a motivation to continually provide high-quality education to keep enrollment up.
Note that public, private, for-profit and nonprofit colleges can all offer students an equal level of education. As you work toward choosing a college, it’s best to target your preference on tuition, class size, financial aid opportunities and program offerings to best determine which type of school could be the right fit.
Some educators dedicate their careers to the classroom. But for certain fields, you may find it’s actually more beneficial to learn from professors who remain working in their industries. Instructors who are also working practitioners in their fields can provide students with current, real-world case studies and other resources that are relevant to the topics they’re studying. Incorporating some elements of their own industry work can enhance class discussions and help prepare students for today’s workforce.
Consider technology, for example. Our technological landscape is drastically different than it was 10 years ago — even just five years ago. Educators who are continually immersed in the field as it evolves can often provide students with the most relevant, up-to-date education in those subjects. It’s also true that faculty members who are actively working in their fields may be able to connect students to additional networking or mentorship opportunities. If this factor is important to you, make a note to bring it up during your conversations with admissions teams.
Tuition is at the forefront of many college hopefuls’ considerations when searching for the right school. The last thing most working adults want to do is accrue debt. You should be prepared to have an open conversation with admissions representatives about the overall cost of any program you have your sights set on.
But remember the amount you’ll actually end up paying may be lower than the sticker price of tuition at your college of choice. You may qualify for scholarships or grants that could cut down the cost of attending your program. Many institutions offer a handful of their own scholarships or grants. This is worth looking into as you’re shopping around — and you’ll want to pay particular attention to whether those options are only available to first-time undergraduate students.
While you can certainly search on your own, it’s helpful to have an expert help you identify reputable options. Aggregate scholarship sites like Fastweb and Scholarships.com, for example, can help you narrow down grants and scholarships for adult students like you.
You could also approach your employer to learn about potential tuition assistance options at work. Some organizations will partner with a college to offer scholarships to employees as part of their benefits programs. Or, you may be able to show your employer why investing in your education is in the best interest of the organization. Whatever the case may be, look into this option for some potential financial relief.
Most college students, whether they’re traditional undergraduates or adult learners like you, will have to take out some type of loan to help pay for their education. While private loans are available, many students opt to utilize federal student loans — funds that must be repaid with interest.
When students fail to make timely repayments of their federal student loans, this results in default. This means every college and university has its own student loan default rate. It’s important to keep track of this metric at different schools for a few reasons.
Evaluating a college’s student loan default rate can help indicate how well that particular school prepares its students for success. Low default rates indicate that alumni are employed, have put their degrees to work and are able to pay back their student loans. High default rates can result in some serious penalties for an institution, such as losing access to federal loans for students. That loss of federal funds would inevitably hike up the cost of attendance by forcing students to pursue private loans.
As you get closer to choosing a college, look for schools that openly share their student loan default rates on their websites. For example, Brandman University’s student loan default rate is 5.5 percent — about half of the national average of 10.8 percent.
Many adult students don’t have the option of forfeiting their full-time job to pursue a degree. For that reason, they may find the flexibility of online, hybrid or night classes to be more fitting for their lifestyle needs.
As you evaluate your options, you’ll want to find out whether different schools have academic resources readily available to students learning in nontraditional formats. Students participating in online or night classes may not have the luxury of strolling into an academic support center during normal operating hours, so on-demand resources can be a huge help.
It’s a good idea to ask admissions representatives about student support services. See whether there is technology support available to online learners who may run into issues while using online classroom platforms. You may also find that some institutions offer web-based tutoring in subjects like writing, math or even multimedia writing and design support to help you create media projects for your classes.
Because you may need to continue working full-time while pursuing your degree, it’s important to ask about the flexible learning formats a particular school makes available to its students. You’ll want to be sure you find a college that takes all students’ varying educational and lifestyle needs into account.
Course-based programs are the most traditional. They allow you to study fully online or in a hybrid or blended learning format at a nearby campus. Programs like these offer some distinct benefits to adult students. They offer learners the option to participate from the comfort of their homes and, when applicable, during convenient evening classes.
If you’re looking for even more flexibility — including the opportunity to apply prior work or life experience to help you progress through your courses more quickly — you might consider looking for a school that offers self-paced or competency-based program options. In programs like these, you take a prior learning assessment to prove your knowledge on concepts you’ve already mastered. You’re also able to control your schedule and the pace at which your courses are completed. This may result in less time (and money) spent earning your degree.
While your in-college experience may be the focus of your attention right now, you’ll want to make sure you don’t lose sight of the goals you hope to achieve after graduating. You might consider looking for an institution that’s committed to working alongside its students during their collegiate experience as well as after they graduate to help them achieve their career goals.
If securing a position soon after school is important to you, you’ll want to find a school with a strong career services department. Quality career services programs assist students and alumni in their career planning and exploration processes. These departments may offer assistance with assembling portfolios, learning how to network, practicing interview techniques, negotiating salaries and more.
It may also be worth looking into the potential internship or field placement opportunities within the programs you’re scoping out. Brandman University, for example, boasts many programs that incorporate these as components of the required coursework. This provides students with valuable industry experience before earning their degrees and can even lead to job opportunities after graduation.
Kick-start your college search
Are you feeling better prepared to launch your college search? Now that you’re armed with some must-ask questions, you can enter admissions conversations knowing what your priorities are when choosing a college.
To make this process a bit easier for you, we created a downloadable college comparison worksheet that you can use to keep track of your options. Use this handy resource to get your college search started.
Download your copy here to keep track of important notes during your school search: College Comparison Worksheet
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