How to choose a college: 6 questions adult learners should ask themselves
Making the decision to head back to school as an adult can be tough. There are a number of important elements to keep in mind. You need to consider the affordability of earning a degree, the impact on your work-life balance when you add school into the equation and whether or not you can leverage any existing college credits you may have.
If you’ve decided heading back to school is the right move, you then need to turn your attention to choosing a college. Choices that may seem to be more clear-cut for traditional undergraduate students gain a new complexity when you consider the commitments and obligations of adult life.
“The challenges are different,” explains Laura Mumford, associate director of enrollment services at Brandman University. “Nontraditional students face the complexity of incorporating education into an already busy life.”
In an effort to find a program that suits your career goals and fits your lifestyle needs, it can be helpful to zoom out and examine the full picture. With that in mind, we’ve spoken with a handful of professionals who have experience with the adult learner’s college search to help identify six questions you should ask yourself before enrolling.
How to approach choosing a college as an adult student
When encountering adult learners in the throes of their college search, Mumford shares some of the most pivotal inquiries she encourages all students to consider: “We want to challenge students to dig a little deeper and consider what their experience will be as a student. How likely are they to be successful at their chosen university? What kind of support will they receive along the way?”
Keep this guidance in mind as you begin your college selection process.
6 questions adult students should ask when considering how to choose a college
There’s a lot to consider when choosing a college. Reflecting on the following questions is a great place to start.
1. What can I afford?
For many students, borrowing the funds through student loans is the only way to make the dream of earning a college degree a reality. But if you want to ensure you don’t get too buried in debt, it’s worth thinking about the maximum amount you’re willing to pay for your degree.
Some schools offer tools that allow you to estimate your total tuition cost. Brandman University, for example, allows future students to explore their financial aid options by using its personalized net price calculator.
Do some research during your college hunt not only to compare the sticker price of tuition at the various schools on your radar, but also to explore funding opportunities outside of student loans. Look into the scholarship offerings at each school and double-check to see whether you could qualify for any. Exploring employer partnerships or other forms of assistance can also have an impact on the school or program you choose.
“Talk to your boss about wanting to go back to school — don’t hide it,” encourages Josh Rubin, who owns Post Modern Marketing and employs a number of professionals who have chosen to go back to school as adults. If you speak to your employer while you’re still in the decision-making phase, you may find that you qualify for some kind of tuition assistance.
2. What type of program can I fit into my schedule?
The uptick in online, hybrid and self-paced programs has made going back to school more convenient for busy adults. But not all schools will have the modalities you’re seeking, which can vary depending on how your schedule will look once you add college courses into the mix. If you’re looking for the convenience of a fully online degree path, make sure the schools you’re considering offer that option for the programs you have in mind.
You may find yourself drawn to both the flexibility of learning online and the impact of face-to-face instruction. Hybrid or blended learning models could be the right fit, but they’re less common than fully online programs. These programs leverage a mix of in-person and online learning to best meet the needs of busy students.
If you’ve accrued a healthy amount of professional experience in your field, you could use that to your advantage in a competency-based model. These programs allow you to demonstrate your mastery of what you already know so that you can dedicate your collegiate efforts to learning new concepts. This has the potential to help you complete your studies faster.
3. Is location important?
If you plan to attend some or all of your college courses on campus, location is likely a prime concern for you. In addition to ensuring the school is a manageable distance from your home or job, you may also want to consider whether the general feel of the campus seems like a good fit. Michelle McAnaney, founder of The College Spy, stresses the importance of scheduling a visit if you plant to attend classes on campus.
“Choosing a college is about finding the right chemistry, feeling comfortable on campus and being excited about the programs and opportunities offered,” she explains. “For most, when you are there, you just know — even if you can’t put your finger on why.”
If you’re planning to enroll in online courses, there are still some environmental considerations to keep in mind. Online classrooms require a healthy amount of independence and discipline from students. For that reason, you’ll want to be sure you’ll have access to a dedicated study space that will allow you to stay focused and productive. If you don’t have the space (or quiet) at home, consider scoping out your local library.
4. Will my previous credits transfer?
Many adults considering enrolling in a degree program have already earned some college credits in the past. If you’re among them, you don’t want to let those hard-earned credits go to waste. Fortunately, some schools have enrollment coaches ready to help you apply as many credits as possible toward your degree. The more credits you’re able to transfer, the less time and money you’ll have to spend toward earning your degree.
If you find that one of the schools on your short list doesn’t seem willing to work with you to streamline your transfer process, you might want to look elsewhere.
5. Is this a military-friendly school?
If you or someone in your family is a military service member or veteran, it’s important to note that not all colleges and universities are equipped to best meet your needs. You’ll want to be sure the schools you’re interested in have a robust Military and Veterans Services department that will help you navigate the education benefits offered to you. In addition to providing tuition assistance, some institutions can help you apply military service and coursework for academic credit.
Brandman University, for example, offers military service members and veterans with ranks E7 and above to earn a master’s in organizational leadership in as few as seven classes by transferring applicable military-related training.
How can you evaluate a particular school’s standing in this realm? Look into whether it has earned an official Military Friendly® designation. This survey represents the longest-running, most comprehensive evaluation of higher education institutions’ ability to adequately serve military and veteran students. For the best possible experience, consider schools that exceed the Military Friendly® standard by achieving Gold status or higher.
6. What is the school’s track record with previous students?
One of the best ways to get an accurate picture of the colleges you’re considering is to speak with individuals who’ve experienced those schools. “My biggest tip for choosing the right college is to take some time to interview current or former students about some of the things you won’t learn in the admission process,” Rubin offers.
Rubin recognizes the importance of this step based on his own experience. He found out too late that the class structure and demands of his first college choice weren’t compatible with his full-time work commitments. It ultimately caused him to drop out.
Another way to tune into the pulse of student success at a particular institution is to review things like the graduation rate, student loan default rate and student satisfaction metrics. “The results of our student satisfaction survey speak volumes,” Mumford says of Brandman University, adding that 92 percent of students say that they would recommend Brandman to a friend.
“Students choose Brandman because of our high degree of individualized support,” she explains. “The university is truly committed to the individual success of each student. We don’t just care about enrolling students, but want to ensure they complete their programs and achieve their goals.”
This culture of support is why, at Brandman University, 83.7 percent of returning students reach their degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is well above the nationwide average of 66.4 percent at non-profit institutions and 42.9 percent at private for-profit institutions.
It’s time to find the right college for you
Selecting the right higher education institution can be intimidating. So, as you consider how to choose a college, keep these six questions top of mind to ensure you end up at a school that will meet — or exceed — your expectations.
Each step you take toward choosing a college may come with increased anxiety about returning to school as an adult learner. But rest assured, you’re more prepared for success than you may realize. Learn more by reading our article “7 Reasons why adult students actually have an advantage in the classroom.”
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