For traditional students, the decision to attend college is almost a given - something that is instilled in them throughout their high school years - and one where parents, teachers, and counsellors are often available to assist with plans and resources. For adults returning to school, the path is much more self-driven, and requires a great deal of thought and research.
If you are considering returning to school, there are several steps that you should take before you even begin to research specific schools or apply to a given program. Proceeding through these steps will help you to formalize your goals, and develop a cohesive plan for realization.
Identify Your Motivation
An individual’s decision to return to school can be motivated by a variety of factors. Some choose to return to school for professional reasons, such as a desire to advance within the workplace, a need to increase one’s earning potential, or a desire to change careers. Others may choose to return to school for personal reasons, such as personal fulfillment, setting an example for one’s children, or accomplishing a long-delayed goal. Whatever the reasoning, identifying your motivation will help you to determine why returning to school is of importance, and whether it will be worth the personal and financial sacrifices.
You should also take time to consider the details and timeline related to your goal, such as:
- Do you only want to take a few courses, or complete a degree program?
- Are you willing to take your time, or do you want to complete your studies as soon as possible?
- Do you have a specific subject that you wish to study, or are you still exploring the possibilities?
- Are you comfortable with online learning, or do you need a more traditional learning environment?
Knowing what it is that you want - and having a rough idea as to how you might go about it - will be beneficial in determining your commitment, both in terms of time and money, and will help to you to hone in on what areas you need to research.
It is important to take notes during this process, for you own reference, but also to help fuel conversations with family, colleagues, or academic advisors.
Review Your Finances
Higher education can be expensive, but can also reap financial rewards. It is critical that you review your financial portfolio, including available assets, outstanding debst, current expenses, and projected financial needs. Make note of what funds you have (or expect to have) available to contribute to your education upfront, or whether you can reorganize your finances to free up additional funds.
While returning to school is often a positive investment, funding can be a concern. A good first step in determining what financial assistance might be available is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This free online form will help you to determine if you qualify for any federal loans or grants. You may also want to look into the tax credits that are currently available to you at both the state and federal levels, as well as any funding opportunities through your employer or community affiliations.
When speaking to an academic advisor or admissions director be sure to inquire about financial resources that are available to non-traditional students, or to students in your specific program. You may learn about scholarships, grants, or exclusive benefits. For example, the College of Charleston School of Professional Studies offers a discounted tuition rate to all students in the Bachelor of Professional Studies program.
Finally, it is important to consider whether the financial benefits of taking a given class, or completing a degree will offset the investment. You may be already be aware of the potential outcome - perhaps a bonus or salary increase tied to taking certain courses or obtaining a degree/certification - or your salary expectations might be purely hypothetical. If you are unsure as to how your income might change post-study, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is an excellent resource, allowing you to view hiring trends and earning potential across industries and levels of education. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cites that individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree typically have an income that is nearly twice that of individuals who only hold a high school diploma.
Examine Your Schedule
Adults who return to school typically do so while working either a part-time or full-time job, and attending to familial responsibilities. This prospect can be daunting - especially to those who struggle with time-management, or those who tend to over-commit - but it is certainly achievable.
Examine your current schedule and see where you might fit in time for your studies, remembering to factor in not only the time spent in class, but time for studying and commuting as well. Be both honest and realistic about what commitments you might be able to dismiss, and how much time you can devote to school.
Once you determine how much time you realistically have available, you will have a cohesive plan: what you want to achieve, what you can afford, and how much time you expect to devote.
Consult with Your Family
If returning to school seems like a viable option, it is important to consult with your spouse, partner and/or family before taking the final step. While you are focusing on a personal or professional goal, the time, commitment, and financial investment involved can have a direct impact on your family life.
Schedule a time to have an open and honest discussion about what you plan to do, making sure to share your reasoning for setting this goal. Clearly explain what sacrifices and compromises might need to be made, and what help you expect that you will need.
Throughout your discussion, demonstrate that you are trying to be considerate of others’ needs and concerns, and that you are open to suggestions for a workable solution. Don’t forget to highlight how this decision might benefit the family as a whole - no matter how insignificant that benefit may seem. If your spouse/partner/family feels invested in your goals, they are much more likely to offer their support.
Find the Right Fit
With all of the questions that you have pondered, and the information that you have gathered, you now have a fairly good sense of what you hope to accomplish. Now, you need to find the right school and setting to best make your goal a reality.
Make a list of the majors or concentrations (or individuals certificates or courses) that you are considering, as well as “need-to-haves” and “nice-to-haves” in terms of the program or the school itself, and begin researching the possibilities.
While an internet search can yield a lot of information about what programs are available, it is always best to investigate beyond what is written on a school’s website. If possible, contact the department directly with your questions, by phone, e-mail or an in-person visit. This will not only help you find answers, but will give you a sense of the school itself, and whether the staff will be available to assist as needed.
Many schools also offer student testimonials on their websites, which can also help give a more personal view of the program and its outcomes.
Deciding to return to school can present overwhelming amount of indecision, planning and anxiety, but you do to have to face these challenges alone. The College of Charleston School of Professional Studies is eager to help students to formulate and realize their professional and personal goals, while maintaining a healthy school-life balance.
To learn more about what our degree-completion and evening programs have to offer, contact us today.