Returning to school as an adult is a big decision that takes a lot of planning. Choosing a school, deciding on a major, and applying for financial aid each take time and careful consideration. With the added challenges facing continuing education as an adult, juggling family, work, and school can make the prospect of continuing education an overwhelming idea.
Before online education, the only options available for adult learners were traditional college education or night school. However, the power and prominence of the Internet has created an array of options that make returning to school just a little simpler for adults with other important obligations. While it does take discipline, an online continuing education is a wise solution for adults who are serious about earning a degree.
The Challenges Facing Continuing Education
For most traditional college students, planning for college after high school doesn’t include planning around a career or around family obligations, such as children or a spouse. While adults have important obligations to work around, continuing education is possible if you consider all of the factors.
First of all, you’ll need to consider if getting a degree is necessary for you. While it’s generally accepted that additional education is a good thing to have, you’ll want to evaluate if it is something that is necessary for you and your goals. For instance, if you became a business owner without a college education, is it really necessary to pursue one now? If you have a bachelor’s degree and you’re able to earn a promotion or change careers without additional education, should you take on the responsibility of continuing education?
It’s also important to examine the costs associated with continuing education. The financial responsibility that comes with an education is a substantial one. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 2014 average student debt was $33,000. Add in a master’s or doctorate degree and the number skyrockets.
Tuition costs rise annually. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2013-2014 school year was $8,893 for in-state students at public universities, $30,094 at private universities, and $22,203 for out-of-state students at public universities. Make sure you’re prepared to take on that kind of financial obligation.
Of course, the cost of a college education includes more than just the financial obligation. For adults this is especially true, as time constraints and other responsibilities play a part in the decision to return to school. Working adults need to consider whether their current careers afford the opportunity to go to school full or part-time. Full-time work schedules mean 40 or more hours spent with your employer. If you have children, a spouse, or both, you’ll have even less free time available to complete class assignments.
Taking courses on-campus can be a difficult task for adult learners. For busy students, it takes serious motivation to make the time commitment. Some people who work night jobs choose the traditional route for college, but this is a large obligation and takes dedication and planning. To alleviate this, many colleges now offer programs designed specifically for adult students.
Classes are usually held at night and only require weekly attendance. To meet course hour requirements, weekly attendance classes meet for blocks of 4 hours at a time. This means you may need to head to class straight after work in some cases, which could be exhausting. You’ll also have to make child care arrangements if you have young children.
While adults face several challenges associated with continuing education, making the decision to further your education will be a fruitful opportunity if you tackle the challenges and work towards attainable goals.
Tackling the Challenges
Once you have decided to officially go back to school, you can begin counteracting any present challenges with a plan.
One of the biggest questions adult learners face is paying for college. There are many options available if you don’t have the money to pay out-of-pocket. Grants and loans are the most common form of financial aid for adult students.
One of the first things you should do is to fill out the FAFSA. Even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for aid, you may be surprised to see that you could qualify. If you’re returning to school for your master’s, keep in mind that you most likely won’t qualify for a Pell Grant. Pell Grants are awarded to graduate students in a few exceptional cases, however.
Grants and scholarships are preferred over loans. However, for many individuals, loans may be the only option. The FAFSA will determine your qualified loans and loan amounts. These loans will always be government funded. If you don’t qualify for enough government aid, you can supplement with private loans. Be wise about the loans you choose and become educated on the differences between federal and private loans.
- They are funded entirely by the government.
- The interest rate is fixed and usually lower.
- Recipients may qualify for subsidized loans, for which the government pays the interest while you are in school.
- There is no credit check necessary (except for PLUS loans).
- You will be eligible for the federal loans consolidation program (Direct Consolidation Loan).
- They may require payments to be made while in school.
- They may have variable and high interest rates.
- There may be required credit checks and potentially a cosigner.
- They may not offer deferment or forbearance options.
- You are not eligible for the Direct Consolidation Loan Program.
If you’re lucky enough to work for an employer who will pay for your education, this is certainly an advantageous option. Check the terms of your employers’ tuition funding program, as it may have certain requirements that you can’t or don’t want to meet — such as maintaining a certain GPA or working for them for a determined amount of time after graduating.
Family obligations are also one of the biggest deterrents from going back to school, but resourcefulness and a willingness to allow others to help can alleviate any associated stress. If you’re married and you have children, your spouse will likely take on the responsibility of home life while you’re in class. Single parents, however, might find it a little more challenging. Childcare is expensive, but if you have understanding family members or friends, they might be willing to care for your children while you attend class.
Building a support system is beneficial. Having others in your life who understand the challenges of adult learning will make your decisions less stressful. People who know the challenges you face are more likely to lend a hand when you need it.
Another solution is online continuing education. Learning online certainly isn’t a new concept, but it is a good fit for many adult learners.
Exploring Online Continuing Education
Going to school online is convenient for many students, and it might be just the solution for you. Learning online takes serious time-management and dedication to complete your work. Online courses are very different from the traditional format. There’s not nearly as much guidance, and you are generally left to teach yourself the course’s content. However, most instructors are helpful and flexible. They offer resources and reminders, and they make themselves available to answer questions as necessary.
There are several scheduling formats for online courses. While many offer the traditional semester-long calendar like campus-based classes, some adult-centered programs offer courses in 5- and 8-week sub-term formats to better accommodate adult needs. This allows you to take multiple classes in a semester, just as traditional college, but you can buffer them by taking only one or two classes per sub-term. You won’t lose any time while completing your degree, and in some cases, you may even finish sooner than a traditional degree allows.
Online courses take a certain about of self-discipline. While you’ll have due dates for assignments, there may not be traditional homework or classwork. You will not have lectures. There is, however, an extensive amount of reading and research. You’ll have to pace yourself and develop a rhythm of reading, working on assignments, and turning in assignments on or before their due dates.
There are also some other intimidating factors that keep adults from embracing online continuing education. A study by Merrimack College in 2010, discovered three prominent fears that often plague adults who are considering returning to school:
- Fear of loss of control
- Fear of technology
- Fear of the unknown
The same study also identified the top barriers that keep adults from entering education programs:
- Afraid they’re too old to begin online education
- Low grades in the past, not confident of their current ability
- Not enough energy and stamina
- Don’t enjoy studying
- Tired of school, tired of classrooms
- Don’t know what to learn or what it would lead to
- Hesitate to seem too ambitious
Interestingly, online education isn’t nearly the monster that it appears to be for many students who are embarking on online education for the first time.
Overcoming Online Education Fears
While the study breaks down the fears associated with online education, they are possible and simple to overcome.
- Fear of loss of control:
The idea of independent learning scares many people who are used to the traditional classroom setting. The very setting that gives people control over their own schedules and lives can be overwhelming to many. But independent learning doesn’t always mean that you’re left to your own vices.
Online instructors provide plenty of guidance throughout the course. Email your instructors if you have any questions. Many are understanding if you can’t complete an assignment or two on time, if you have a legitimate excuse. While instructors expect you to be committed to completing coursework, they understand that life happens, and they are particularly understanding of the unique challenges of adult learners. It’s important to use every resource at your disposal. Remember that online education is meant to give you control over your life, not take it away.
- The fear of technology:
This fear is particularly plaguing to older students who may have a difficult time using computers. However, even if you’re an older student, you aren’t untouchable and you still have the ability to learn. Basic technology only has a slight learning curve, but if you take time to understand how things work, it’ll make the prospect of online education seem less intimidating.
There are endless tutorials available online to help you navigate the Internet, computers, and even application suites like Microsoft Office. Online learning platforms, such as Blackboard, come with instructions, tutorials, and tech support if you ever need it.
- Fear of the unknown:
This fear is not one that is easily tackled. The truth is that none of us know what the future brings. Not everyone who takes online classes will be successful. But if you plan, prepare, and dedicate yourself, you’ll have a better chance at success. The worst thing to do is to obsess over the unknown. Instead embrace it, arm yourself with information, and move forward.
Your Next Steps
It’s important to take the time to really consider if continuing your education is best for you. At this point in your life, is continuing your education worth the investment? If you have decided that it is, then you’re ready to get started.
- Begin researching colleges and universities. Are you aiming for an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s, or an advanced degree? Pay particular attention to the admissions requirements. There may be entrance exams required or even recommendation letters. Look at all options available for various schools. What course formats are offered?
Check to see if there’s a program specifically for adult learners. Don’t hesitate to email staff and faculty of particular departments to see what information they can offer.
- Fill out your FAFSA. Remember: don’t forego the opportunity to get financial aid just because you think you won’t qualify. There will be an option on the FAFSA to include the school codes for the schools you’re interested in attending.
- Talk with your family and close friends about your decision. Building a strong support system is one of the most important things you can do. Let them know how important returning to school is for you. Also make sure they understand the time commitment it will require.
- Explore the potential of online education. Continuing your education online will give you freedom that isn’t found in a traditional classroom setting. Every learning environment has its challenges. The challenges of online learning can be overcome, as long as you have a realistic understanding of what this format entails.
- Acknowledge your fears, but find ways to work through them. The solution to calming most of your fears is simply a matter of becoming more educated about them.
You should be armed with all the tools you need to start on the right path towards continuing education. The most important tools are confidence, dedication, and bravery. Your goal of earning a degree is ultimately in your hands. Whether you choose a traditional or an online format, you can accomplish whatever you set out to do.