Returning to School After a Break? How to Find the Right Program


In the Seattle metropolitan area, there are over 750,000 people who have completed some college but have not yet earned a degree.

Many things can get in the way of completing a degree: job opportunities, family obligations, college readiness and limited finances are just a few. But no matter what the reason for taking a break, life changes substantially, with many people juggling working full time and balancing family obligations. A traditional college experience may no longer be an option. How do you find the right program that is flexible enough to adapt to a busy lifestyle? Here are some key questions to ask.

How flexible is the course delivery?

There are three different ways that course content can be delivered: fully face-to-face, fully online, and a hybrid, or blended, model, where most content is delivered online, but there are some required face-to-face class sessions. Face-to-face courses tend to work best for traditional students who live on or near campus and do not need to work full time while going to school. Fully online courses provide adult students with the most flexibility, but many struggle to complete these courses because it is easy to let it fall off the radar. It’s also a more isolated experience. Fully online courses tend to work best for students who live far from campus and who are self-starters and can keep themselves motivated even without face-to-face contact. Research shows that adult learners have the highest success rates in hybrid courses. Hybrid courses deliver most content online, but have occasional face-to-face sessions, allowing students to network with classmates and their instructor and engage in project-based learning in a community setting.

What student support services are available?

Ask about what kinds of student support services are available, and about when they are available. At many universities, offices supporting students are only open from 8-5, making it difficult for working adults to fill out paperwork, visit the financial aid office, and meet with faculty and advisers. Look for a program that offers extended hours and one where staff are hired specifically to support adult learners.

What is the policy for credit transfers?

Before choosing a program, ask both about the transfer credit policy and about what kind of credit the new program offers. Make sure the credits are transferable in case you need to relocate before graduating. Ask specifically whether the new program’s credits would be transferable to other universities. Also, be aware that there is a difference between college credit and CEU (continuing education units). CEU credits do not count toward a degree nor are they transferable. Make sure to carefully check out any for-profit schools. At many for-profit schools, the credits are not transferable to other institutions.

What forms of financial assistance are available?

Look for programs that offer federal financial aid. Ask the admissions counselor about aid deadlines and opportunities for financial assistance. Ask if students are given a dedicated financial aid counselor. Once assigned a counselor, ask about tuition deadlines, aid disbursement dates and the possibility of payment plans.

What kinds of student advising programs are there?

Universities frequently use one of three adviser models: professional advisers, faculty advisers, or a hybrid model where students are assigned both a professional adviser and a faculty adviser. The hybrid model offers access to both a specialist on university policies, forms, deadlines, and procedures (the professional adviser) and a subject matter expert (faculty adviser) who can give career advice, suggest specific courses to take in order to meet academic and professional goals, and give advice on preparing for the job market.

Is the faculty dedicated to adult learners?

Ask if the program has full-time faculty dedicated to the program and if those faculty members have experience teaching nontraditional students. Adult learners have different needs and experiences than traditionally aged students. Some programs serving adult students “borrow” faculty from across campus. While these faculty members are subject matter experts, they may not have experience teaching adult students. Look for a program that hires full-time faculty specifically to teach adult students. Above all, look for a program that is centered on students’ academic and professional success. Adult students have many more demands on them than traditionally aged students. It’s important to find a program that understands these demands and whose faculty, staff, and administration are there to support students as they complete their college degrees.

Does the faculty have real-world professional experience?

Read the biographies of the faculty on the web page and look for faculty who have both academic degrees and professional experience. Faculty members with real-world experience in the field are able to give you first-hand information about the nuts and bolts of your chosen profession. They are able to talk about the lessons they learned in their own professional experiences, and they’ll be able to pass along both the subject-matter expertise and the practical examples explaining how what a student is learning applies to real-world applications.

What kinds of job-placement assistance does the program offer?

Ask if there is a Career Center and what services are offered to both current students and alumni. The Career Center should assist with editing your résumé and cover letter, provide a list of area job openings and host regular job fairs. Ask if the program curriculum includes any assistance with job market readiness. Look for programs that help students build their e-portfolios and offer opportunities to practice interviewing. Ask about opportunities to intern and other ways in which the curriculum helps you practice your skillset before you are in the job market.

What is the job-placement rate for graduating students?

Make sure that your program is tracking job placement and that any established program can tell you what the job placement rates are and what the percentage of in-field placements are. You might also consider asking to speak to a current student about his or her experience in the program.

What networking opportunities does the program provide?

Look for a program that allows you the opportunity to network with faculty, fellow classmates, and professionals at varying levels of seniority in the field. Some programs now have very creative ways of cultivating networking opportunities: guest speakers, conferences, meet-ups, and “field trips” to places of business are just a few ways that programs might facilitate networking. These opportunities will allow students not only the chance to practice important networking skills, but also to hit the job market with a list of professional contacts. Remember that, though schools are evaluating applicants when they make admissions decisions, applicants, too, should think of themselves as evaluating programs. Prospective students should take their time and do their research, but, ultimately, trust their instincts. Earning a bachelor’s degree really does change people’s lives.

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