Are you thinking about going back to school? Do you have a degree you want to finally finish? Or is your career path pushing you to go back for your Master’s degree?
Going to college is always a big deal. Going back to school as an adult can be terrifying. Going back to school as a working mom might just seem downright impossible. I’m here to tell you that it is a big deal, it is scary, but it most certainly is not impossible.
For the better part of a decade, I have helped adult students go back to school as my day job. I’ve talked to thousands of women just like you who were dreaming of the doors of opportunity that a degree might open but worried and stressed and anxious about actually taking the plunge.
Do I have the time? Will my kids be okay? Will I be the oldest student in the class? How will I manage my busy schedule? Where will the money come from? Can I even remember how to write a paper? What if I can’t keep up or learn the new technology required these days?
The list of worries and fears and questions can be overwhelming. But let me reassure you, thousands of working moms start going to college every single day. It can be done. Your kids will survive. You are not the oldest student ever. It’s not too late. You will learn to make the time. There are financial options available. And in regards to the work and the technology and assignments, everything is figure-out-able.
As you begin to contemplate this journey, you’ll need to begin some research about where to actually go to school to complete your degree. These days there are a LOT of options. It is important to take this step carefully and look at many options to find the right school for you. Not every school is right for everyone. The best school for you might not be the one down the road or the one your co-worker attends or even the cheapest school. Here are the most important factors to consider (in my experienced opinion) when researching which college to attend as an adult student.
1. Accreditation. Accreditation. Accreditation.
If you haven’t worked in higher education before, there is a good chance that you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about or why this is important. I promise you, this is by far the most important question you will need to research.
There are lots of accrediting bodies in the United States that oversee and evaluate colleges, universities, and educational programs. Most colleges and universities are accredited by some agency. So if you were to ask, “Are you accredited?” Just about every school can say yes. That question isn’t the right one to ask.
Regional vs. National Accreditation
You want to attend a school that is regionally accredited. There are a number of regional accreditation bodies in the United States that evaluate and accredit schools. Regional accreditation is the “gold standard” accreditation in the U.S. All of your major colleges and universities are regionally accredited (Duke, Princeton, Notre Dame, Penn State, University of Michigan, and Ball State University just to name a couple). Your state schools and local community colleges are likely regionally accredited as well.
If a school tells you they are nationally accredited that means they are not regionally accredited, and probably not the school you are looking for. Nationally accredited schools are not necessarily “bad” schools. However, you will not be able to transfer your credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited school (in most situations). This is a giant deal. Also, your nationally accredited degree may not be considered when applying for jobs, industry licensures, and graduate school at regionally accredited schools. Also, a very, very big deal.
If I have one regret in my career it is not knowing more about accreditation and how important it can be. Find out the name of the accrediting body for the schools you are considering and make sure it is listed under the Regional Accrediting Agencies list here. If the school you really want to attend is nationally accredited, it doesn’t have to be a definite “no” but proceed with great caution and lots of research.
2. Delivery Method
You are a working mom. You have a house to take care of, a job to keep, kids to feed, and a husband to keep happy. Your life is vastly different from a traditional college student who is fresh out of high school with mom and dad footing their bill. You will likely need a degree program that is designed for non-traditional students. They are everywhere these days, so don’t lose heart.
Online? In person? Work at your own pace? Set schedule?
You need to do some soul searching and schedule examining and family talking to determine what options would be best for you. Do you need a fully online program? Does your preferred learning style require that you take classes in person (at night or even on the weekends)? Would it be best to have a program that comes scheduled out to help keep you motivated and moving forward or would you prefer a “work at your own pace” style program that allows you some flexibility to move more quickly during the slower seasons of your family life? All of these options are available at different schools depending on the degree you are looking to pursue.
Many working parents find that online programs work beautifully for them. My husband’s work schedule is intense and sometimes all over the place. He was able to complete his degree entirely online when an in-person program would have never worked for his schedule. However, some people need the structure and interaction that can only happen through attending classes in person. Only you know what will work best for you and your family.
3. Time Commitment
Will you go to school part-time or full-time? Will you take one class at a time or five? And what do those options mean at the school you are looking into?
Class and calendar schedules
Non-traditional programs can be very different from what most people are used to when they think of college. Many non-traditional (adult) programs are not built on a typical semester system. You might go to school all year round with just a few breaks around major holidays. Some schools have a work at your own pace option that allows you to complete your work whenever you want without traditional due dates or course start and end dates.
Weekly time commitment
It’s also a good idea to ask about the total time commitment anticipated each week. Usually, the college will be able to give you an estimate of how much time you will need to spend on your coursework. Don’t just factor in the time for sitting in class, also remember to add in time for studying, reading, and doing assignments.
Field experience, intensives, clinicals, or internships?
You’ll want to ask about field experiences and/or clinical hours that might be required for the program as well. In many programs, the intensives or field experience components are a very important piece of your learning, but you’ll want to know before starting a program what those requirements entail so you can work with your employer and your family to make arrangements when you get to that point of the program.
4. Cost and how to pay
You thought this should be first, didn’t you? Nope, I intentionally left this for the end. Cost is an incredibly important consideration when you are researching colleges and universities, but it should not be your most important deciding factor, especially as a non-traditional student.
Cheap is not always best. You get what you pay for.
I can guarantee that the cheapest college is nearly always going to be your local community college (for an Associate degree) or your local branch of your state college (for Bachelor’s degrees on up). These are wonderful options for many people, especially fresh out of high school traditional students hoping to graduate with the least amount of college debt.
However, community colleges and state schools are not known for their convenience, resources, and options. When going back to school as a very busy adult, convenience and options can often matter a lot more than money. A free education that you can’t attend because the classes are only offered during the hours you need to work in order to pay your bills is pretty useless.
If the cheapest school you can find offers the program you want, in the modality you need (online or in person), with a schedule that works for you, and they are regionally accredited then, by all means, sign up today. However, you might find that you have to pay a little more to get the kind of schedule or modality that you need. And this is okay. Don’t go crazy and pick the most expensive school you can find assuming that it will make your degree earning a piece of cake. It won’t. But recognize that money should not be your most important factor.
Discounts and employer tuition assistance programs
As a working student, you also have an advantage. Many colleges and universities are now partnering with employers to provide discounts and tuition assistance programs. If you are working, talk to your Human Resources department to find out if you have any educational benefits. They can also point you in the direction of schools that have already committed to offering a discount to the employees who work for your company. These discounts can often make a more expensive school much more affordable.
There are more options than crippling debt.
Going back to school will cost a lot of money, no matter what school you attend. There are a variety of ways to pay for school including grants, scholarships, employer tuition assistance, discount programs, student loans, and of course, personal payments. Don’t assume that college automatically means massive amounts of student loan debt. And please, only take out student loans for the minimum amount necessary to pay the costs you are unable to cover through other avenues.
The most important question to ask when considering going back to school as an adult.
The above four areas are things you’ll need to research for each of the various schools you are considering. However, the most important question to ask when you are considering going back to school as an adult is “why?”
Why do you want to go back to school? What are you hoping a degree will do for you, your family, and your career? What do you want to study? What factors have led to your decision to go back to school? Why now?
If you don’t know why you want to do this incredibly hard thing of going back to school as a working mom, you will never be successful. It’s going to take a lot of effort, time, sacrifice (for everyone in your family), and money. Don’t just jump into a degree program because you had a bad day at work. Take the time to truly know why you want to do this in the first place.
Once you know why, it is a whole lot easier to figure out how and when and what. But you have to start with your why. That why will help you keep showing up in the years to come as you struggle and question and doubt. You will know exactly why and it will propel you to keep taking the next step forward.
Today’s action step
If you’ve been dreaming of going back to school for a while now, take the next step today. Sit down and discover your why. Talk to your husband or other trusted friend about your dreams and desires as well as your fears. Schedule in some time over the next week to begin researching options for completing your degree.
It is scary and overwhelming and daunting. But I’ve watched so many people take the step from where you are right now to walking across the stage at graduation and I can promise you, it is possible and it is worth it.
If you have other questions about going back to school as a working adult feel free to leave me a comment or send me a message. I am considering future posts about this topic if there is a need.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this post belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.