A year ago, I returned to school after a 10-year absence. When I earned my master’s degree in 1997, I thought I was finished with academia. However, my career took a few unexpected turns in the years that followed. I moved into teaching at a local university, and, after a few years, I realized that I was facing a relatively permanent glass ceiling in my chosen profession unless I bit the bullet and went back to school for a Ph.D. Here then, are a few tips I learned in my search for the right university.
1. Don’t simply default to an on-line university because it’s the easiest option. If you want your intended degree to pay off for you in the long run, you need to choose a program with the best reputation possible, given your abilities and aspirations. There’s a reason Harvard grads are more hire-able than those from that small private college down the street from you. Because of its competitive admissions standards and its high level of education, Harvard produces graduates who consistently perform well in the workplace. This doesn’t mean you should go Ivy League or not at all. It simply means that you will be better served going to the most competitive program you can get into. Purely on-line universities typically have open enrollment (meaning that anyone who has a high school diploma or GED will be accepted); as a result, these programs will never carry the reputation of a more competitive university. While this may be fine if you are already well respected in your field and simply need that “piece of paper” to get to the next step, most returning students will benefit from selecting a school with a strong reputation in the workforce. You may need to inconvenience yourself more in the short term, but the benefits of a more prestigious degree will pay off in the long run by making you more hire-able and desirable.
2. Once you have identified some schools that interest you, look to see if an evening, accelerated, or “executive” track is offered. These programs, which are becoming increasingly prevalent as traditional schools seek to woo mature students, offer schedules that are more conducive to the needs of a working adult. Some options include evening courses; smaller, more interactive classes; and accelerated programs that allow you to shave a year or more off your study time. As an added bonus, these programs will likely put you in contact with other mature students, so you won’t be faced with a class full of teens and 20-somethings.
3. If you are pursuing a master’s degree and can afford to take time out to study full time, look into programs in the United Kingdom. Many (although not all) master’s programs in the UK are one year, rather than the two years traditional in the US. Make no mistake – it’s an intensive year; however, you may be able to earn a comparable degree from a reputable university in half the time. Since overseas students pay more, the financials will likely be a wash, but you’ll be back in the workforce that much sooner.
4. Be aware of the difference between “commuter” schools and more traditional universities. A commuter school is one with little on-campus housing, so students typically live in the surrounding community. By contrast, a more traditional school will have on-campus housing to handle a significant percentage of attending students. Why does this matter? Commuter schools typically cater to working adults, so the average age of the student body is likely to be closer to your age bracket. If you are favoring a more traditional “dormitory” school, don’t be discouraged. Check to see how many on-campus housing placements are available to married couples and families. This will give you an idea of how substantial the population of mature students will be.
5. Be sure that the program you choose is properly accredited. Degrees earned from unaccredited institutes aren’t generally worth the paper they are printed on or the money you invest in them. The accreditation that is appropriate to you will depend on the program you are attending. For an overview of U.S. accreditation agencies, check out the following U.S. Department of Education link: http://www.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/edpicks.jhtml?src=ln. Beware of so-called “diploma mills” that offer extensive credit for past life experience. Any institution willing to give you college credits for work activities that weren’t set up or supervised by that institution is probably not accredited. If simply living on the planet were enough to earn a higher degree, there would be no need for universities at all.
Returning to school after many years away can be an intimidating experience. Choosing the best program for your needs will help to facilitate a more positive learning environment and ensure that you get the best value for your time and money. It’s an important choice, so take your time and select a program that will meet both your short- and long-term needs.