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How To Choose a Continuing Education Program

By Marie Field

Deciding to head back to school can be one of the most important and exciting decisions you’ll make, but getting what you want out of this experience can be tricky.

Know your school options. Being an educated consumer is essential in deciding where to look for a continuing education program. Speak with students who currently attend or alumni who have exited the program to get first-hand feedback. The reputation of the school is significant since selective employers value some programs and they’re dismissive of others. Focus on your area of interest, and find professional organizations or societies that can give you an idea of how a school ranks nationally. Check with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education for accreditation information. And don’t be shy about talking to recruiters directly for feedback on programs they respect.

Get what you need. Whether you simply want to enrich your intellectual capacity or gain a degree in order to change careers, knowing your end goal is essential before you can even begin to contemplate what type of school or program to attend. Katherine Stahl, Executive Director of the American University Career Center in Washington, D.C. says, “I always encourage returning students to get a good sense of what they want to do, to decide what they are passionate about and to identify and align one’s interests with his or her intended career path.” Be sure to choose a school that has accessible advisers who can help evaluate your goals and assist you once you’re ready to put that degree to work.

Assess your intended profession. If you’re considering continuing education to improve job prospects or even change careers, it’s important to attain the skills your prospective employers’ desire. For example, if you currently fulfill a public relations role in a non-profit organization but wish to move into a management position within the same sector, you may need to undertake business courses that teach both analytical and communication skills. Check with others in your desired industry to see whether a company will pay for related coursework or if there is a chance for promotion with a new degree.

Weigh benefits against drawbacks. Cost, program reputation, study time, and location are all issues to assess before choosing a program. One of the biggest roadblocks for someone considering going back to school is a financial one. It’s more difficult for continuing students to earn scholarships; many institutions require a full schedule—12 credit hours a semester—in order to receive financial aid. Assess what is really important aside from earning an additional degree or certificate. Focus on time, family, and work obligations that may hinder the experience.

Start slowly. If possible, sign up for one or two classes to measure the workload and assess how much you feel you can handle. You may find that a full schedule works for you; on the contrary, you may wish to enjoy a slower pace. Some universities offer accelerated courses and evening and weekend classes in order to speed up the process and accommodate to continuing education students.

Create a schedule. There’s nothing worse than feeling overwhelmed. Whether it’s arranging childcare to stay with your kids while you’re studying, or making an effort for the activities you currently engage in, a good schedule will reduce stress and allow you to enjoy your studies.

Meet people. Half the fun of going back to school is meeting new people. Look forward to it. Everyone knows that as you get older, it becomes more difficult to meet new people with similar interests as yours. Take advantage of attending courses with like-minded people.

Marie Field is a journalist with QS Network, a leading education and career network. QS links undergraduate, graduate, MBA and executive communities around the world with the best employers and education providers.