The adult learner’s guide to choosing a college [Free Worksheet]
The college research process can be complicated for anyone. As an adult student with professional and family obligations, choosing the right college is especially important. You need to find a program that offers you the support and flexibility to fit school into your already busy life.
As you begin to think about what to consider when choosing a college, it’s helpful to have some questions in mind. These prompts can guide your research as you compare different schools to find the best fit.
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How to choose a college: 10 Questions adult learners should be asking
One of the best ways to ensure you’re choosing the right college is by having plenty of conversations with enrollment specialists from the schools you’re considering. There are several important questions to consider, especially those concerning financing, accreditation and student support.
Use our college comparison resource to help focus your research. Download your interactive worksheet here.
You will first want to ask the enrollment specialists, “Is your school accredited?” Whether an institution is accredited by an agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation is important. While you may assume accreditation is a requirement for all higher education institutions, it’s actually voluntary.
Why does accreditation matter? There are risks associated with attending a non-accredited school. For example, it may be difficult to transfer credits if you decide to get a higher-level degree. Plus, some employers will only hire candidates who have earned a degree from an accredited college.
It’s also valuable to find out whether a school is nationally or regionally accredited. Regional accrediting organizations operate in specific areas of the country, while national accreditors can accredit schools across the entire country. The latter may sound like the better option, but credits from regionally accredited institutions are more widely accepted—and thus more easily transferrable.
An institution must comply with rigorous standards to achieve accreditation. Schools must maintain a Campus Effectiveness Plan and undergo an annual review that analyzes everything from financial stability to student retention. They also need to allow announced and unannounced site visits from agency representatives — a practice accreditors utilize to ensure all standards are being met. Depending on your chosen field of study, there may be additional industry accreditations that signal a quality program.
You may have earned some college credits before taking time off from school or deciding to transfer to a different institution. If so, you’ll want to be sure you enroll in a college that will accept your transfer credits.
At UMass Global, for example, the process is fairly simple: you send your transcripts in for evaluation and then speak with an academic advisor to determine the best path forward. Institutions like this may also apply military service and coursework for academic credit, based on American Council on Education (ACE) guidelines. Depending on the professional experience you’ve gained over the years, you may even be able to leverage some of your work experience for college credit at qualifying institutions by taking a prior learning assessment.
If the school you’ve set your sights on doesn’t have transfer policies in place that will help you apply as many credits as possible toward your degree, you might want to take that as a sign to look elsewhere.
The primary difference between public and private colleges has to do with funding. Most public institutions are government-funded, while private schools rely heavily on tuition and private donations. This is why tuition levels are often a bit lower at public universities.
Public colleges also tend to be larger, which means they have more program offerings but also bigger class sizes and longer wait lists. One benefit of private colleges is that the student-to-faculty ratio is typically lower, classes are readily available and there’s dedicated support services to help you graduate on time.
During your search, you may also come across both nonprofit and for-profit college options. A nonprofit college is publicly owned and managed by a board of trustees — something that paves the way for the state and federal funding mentioned above.
A for-profit college operates more like a business. They’re launched and managed by shareholders who are looking to make a profit.
Note that public, private, for-profit and nonprofit colleges can all offer students an equal level of education. As you work toward choosing the right college for you, consider your preference in tuition, class size, financial aid opportunities and programs.
Some educators dedicate their careers to the classroom. But for certain fields, you may find it’s more beneficial to learn from professors who still work in their industries. Instructors who are also active practitioners provide students with current, real-world case studies and other relevant resources. This serves to enhance class discussions and help prepare students for today’s workforce.
Consider technology, for example. Our technological landscape is drastically different than it was even just five years ago. Faculty members who are actively working in their fields may be able to connect students to networking or mentorship opportunities. If this factor is important to you, make a note to bring it up during your conversations with admissions teams.
Being able to afford college is a high priority for most adult learners. The last thing you want to do is accrue significant debt. You should be prepared to have an open conversation with admissions representatives about the overall cost of any program you have your sights set on.
But remember the amount you’ll actually end up paying is often lower than the sticker price of tuition at your college of choice. You may qualify for scholarships or grants that could cut down the cost of attending your program. Many institutions offer a handful of their own scholarships or grants. This is worth looking into as you’re shopping around. Pay particular attention to whether those options are only available to first-time undergraduate students.
While you can certainly search on your own, an expert can help you identify reputable options. Aggregate scholarship sites like Fastweb and Scholarships.com, for example, can help you narrow down grants and scholarships for adult students like you. If it’s been a while since you applied for student loans, take time to review important financial aid definitions.
You could also approach your employer to learn about potential tuition assistance options at work. Some organizations will partner with a college to offer scholarships to employees as part of their benefits programs. Or, you may be able to show your employer why investing in your education is in the best interest of the organization.
Most college students will have to take out some type of loan to help pay for their education. While private loans are available, many students opt to utilize federal student loans — funds that must be repaid with interest.
When students fail to make timely repayments of their federal student loans, this is called a default. Every college and university has its own student loan default rate. It’s important to keep track of this metric at different schools for a few reasons.
Evaluating a college’s student loan default rate can help indicate how well that school prepares its students for success. Low default rates indicate that alumni are employed, have put their degrees to work and are able to pay back their student loans. High default rates often indicate the opposite, which can result in some serious penalties for an institution, such as losing access to federal loans for students. That loss of funding would inevitably hike up the cost of attendance by forcing students to pursue private loans.
As you get closer to choosing a college, look for schools that openly share student loan default rates. For example, the UMass Global student loan default rate was last calculated at 4.1 percent, which was 42 percent lower than the national average of 7.3 percent.
As a non-traditional student, you may be apprehensive about the prospect of being surrounded by young adults fresh out of high school. Choosing the right college for you may involve finding a school that caters to working professionals like yourself. This is a worthwhile question to ask about any institution you’re considering.
Being able to learn alongside peers who have similar or relatable life experiences can be encouraging. Not only is it reassuring to be among like-minded learners, but it’s also extremely beneficial to be exposed to different perspectives from other professionals with unique backgrounds and work experience.
If you were to pose this question to the admissions team at UMass Global, the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” Of our more than 13,000 students, 90 percent work while completing a program and 56 percent of our graduates balance education and parenting. And you won’t have to worry about sticking out in a class full of teenagers — the average age of a UMass Global student is 36.
Many adult students don’t have the option of quitting their full-time job to pursue a degree. For that reason, they may find the flexibility of online classes to be more fitting for their lifestyle needs.
As you evaluate your options, you’ll want to find out whether different schools have academic resources for students learning in non-traditional formats. Students taking online or night classes may not be able to visit the academic support center during normal operating hours, so on-demand assistance is a huge help.
It’s a good idea to ask admissions representatives about student support services. See whether there is technology support available to online learners who may run into issues while using online classroom platforms. You may also find that some institutions offer web-based tutoring in subjects like writing, math, multimedia writing and design.
If your plan is to continue working while you pursue your degree, then it’s important to ask what types of flexible learning formats a school offers. You’ll want to be sure you find a college that takes all students’ varying educational and lifestyle needs into account.
Course-based programs are the most traditional. They allow you to study fully online, offering some distinct benefits to adult students, like the option to learn from home. If you’re looking for even more flexibility — including the opportunity to apply prior work or life experience to help you progress through your courses more quickly — consider looking for a school that offers competency-based program options. In these programs, you take a prior learning assessment to show which concepts you’ve already mastered. You’re also able to control your schedule and the pace at which your courses are completed. This may result in less time (and money) spent earning your degree.
While your in-college experience may be the focus of your attention right now, make sure you don’t lose sight of the goals you hope to achieve after graduating. Consider looking for an institution that’s committed to working alongside its students before and after graduation.
If securing a position soon after school is important to you, you’ll want to find a college with a strong career development center that can help with professional planning and exploration. These departments may offer assistance with assembling portfolios, learning how to network, practicing interview techniques, negotiating salaries and more.
It may also be worth looking into the potential internship or field placement opportunities within the degrees you’re scoping out. UMass Global boasts many programs that incorporate these as components of the required coursework. This provides you with valuable industry experience while earning your degree and can even lead to job opportunities after graduation.
Find the right college for you
If you’re wondering how to find a college that’s ideal for adult learners like yourself, it all comes down to asking the right questions. With the list outlined above, you can enter admissions conversations knowing the important features to look for.
To assist with your research process, we created a digital worksheet to help you evaluate your top schools based on these important criteria. Click below to download your free copy.
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