In most career areas, a college degree will qualify you for greater job opportunities.
Regardless of your major, though, getting any college degree is worth it. There are five areas where college grads do better than non-grads:
· Greater job (and life) satisfaction
· Higher lifetime income
· Better benefits (medical insurance, retirement accounts, vacation pay) and better working conditions
· More options when changing jobs, fields, or locations
· Better job security
According to the Census Bureau, over the average American adult's working life,
· High school graduates earn an average of $1.2 million
· Associate's degree holders earn about $1.6 million
· Bachelor's degree holders earn about $2.1 million
If you’ve identified a specific career — or even just a general field — that you’re interested in, start your research with the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), compiled by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. This list of hundreds of different jobs is available online.
For each job, the OOH has information on the training and education needed, including specific degrees and majors. You’ll also find information about what workers do on the job (including working conditions), plus earnings and expected job prospects.
If you’re not yet focused on a particular career field or area of study, you’ll benefit from taking a test to identify your values, skills, and personality traits. There are two common personality assessment tests. The Strong Interest Inventory is specifically oriented toward education and careers, giving results as categories like “Helpers,” “Organizers,” and “Do-ers.” The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is more about general personality types, arranged around four different pairs of characteristics: introvert/extrovert, sensing/intuitive, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving.
The results of either of these tests will suggest possible areas of study. Most schools, including community colleges, have a career services office (serving both current and former students) that can administer one or both of these tests for free. You can also find the tests online, usually for under $100. Don’t cheap out and go for a free version — they aren’t all that reliable.
Once you’ve identified some possible fields, check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook for more information about specific jobs in those fields. That information will help you determine what kind of program you need.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that the shift in the United States from goods-producing to service industries will continue during the period between 2008 and 2018.
There will be especially strong growth in computer services (data-processing, Web and application hosting, Internet publishing and broadcasting), which are projected to grow 53 percent. Telecommunications and traditional publishing will both decline.
Another area of strong growth will be health care and social assistance, which will grow 24 percent during this period. This growth will be driven by the needs of an aging population with longer life expectancies. Jobs for health care professionals will increase by 21 percent, and health care support occupations will grow by 29 percent.
The related field of life science will be strong as well, with jobs in the development of medical technologies and pharmaceuticals. In human services, educator and trainer jobs will grow by 14 percent.
In business and financial operations, the jobs in highest demand will be accountants, auditors, and management analysts; the BLS predicts growth of 18 percent or more in those jobs. The business-related social science fields of market and social science research will also be strong.
The 12 occupations with the largest numerical growth are projected to be:
· Registered nurses (582,000 new jobs)
· Home health aides (461,000 new jobs)
· Customer service representatives (400,000 new jobs)
· Food preparation and serving workers, including fast food (394,000 new jobs)
· Personal and home care aides (376,000 new jobs)
· Retail salespersons (375,000 new jobs)
· Office clerks, general (359,000 new jobs)
· Accountants and auditors (279,000 new jobs)
· Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants (276,000 new jobs)
· Postsecondary teachers (257,000 new jobs)
· Construction laborers (256,000 new jobs)
· Elementary school teachers, except special education (244,000 new jobs)
(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook: http://www.bls.gov/oco/oco2003.htm)
There are a lot of careers where you can get a good job with a two-year degree.
Health care support is a field that is expected to grow over the next decade. It includes some jobs assisting professionals, like physical therapy assistant, occupational therapy assistant, or surgical technologist.
There are many other jobs in medical support where you’d be working with patients directly, such as dental hygienist, radiologic technician, respiratory therapist, cardiovascular technologist, diagnostic medical sonographer (ultrasound technician), and massage therapist. (You can read more about health care jobs here.)
If you want to be a nurse, check your state’s requirements for nursing licenses — some still license RNs after two years, but more states require four or five years now. Those states may license you as a practical or vocational nurse after two years, though.
If you want to work with computers, you can start working as a web designer, computer support specialist, or desktop publisher after two years. Other careers for the technically minded include engineering technician (specializing in electrical, electronic, or environmental engineering) or science technician.
Legal careers include paralegal, legal assistant, and court reporter.
The mechanically minded can pursue careers as a heavy equipment mechanic, automotive body repairer, or machinist.
Other jobs that require only two years of school include veterinary technician, executive or administrative assistant, fashion designer, funeral director, camera operator, and surveying or mapping technician.
There are also several professions where you can get an entry-level job after two years, so you can work while you complete your education. These include accounting, hotel and restaurant management, health care management, and information technology.
There are two main things you can do — control costs and get whatever financial aid you’re eligible for.
One of the easiest ways to control costs is by making smart choices about what you spend your money on. For instance, the prestigious private university may have a program that you can’t find at any other school — and of course its name will look great on your résumé — but you don’t have to go there all four years. If you start at a more affordable community college or state university, you’ll save a significant amount of money. (You can read more about community colleges here.)
Almost everyone needs at least some financial aid. The most common types are loans, which you have to pay back, and grants, which you don’t. You apply for both with a single form, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Another possible source of money is scholarships, which are offered government agencies, schools, and other groups. Need help figuring out all the jargon? Use our handy glossary.
Also, keep in mind that some of the money you do pay toward tuition may be tax deductible; you can read more about that here.
Is it worth it? Definitely!
If you’re planning to apply for financial aid, you’ll need to fill out a FAFSA. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the basis for all financial aid decisions.
Access the application online at www.fafsa.ed.gov. You’ll need your most recent tax returns and income information, plus those of your parents if you’re still a dependent. After you fill out the form, you’ll specify which school or schools should receive the information. The schools will evaluate how much, and what kind of, financial aid they can offer you.
This aid will be of two sorts. One sort is aid from the federal or state government, which might include grants, loans, or both. Federal aid is allocated according to numerical formulas based on need, so it is a fixed amount. The other sort is aid from non-government sources, also in the form of grants (or scholarships) and loans. These amounts can differ significantly from school to school.
It is worth talking to someone in the financial aid office of the school you want to attend. That person will be able to help you with the process, and help you find additional sources of funding.
One of the main sources of loans is the federal government, which administers the Stafford Loan program. Some Stafford loans are subsidized. These loans are based on need, and the government pays the interest on them until six months after you leave school. Unsubsidized Stafford loans are available regardless of need. With these, you’re responsible for the interest while you’re still in school, though those payments can be deferred till after you leave school. You need to fill out a FAFSA for both kinds of Stafford loans, but there is no credit check.
In addition to federal loans, you can also get private loans, which involve higher interest rates and credit checks. These loans are also less flexible on payment plans, so a private loan should definitely be Plan B.
Both grants and scholarships involve money paid to you (or directly to your school) for educational expenses. With both, the money is given outright, so you don’t need to repay it. The difference is who is giving you the money, and why.
Most grants are made by the federal or state government, and are based on financial need. The best-known example is the Pell grant, which is given to people studying for their first bachelor’s degree or teacher certification. There are other federal grants as well; you can read more about them here. You’ll apply for grants as part of the unified application known as FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
In addition, each state awards its own grants. Check the specific application procedure for your state; most require a FAFSA, but they may have other requirements as well. You can find a master list of all the states here.
Scholarships are made by a variety of organizations, including corporations, non-profits, and religious groups. Rather than need, scholarships are based on how well you meet criteria set by the group giving the scholarship. These criteria are often academic, such as a minimum GPA or enrollment in a particular major. Other scholarships combine academics with other traits (such as belonging to the group giving the scholarship), talents (artistic, athletic, or otherwise), or interests. Some scholarships are specific to a particular school; others can be used at any accredited school.
Most scholarships aren’t covered by your FAFSA, so it will take some extra work to find them and apply for them. Start at the Web site run by the Department of Education, where there’s a search engine that will help you identify scholarships you might qualify for.
The Yellow Ribbon program provides additional education benefits for veterans who are eligible at the 100% benefit level of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The GI Bill covers tuition and mandatory fees, up to the highest in-state undergraduate tuition at a public university in the state. (In Pennsylvania, for instance, that’s $14,412, the amount charged by Penn State.) At a public university, the amount may be higher for a graduate or professional program, or for out-of-state tuition -- and of course, private universities charge more as well.
With the Yellow Ribbon program, an approved school will contribute half of the amount needed above what the GI Bill covers, and the Veterans Administration (VA) will match the school’s contribution. These contributions mean that tuition and fees will be covered 100%, even when they are above the GI Bill maximum.
Participating schools have discretion about how much to award for particular programs or majors, and there may be a limit to the number of recipients at each school, so check with the school for more details.
You can see a list of participating schools here.
Depends what your career goals are. Let’s look at the different kinds of schools.
Colleges and universities are both four-year schools where you can get a bachelor’s degree. Colleges are smaller, often private, and may not offer graduate degrees as well. They usually place more emphasis on the liberal arts. Universities are larger, may be public or private, and usually include graduate and professional programs as well as undergraduate majors. They often have a strong research bent and offer training in scientific and technical fields.
With both colleges and universities, the standard four-year undergraduate curriculum includes general education requirements in addition to work in your major. The general ed courses (including subjects like English composition, math, science, and history or government) are considered part of a well-rounded education.
A community college — which used to be called a junior college — gives an associate’s degree after two years of study. This degree may be all you need to get into some careers. Other students start at a community college with the intention of completing four-year degrees elsewhere. They find that taking general ed requirements and some prerequisites for their eventual major at a community college can be an economical strategy for paying for their education. After completing their freshman and sophomore years, they transfer either to a four-year school or to an upper-division school that offers specialized training for the junior and senior years only.
You may not need a traditional college degree, though. Depending on your career goal, you might do best with a school that will train you for that career. Examples are agricultural schools, skills training for specific trades (like carpentry or auto mechanics), schools in the performing or visual arts, and seminaries or rabbinical schools.
In a nutshell: Bigger schools have a wider variety of programs and classes, and smaller schools can give you more personal attention. Each of the advantages has a downside, though.
For instance, although large universities have more extensive course offerings, classes are generally larger as well, so you can get lost in the crowd. Big schools usually have more bureaucracy and less flexibility.
In addition, the extensive resources at the big school may not directly affect your experience. For instance, the big-name professor working there may not teach the class you want to take, unless it’s a lecture where you’d be interacting with a teaching assistant anyway. The school’s bigger library won’t make a difference if you’re doing most of your research online. The presence of a high-ranked football team doesn’t matter if you’re not a sports fan, and the availability of cultural and social activities on campus doesn’t matter if you don’t have time to participate.
The advantages of small schools are two-sided as well. Classes tend to be smaller and taught by professors, not TAs. You’ll have the opportunity to get to know your instructors personally — which can be a minus if you don’t like the only person who teaches several classes required for your major.
Less bureaucratic schools are usually more willing to let you to customize your coursework to meet your own needs and your professional goals. The flip side is that you’ll have fewer options overall. Smaller schools offer fewer majors and a narrower selection of classes, including electives in your major and alternatives for fulfilling your general education requirements. Of course, if the school does have the courses you need, the lack of classes you wouldn’t take anyway doesn’t matter!
Make a list of the schools that have the program or major you’re interested in and consider the following:
Cost: Figure out what each school charges for tuition and fees. Your other costs (for books and transportation, for instance) will be pretty much the same regardless of where you go. The other factor to consider is what each school offers you in financial aid. Federal aid is allocated according to numerical formulas based on need, so it is a fixed amount, but aid from other sources can differ significantly from school to school.
Location: Even if you’re staying local, location still matters. How close is the school to home and work? How would you get there — drive (how’s parking?) or take public transportation? This is a factor for those taking online classes as well, since you may need to go to campus to attend certain class sessions or to take exams.
Accreditation: Make sure the school you’re considering is accredited by a recognized authority. In the short term, you can’t get federal financial aid for an unaccredited school. In the long term, your credits may not transfer, or an employer might not recognize the training you receive.
Quality of teaching: All these practical issues are important — but don’t forget your final goal, getting an education. (See the next FAQ for more on this.)
Size matters: Class size, that is. Most schools publish their faculty/student ratios. This information doesn’t necessarily reflect what goes on in the classroom, though, since faculty numbers don’t include teaching assistants, who are often the people you have the most contact with in big classes. Instead, check for average class size: this will give you a better idea of how much individual attention and help you’ll be able to get from your instructors.
There are two other numbers to look for. The proportion of the faculty that is employed full-time can indicate the value placed on teaching, and the proportion of the faculty holding the highest degrees available in their fields can indicate the value placed on faculty competence.
After you’ve done your online research, visit the school and sit in on a few classes. Does the instructor present the material clearly? Is she responsive to questions and willing to explain (and, if necessary, re-explain) complicated material? Can you picture yourself sitting in that classroom?
Regardless of how you attend class, having a good teacher matters. Whether you're in a classroom or taking classes online, a good teacher:
· understands the material and explains it well
· chooses books and supporting material that enhance class content
· guides class discussion and keeps it on-track
· provides clear guidelines for homework and other assignments
· grades fairly according to established criteria
· is responsive to student questions
· is available to provide additional help as needed
You can read more about finding the best teachers here.
Online courses take place entirely — or almost entirely — through the Internet. The assigned reading is usually a mix of traditional textbooks, links to online material, and specially written PowerPoint presentations. “Classroom” discussion takes place by way of a message board, primarily with posts from students, though good instructors will suggest topics and keep the discussion on track. Papers and homework are submitted via e-mail, and tests are either open book exams taken online or traditional exams that students take in a campus testing center.
Distance learning refers to several different types of teaching. One of the most common involves classes that students “attend” in real time, either in a group via teleconferencing from a satellite location, or individually with webcams and microphones. Another type mixes in-person learning with online assignments: people come to campus for a few hours or a few days at designated points in the curriculum, but otherwise use the message board technology typical of online courses.
As the philosopher says, “know yourself.” Use our quiz! Pick the statement in each pair that describes you better. If you pick mostly A’s, you’ll probably do better in a traditional classroom environment. If you have lots of B’s, online learning might be a good fit for you.
A. I procrastinate, so I do better with frequent reminders and close supervision.
B. I’m a self-starter who easily stays on top of what needs to be done when.
A. I’m outgoing and enjoy fast-moving, lively discussions.
B. I’m shy and prefer to have time to think about my responses.
A. Auditory: I like to learn by listening to an explanation.
B. Visual: I like to learn by reading and looking at charts or graphs.
A. I prefer detailed instructions and lots of guidance.
B. Point me in the right direction and let me figure it out myself!
A. My work and family obligations are fixed and predictable.
B. My schedule changes from week to week, often at the last minute.
A. I use the computer at work or the library.
B. I have my own computer and reliable Internet access at home.
You can read more about online learning here.
There are a lot of lists of college rankings; the annual list by U.S. News & World Report is probably the best known. The people who compile these lists gather a huge amount of data to rank schools on a variety of scales, from best value, through most ethnic diversity, to prettiest campus.
You can thus use these lists to search for information about the issues that are important to you, which will help you figure out which schools deserve a closer look. The lists make a great tool, but they shouldn’t be your only guideline.
As it turns out, most incoming freshmen don’t rely on them in making a choice. The UCLA Freshman Study for Fall 2009 reveals that the top four reasons students gave for choosing their school were:
1. College has very good academic reputation (63.6 percent)
2. This college's graduates get good jobs (56.5 percent)
3. I was offered financial assistance (44.7 percent)
4. The cost of attending this college (41.6 percent)
Rankings in national magazines come in 12th on the list of reasons, with 18.5 percent of respondents mentioning them as a factor.
An accredited school is one that meets certain standards of quality with regard to course offerings, facilities, and services. There are two kinds. The first is institutional accreditation, which covers the entire career training program, college, or university. The other kind is programmatic accreditation, which applies to individual programs or curricula within an institution.
The U.S. Department of Education does not accredit schools itself. Instead, it has chosen certain agencies — some national and some regional — to handle the accreditation process. You can find a list of those agencies here.
Why does it matter to you? Only students at accredited schools are eligible for financial aid from the federal government. State and private sources of financial aid can also be limited to accredited schools.
Even if you’re planning to pay for school completely out of your own pocket, though, accreditation can matter. If you will want to transfer from one school to another or apply for a graduate program later, be aware that coursework from an unaccredited school may not count with the new school. In addition, licensure or certification in certain careers or professions may be based on completion of coursework, which usually needs to done at an accredited school or in an accredited program.
There are some good programs out there that are not accredited — but you should only choose one if you don’t need financial aid now and if there will be no academic or professional repercussions later on.
Good news — you probably won’t have to take the SAT again!
There are a variety of paths back into college. One of the easiest is by way of a community college. These two-year schools have an open admissions policy, in which they will admit any candidate who has a high school diploma or a GED; some schools will also consider candidates who don’t even have diplomas. Remember that being admitted to the school doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get into the specific program that you want — some in-demand programs have additional requirements.
There are a couple of advantages to starting at a community college, aside from the open admissions policy. By working hard and getting good grades at the community college, you'll be in a much better position to transfer to another school later. In addition, it can be an economical and convenient way to take care of your general education requirements and the prerequisites you'll need for the major you want to pursue.
If you decide to go straight for a four-year school, you have a choice between public and private institutions. Most public universities are mandated to accept all qualified applicants who are residents of the state. If you have completed some credits already (usually 15-18, or about a semester’s worth), you can apply as a transfer student. (Read more about transferring to a public university here.) Even if you have no prior credits, though, most public universities have programs that enable you to take a few classes before applying for full admission.
Private colleges and universities vary widely in their admissions requirements for nontraditional students, so contact the admissions office at the schools you’re considering. Some larger private universities have separate degree-completion programs for adult learners; others will admit you to the general student body.
The thing that most of these programs for nontraditional students have in common is that the admissions process does not place the same weight on the criteria that students coming fresh out of high school need to meet. Grades are less important, and standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are generally not required at all.
Instead, there will be a great deal of emphasis on your application essay. Take the opportunity to explain what you’ve been doing since high school and why you’re ready now to take your education seriously.
Even though you’ve been out of school for a few years, that doesn’t mean you haven’t been learning, both on the job and through your hobbies and leisure reading. Many schools will award academic credit for learning outside a traditional classroom. The most common way is through standardized tests, either the CLEP or DSST.
The CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) is administered by the College Board, which also administers the SAT and AP exams. There are 33 different CLEP exams, including topics in English literature; foreign languages; history and social sciences; science and math; and business.
The DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Test) is administered by Prometric, which also administers the GRE. There are 38 tests, both academic subjects and subjects that test job knowledge in fields like substance abuse, criminal justice, business, and health.
Most of these tests can count for up to a full course’s worth of credit. At less than $100 each, the tests are a bargain, but before taking one, check with your school. Credits are given on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the school and the program, a test might count toward the requirements for a major, or it might only count as an elective.