Are you rebooting your career or just learning something new?

6 Questions to Ask Yourself before Going Back to School

by Kristen Sturt,

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Wondering whether you should finally get that degree or earn that certification? It pays (literally and figuratively) to ask yourself a few questions first.

Since most back-to-school articles seem to feature career counselors and financial experts, we wanted to get an academic perspective. So, we spoke to a leader in the field of continuing education: Dr. James P. Pappas, Vice President of University Outreach and Dean of the College of Liberal Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who also serves as Executive Vice President at the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE). He graciously provided these six inquiries that are guaranteed to help light your path.

1. Do I have a clear goal in mind?

First and foremost, if you're considering enrolling in college, you should have a clear motivation with a definable outcome. "What is the goal you're trying to reach? What are you trying to do?" asks Dr. Pappas, who notes that adult students go back to school for lots of different reasons, including a job change or "second act" career, personal enrichment, the satisfaction of new achievement, and receiving the degree they never completed the first time around. Whatever your own justification, he cautions, "If you're not clear on why you're doing it, it's very easy to step out."

2. Have I looked at the cost of college? How am I going to pay for it?

In 1971, yearly tuition at a four-year private college averaged $1,832, according to the College Board. In 2015, it was $32,405, a mind-boggling 1,669 percent spike. "Students aren't aware of how much tuition increased," says Dr. Pappas. "Certainly you can do it for a semester, but can you come up with it for a two- to three-year period?" For older adults, there's something else to keep in mind, too, namely the hiccup or the significant life incident that affects your ability to attend classes and/or pay for them.

"No matter how we do it, we may end up with some kind of life event that stops us for a while," says Dr. Pappas. "The illness, the job loss - all kinds of things that happen in life, so what I try to say to people is, 'You're going to have life happen somehow, so you need to be sure that when it does, you see it as a temporary barrier. You need to come back and continue to go on.'"

Speaking about life events...

3. Am I being brutally honest about my time and life management?

Whether it's your grown kids, grandchildren, job, volunteer obligations, or thriving social calendar, you must be willing to dedicate significant time to your program. "As we get older, we have so many competing life activities that you really need to be committed to do this," says Dr. Pappas. "People don't recognize [that] college experience is really long-term. You're not going to get much out of less than two or three years. The commitment isn't just two or three semesters."

4. How are my school's credentials?

In July 2015, Lincoln Technical Institute and Kaplan Career Institute were ordered by Massachusetts' Attorney General to pay students $2.3 million for lying about job placement rates. Three months later, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau won a $550 million case against Corinthian Colleges, accused of bilking thousands out of loan money. Two weeks after that, the U.S. Department of Justice settled a case against Education Management Corporation for $95.5 million.

These stories are not new. While many for-profit colleges are reputable institutions, some are little more than intricate scams that are useless for finding employment upon graduation. That's why Dr. Pappas emphasizes researching a program thoroughly before jumping in. "Be sure you explore effectively that the school you're going to is accredited and is a school that really has good credentials," he says. "There are a lot of [school] options out there now that are not acceptable to the workplace."

He also cautions students away from seeking the full college experience when a professional certification or similar accolade will do. "I would look at executive programs. I would look at certificate programs," he says. "What is your goal? What is it you're trying to achieve?"

5. How can I best prepare myself to learn in a modern classroom?

College has changed a lot in the last 30 or 40 years, and the typical classroom experience may be very different from what you remember. Dr. Pappas highlights three areas to prime for:

Technology: "We tell all students, but particularly older students, if you have the chance, take some sort of technology class to update your skills. [You] don't have to be technologists, but [you] have to be comfortable with technology."

Class size: "Now a lot of introductory classes are between 100 and 150 students. We find the older students are surprised in having to operate in that environment," he says. And in a big class, "The older student is often less well-versed in how to get tutoring and how to get advisers. What we encourage older students to do is to find those offices and get access to them."

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Your classmates: "[Younger students are] very task-oriented or very consumer-oriented. People are often surprised that they're not engaged in the discussion." Don't let that keep you from speaking up, though; your own life experience can be a valuable resource. "Really, it's a kind of richness that the older student can bring to the classroom experience."

6. How are my writing skills?

While most Americans are far from illiterate, our reading and writing can get pretty rusty over time. We read just five books on average per year, and many of us haven't penned an academic paper in decades, if ever. In fact, in one 2012 study measuring adult literary proficiency, the U.S. placed 16th out of 23 developed countries, below Japan, England, and all of Scandinavia.

"That's the place where we find a lot of challenges, not necessarily just with the older students, but students in general," says Dr. Pappas. "When you've been out of the classroom a lot of years, getting back into the mode (writing extensively and writing critically) can be a challenge. I encourage the older student to learn where the campus writing center is, and to hone their writing skills."

To get an early jump, you may want to try a free online writing course, offered by multiple universities. Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL) is another wonderful place to begin and a good resource for any writer. is the site of the American Grandparents Association. Visit their site for "6 Steps You Should Take if You've Lost Your Job" and "How to Live Your Best Life Over 50."

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