So you're finally doing it — you've decided to go back to school to finish that degree, or even start one for the first time. While a college degree can open many doors, it's a big step, and before you take it you have to be sure that you're ready. Is this the right time? The first thing to consider when deciding whether to move forward with your education is to...
Consider Your Goals
You see, while a college degree is an important accomplishment, and one for which anyone can be justly proud, it's not always a goal in and of itself, but instead is a means to reach a goal.
For example, let's say that you'd like to start your own home-based business. To prepare yourself, you might study for a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration or Entrepreneurship. But that degree, however hard-won it may be, isn't your goal — starting the business and being your own boss is.
The reason that this is important to keep in mind is that many people search for a degree program based on how much money they think it make or whether it "sounds good". But when putting as much effort into something as a college degree takes, it's crucial to make sure that the field you'll be entering is one that you'll enjoy for years to come.
Try College: One Course at a Time
There are a number of ways you can see whether college is right for you without jumping in head first:
If you've already enrolled at the college where you plan to earn your degree, you can try taking just one course to start to see how it suits you. Make sure that you discuss the ramifications of this with your financial aid officer.
If you haven't yet enrolled in a college, consider taking a single course at your local community college. Community colleges are often accustomed to returning students and have special resources to help returning and first-time students get up to speed.
No matter where you take your first class, be sure to let your admissions counselor or academic advisor know that you're interested in making sure that you're really ready academically to be in class. If your school has placement tests, be sure to take them.
Know Your Options
The good news is that (if you're a U.S. citizen or permanent resident looking to attend an American college or university) there are grants and loans available to make that a reality. Often financial aid officers can even extend loans so that secondary expenses like textbooks and the like are covered as well.
So the question of whether you're financially ready isn't whether you already have the cash on hand to pay for expenses. The question is whether you're aware of the responsibilities that you are incurring by taking out the loans you'll need.
Think about your money and finances. Ask yourself:
What financial options are out there?
What's available to me? Loans? Grants? Scholarships?
Do I understand how each option works?
Many prospective students get so excited about the fact that they'll be able to attend college that they don't stop to think about the monthly student loan payments they'll have once they graduate. Remember that while grants do not need to be repaid, loans do, and nothing short of total permanent disability or death will cancel them — not even declaring bankruptcy!
Know What You'll Earn with a Degree
Consider the likely salary increase you can expect once you graduate. Compare it with the loan payment you'll have to make each month. Which one is higher? You might be surprised, and it might change your mind about which college to attend or even what your career goals should be.
Ask Questions Until You Know Everything
Finally, it should go without saying that you should never sign paperwork for your student loans without knowing exactly what you're getting into. Your financial aid officer should explain things as thoroughly as it takes for you to be at peace with the important decision that you are making.
Share a Schedule and Plan
Once you start as a student, one of the best things you can do to head off problems with your kids or your partner is to set up a weekly schedule — and stick to it!
When everyone knows what is supposed to happen and when, there's less room for resentment to build about how busy you've become. In fact, it's not too much to say that being well organized is one of the keys to success as a student.
Determination: The Key Ingredient
Being well organized is certainly key. But if there's one thing that is even more important to your success, it's to stay determined. No matter how well you've ensured that you are academically ready, that your finances are under control, and that you've set up a workable schedule, sometimes things will go awry.
Determination can help you get you through challenges like:
If you have some remedial/developmental/basic skills classes to take
If you do poorly on an assignment
If you have trouble navigating the "college" culture
If you've had a bad classroom experience in the past
When (not if!) you run into computer problems when that paper is due
If you just feel lonely sometimes
Steve Foerster is an educational technologist and consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. He serves on the Community Council of WikiEducator, a project that develops free educational materials for use in the developing world.