Once you’ve decided on the type of program, scour the Internet and reference books for the schools that offer what you need and make a list of your top choices. Every institution on your short list should be accredited, which means that it has been independently evaluated and has met standards of quality set by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
Long-term, formal degree programs should be vetted by interviews with current faculty members or students before you apply. What should you ask in these conversations? The website MsMoney.com provides these sample questions for those considering business school:
- What are the backgrounds/qualifications of the faculty?
- What is the student-to-faculty ratio? How accessible are faculty members?
- What percentage of applicants is accepted? What is their background?
- What is a standard course load? How long do students typically take to graduate?
- What is the condition of the physical facilities (classrooms, libraries, etc.)?
- Is the curriculum targeted at a particular industry or purpose (high tech, entrepreneurship, manufacturing, etc.), and, if so, does the academic emphasis fit your interests?
- What job placement resources are available? Which companies recruit on campus?
- What percentage of students is placed in jobs?
Higher education is indeed expensive, but the situation is not as bad as you might think. The website Back2College.com and the College Board recently reported that 65 percent of students at four year schools pay tuition of under $9K a year, and 56 percent pay between $3K and $6K. Additionally, 62 percent of full-time students receive grants. Aid in the form of grants and tax benefits averaged about $2.2K per student at two year public schools, over $3.1K at public four year schools, and $9K at private four year schools.
You can calculate the approximate costs for obtaining an additional degree by inputting the schools you’re interested in and the number of years you’ll be attending on the Princeton Review, CNN Money, and Yahoo! Finance websites.
Scared by the number? If you plan to keep working while you’re in school, your company may have a tuition assistance program of which you can take advantage. You can also use online scholarship search services such as www.finaid.org and www.scholarships.com, visit your bank of choice to learn about low-interest loans, and work with your accountant to leverage education tax credits such as the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.
Don’t assume that you won’t qualify for financial aid, as many sources are offered regardless of financial need or credit history. Most federal and state aid programs don't have age limits, and if you’re a single parent, you may be automatically eligible. As soon as you make the decision to return to school, submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what assistance Uncle Sam can provide!