As someone who completed my three post-secondary degrees after the age of 35, and who also worked in higher education as an administrator for almost 20 years, I have learned a thing or two about not only picking the right schools to attend, but also graduating from them with what I needed to succeed in my professional career along the way. It’s this insider perspective that I want to share to help you make an informed decision about returning to school; one that will help determine whether your educational return on investment (ROI) will be worth your valuable time, effort and money to pursue.
Don’t be surprised if you get some raised eyebrows or even vague responses from enrollment or admissions advisors when you ask these questions or request the information I discuss here. You’re essentially pulling back the curtain and getting back office information — even the most experienced enrollment staffers may have to pause to think before responding. If anything, my advice is to remain polite, yet firm in getting the answers and information you need to help make the best educational choice for you. After all, this is all about you and your needs.
That said, here are some questions and suggestions to help guide you on your pursuit of knowledge and learning at an institution of your choice:
- Inquire about the Capstone and/or Senior Projects courses for your program (e.g., engineering, IT, business, etc.) of study. These should be viewed as a form of validation and mastery for that program’s overall terminal learning objectives. In other words, they should clearly identify and determine what someone should eventually have learned. At a minimum, someone trying to enroll you in their school should be able to share a rubric that lists out the requirements, outcomes, and grading criteria for them. This shouldn’t be confused with that course’s (Capstone and/or Senior Projects are courses) syllabus or outline.
- If you are truly on the fence about which school or program to attend, ask to see a completed project (e.g., documentation, model, etc.). You’ll probably get some pushback regarding confidentiality (or FERPA) issues, but asking them to remove any student references should mitigate any objections.
- Ask to speak to a dean or faculty chair for your program or field of study. If this request is granted, ask that person:
- About the program and their expectations for the students enrolled in it.
- Whether they or the faculty that teach in it have related-industry connections in the area/region that could result in internships, co-ops or job opportunities.
- About faculty development initiatives and/or how scholarship (e.g., published papers, articles, research, etc.) are managed and supported at the institution.
- How are faculty evaluated and assessed and how often?
- How are faculty/student issues handled and eventually resolved?
- What are faculty (e.g., tenured and contract) office hours, and what are the expectations for their use when it comes to students?
- Find out what services and support are available to students.
- Check on the hours of availability and whether service level agreements (SLAs) are in place. In other words, how do they define success?
- What is the student to advisor (e.g., academic, career, etc.) ratio? These can range for 100s to 1 to 1000s to 1.
- Is there tutoring available, and is it free, online, onsite, one-on-one, in groups, 24/7, etc.?
- Check on student and individual course success rates early on in the program. These differ from graduate rates and can be viewed as key indicators of long-term academic success.
- If a high percentage of students are dropping out early in their programs and/or failing courses that needed to be retaken, you need to ask why that is happening and what initiatives are in place to reverse those trends.
- Another thing to take into consideration is that a high percentage of middling grades (Cs, Ds) in these courses could be viewed as indicators of potential academic issues in the future. For example, if you view early course work as the building blocks for future academic success, you should want to see a stronger foundation of knowledge and learning when moving to higher levels of course work.
- Finally, not achieving academic success in courses early on in the program could result in increased tuition costs, should you continue in that program or switch to a new one.
- Do they hold live or virtual commencement (graduation) ceremonies, and how often are they held? This might not be a deal breaker, but if you view your educational journey as a life-altering event that you would like to share with family, friends, etc., it’s something you should check on in advance.
- This step will require some effort, but search out people on LinkedIn who had attended the school you’re interested in and reach out to them about their experience. If you are able to find and connect with people in your field of study that’s an added plus, but don’t worry if you don’t. The goal here is to get feedback from those who experienced something you’re looking at doing.
- Don’t be surprised if you don’t get any responses, but I tend to view that as more negative than positive.
- Another added benefit in doing this is that if that person had a good to great experience at this institution, they could become a key connection should you be interested in joining their organization or working in their/your field of study.
It’s important to note that this research is to gain relevant information that will be used to help you make an informed decision about where you want to pursue a degree. Any vague and incomplete responses you receive should be interpreted as cautionary signs, but ultimately, you should have gathered enough information to make your own decision.
With college enrollments down over a million students since 2020 (for what Forbes says is “a value judgement — but it’s probably a judgement on the quality of the education product, not the value of the degree”), the most important question you should ask yourself is whether you want to go back to school in the first place. Many factors need to be considered before pursuing a post-secondary degree or certification, but it really comes down to what makes the most sense for you. This choice can be viewed as the biggest promise you will have ever made — and kept — to yourself, should you go on and complete what you started.
I cannot stress how important it is to use any and all information you can gather about the school or schools you’re interested in attending. Success could mean changing the trajectory of your life and the life of your family, just as it did mine.