Education has become much more customizable over the past few years. The diversity of course delivery methods, including face-to-face, online and on-demand opportunities, allows students to balance work, family life and other activities with school like never before. In addition, degree programs that were once out of reach are now readily available.

Even with the increased flexibility of educational opportunities today, returning to school is one of the biggest decisions you will make. This decision is often based on a variety of factors, including personal fulfillment, desire to compete more readily in the job market, gain a promotion or change career paths. Regardless of your reasons for considering school, it is more important than ever to be well-informed.

5 Rules To Follow

1. Regional Accreditation: Accreditation should be considered before any other factor, as it ensures that an institution meets or exceeds an established set of educational standards. As a result, courses from an accredited university are transferable to other colleges, and degrees from an accredited universities are more likely to be valued by both current and future employers.

Keep in mind: Not all accreditation is the same

Beware of accreditation claims. Many questionable “accrediting agencies” exist. Look for the words “Regionally Accredited,” as regional accreditation is approved by the United States Department of Education. The Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education  (WICHE) has an excellent article on what regional accreditation is and why it’s important.

2. Financial Aid: Investigate your financial aid options. You may be pleasantly surprised by the types of financial aid available to you, including loans, grants and scholarships. In addition, many colleges and universities offer tuition installment plans which help make college more affordable. Ask about such programs. You can get started today by filling out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at You may also find it helpful to read our post on reducing college debt.

3. Degree Programs: Be sure that the colleges and the degree program(s) you are considering “fit” with your long range educational plans. For example, if you are thinking about enrolling in an online associate degree program and later hope to earn a bachelor’s degree (online or on campus), find out how likely it is that the coursework from your associate degree will count toward your bachelor’s degree.

4. Student Resources: Does the school you’re considering have a student services office dedicated to assisting prospective and current distance learners? Are research materials easily accessible? Is there a career services center? Tutoring? Technology support? All of these things are essential to your success! Also, if these things are available, how easily accessible are they?

5. Flexibility: Education has made great strides in the past few years to ensure flexible scheduling options.  Compare the flexibility you need for your lifestyle with the flexibility offered by schools you are considering.

  • Look for opportunities for accelerated education (completion)
  • Look for a program that has an alternate online path or can be completed entirely online.
  • Examine individual coursework options. These may include:
    • Self-paced or on-demand options (sometimes referred to as correspondence or independent learning)  allow flexibility with time-to-completion, allowing students to complete courses at an accelerated pace or extend beyond a semester.
    • Online/web courses run a typical semester schedule, but cut out travel to campus and allow coursework to be completed at flexible hours.
    • Evening/Weekend course offerings and
    • Alternative session dates and locations.

Don’t forget … familiarize yourself with terminology used to describe the most flexible options:

  • Online/Web courses
  • On Demand courses
  • Correspondence courses
  • Self-paced courses
  • Interactive Video courses

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