Heading back to school to finish your degree? How to get your money\’s worth


\”Back to School\” isn\’t just for kids these days—an ever-increasing number of adults are heading back to college to finish a degree or get an advanced degree. And, there\’s plenty of data to show that getting a college degree can be worthwhile—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the July 2010 unemployment rate for individuals with bachelor\’s, master\’s and doctoral degrees was 4.5%, while the overall unemployment rate last month was 9.5%.

An accredited degree in a high-demand field can make a significant difference in both employment and lifelong earning potential. However, most adults need the flexibility and accessibility of a non-traditional college, and for many, an online university is the best fit for their busy lives. But going to college, even going online, requires a significant investment in both time and money, so prospective students need to be smart consumers. Non-profit Western Governors University, www.wgu.edu, offers five tips to help working adults find the best value in an online university.

1.  Select a degree program that is relevant to your current career or the one you hope to have – have a career goal in mind, and choose a degree program accordingly. Demand in fields such as information technology, teaching, business, and nursing continues to grow in comparison to other occupations.

2.  Determine how you like to study and learn – you can choose from a more traditional academic model with instructor-led classes and courses delivered via the internet or opt for competency-based learning. Traditional models require students to earn credits based on time in class. The competency-based model allows students to advance at their own pace by demonstrating their knowledge in required subject areas. Rather than attending classes, students work through course materials using mentor-guided independent study. A full range of learning resources, including textbooks, simulations, and webinars, are provided, and students progress by passing assessments that measure their knowledge of course material. Be sure to choose a program that is compatible with your own learning style.

3.  Do a self-evaluation – take stock of your personal situation to determine whether you have the time and motivation to pursue a degree. Quality online programs are rigorous and require goal-oriented learners, and you should be able to devote at least 15 hours per week to your studies. As you evaluate the different online universities, you\’ll want to factor in things like scheduling flexibility and student services and support.

4.  Check for quality – there are several things to consider when evaluating the quality and credibility of an online university. Be sure to ask about:

  • Accreditation. The university should be accredited by one of the major accrediting commissions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, individual programs like teaching and nursing should have special accreditations.
  • Curriculum development. Courses of study and materials should be developed using input from and review by business and industry experts. These experts should be reviewing curriculum regularly to ensure that it stays relevant and up-to-date.
  • Employer feedback. You want to make sure that your degree will be respected by employers. Ask about surveys or other feedback from employers who have hired graduates from the university you\’re considering.
  • Student feedback. Ask for information regarding student and graduate satisfaction.
  • Online buzz. Check blogs, websites, social media sites to learn more about the university, its strengths and weaknesses, and its student community.

5.  Compare costs – you compare prices before you buy a car, so why not compare college costs? Online universities charge tuition in a variety of ways—by semester, by credit hour, and by six-month term. Virtually all offer financial aid in the form of student loans, and most have some scholarships available. But don\’t make the mistake of thinking that higher cost equals higher quality—going to college online can and should be affordable. In addition, the length of time it will take to complete your degree will impact the overall cost, so you may want to consider programs that allow you to accelerate by completing extra coursework in any term.

Getting a degree can provide lifelong value by helping you get the job you want and increasing your earning potential. By doing your homework and following these tips, you can find an online university with a program that fits your life and provides the education you need at an affordable cost. For more information, go to http://www.wgu.edu/finishyourdegree .

About Western Governors University (WGU)

Western Governors University is nation\’s only non-profit, competency-based university, serving nearly 20,000 students in all 50 states. The university is committed to helping working adults achieve their higher education goals by making high-quality undergraduate and graduate degree programs affordable and accessible.

Founded in 1997 by 19 U.S. governors, WGU offers more than 50 online degree programs in Business, Education, Information Technology, and Healthcare Professions, including Nursing. TIME magazine called WGU \”the best relatively cheap university you\’ve never heard of,\” and last year, the university was featured on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

WGU is focused on providing a great value in education. Tuition for most undergraduate and graduate programs is less than $6,000 per year and has increased less than $200 in the past four years. WGU is self-sustaining on tuition, and does not rely on state or national support to fund its operations.

WGU is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and nationally accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). WGU\’s Teachers College is the first and only exclusively online provider of teacher education to receive accreditation from the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). WGU nursing programs have been accredited by the Commission for Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Additional information is available at www.wgu.edu.