Over the course of the past several years, there has been an explosion of continuing education programs. This is the result of two unique phenomena: The coming of age of the baby-boom generation, and the ubiquity of the Internet. For as the children of the 50's and 60's near retirement age, and as they are arguably the most financially successful generation of Americans ever, a great number of them will choose to pursue some sort of education once their working lives are over. The continuing education programs know this, and as a result, more and more of them are springing up. Second, the Internet has made it possible for anyone, anywhere, to take classes and pursue college degrees online, thereby negating the ordinarily discouraging factors that have historically prevented people from pursuing such an education.
But with all these programs from which to choose, how are you supposed to narrow down your choices? There are plenty of excellent programs out there, but what makes one right for you and another one less so?
The following are some of the many factors you should consider. And while creating a comprehensive list would be impossible - and, indeed, even if it were somehow possible, it would likely confuse more than clarify things for you - these items are arguably the most important. And though there may be other factors unique to your individual situation, you will likely consider them the same way you consider those below. Look at this, then, a primer of sorts. It is surely not comprehensive, but it is, nonetheless, instructive.
The Reputation of the Program
Reputation is a fickle thing, and one can easily make the argument that reputation is built on a shaky foundation. But the truth is that reputations do not simply develop overnight - these are educational institutions, after all. Reputations are the result of any number of factors, including the quality of the faculty, the caliber of students admitted, positions of high esteem held by graduates of the program, and myriad other determinants. So while these factors may not be terribly concrete, they certainly tell us something about the school nonetheless.
Of course, reputation can only go so far, and a smart prospective student will do the all the research necessary to not be swayed by inaccurate information. The most famous story - perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, but telling anyway - involves Princeton University being ranked as having one of the top law programs in the United States. Who would ever doubt the veracity of that assertion? Princeton, after all, always ranks towards the top of nearly every academic who's-who list. The upshot of the story, of course, is that Princeton has no law department, and it's ranking was based solely on reputation. In this particular case, one it had not - indeed, could not have - earned.
The point is this: You should certainly do your research when it comes to the reputation of the schools you're considering. After all, degrees earned from an accredited school with a solid reputation will be looked upon much more favorably by potential employers than one from a school with just a so-so reputation and shaky accreditation. But don't rely solely on that factor. It is just one of many, and as with everything else in life, it's dangerous to put too many eggs in a single basket.
Location was historically one of the most important factors in choosing a continuing education program. And while it is still certainly a major one, it no longer plays the same kind of make-or-break role it once did. This, of course, is because of the Internet, and the subsequent prevalence of on-line programs it has resulted in. The physical location of the school still plays a crucial role, especially if you want to pursue your degree in an actual classroom, with classmates and a professor physically present. In this case, you'll want to choose a program that's close enough to your home or your office. Remember, if you're still part of the workforce, taking classes will likely constitute a second full-time job. If that's the case, you definitely don't want to add to the demands on your schedule by attending a school that requires a long commute of you. All that time in the car could be better spent studying.
The Internet, however, has changed all that. For if you enroll in an online continuing education program, then you'll be able to take the classes at your own pace and in your own time. So though you'll still have a lot of work to do, balancing classes either with your job or with your family, the amount of time spent on the non-academic aspects of it (i.e., commuting) will be minimized - or, rather, obliterated.
Both options have advantages and drawbacks. Just make sure you consider all the variables before you make your decision, and you won't go wrong.
Who's Money Is It, Anyway?
If knowledge is power - and few, if any, people would disagree with that - then the tools necessary for attaining it are justifiably expensive. Education, at least in America, has never been cheap. The 2006 cost of tuition at Harvard University is $30,620. That means that, in tuition alone, a four-year degree in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is more than $122,000. Is it worth it? Many people would argue that it is.
But when it comes to continuing education, there are other factors at play, not least of which is whose money is being used to pay for it. For example, many M.B.A. students go back to school on their company's check with the promise that they will return to work for a set number of years following the attainment of the degree. The implication is that all that money is worth it, and will be paid back through the increased earning potential and productivity that the new Master of Business Administration bring back to the company.
However, many people choose to continue their education even if they themselves have to pay for it. In this case, the issues become much more complicated - and personal. So the question of whether the cost is justifiable come down to this: What do you want to get out of this endeavor, and how do think it will impact your life? It is an odd mathematics you must engage in, but a necessary one. If time is money, and knowledge is power, then how much is that worth to you?
For The Love of The Subject
Some people, however, choose to go back to school not because they want to earn more money - many are retired, after all - or because they have their sights set on higher career goals. Rather, they choose to continue their education because they love learning, and because they have a passion for a specific area of study. In this case, then, the decision of which program to choose comes down to this: Where will you get the best, most stimulating education at a convenient location for a reasonable amount of money?
In a sense, this kind of continuing education student should consider the situation holistically, and with a bit more emphasis on the personal: If you are going back to school because you've always loved a particular subject, then you'll likely find a way to reap the intellectual rewards from the subject regardless of where you go, as long as it's accredited. Which is exactly why it's so important to choose your program wisely: You don't want your fascination with a subject diminished because you choose a program that's not right for you.
In the end, though, the most important thing you can do is solid research. For if you go into the experience of continuing your education confident in your decision and enthusiastic about the program, then you will gain that much more from it once you begin.
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