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College Options

When it comes to selecting a college or graduate school, you'll find that you have a myriad of choices. The following is a quick overview of the most common ones. It is also helpful to learn the lingo of higher education. Many colleges offer programs that combine the following options:

Course Options

There are basically two types of college courses that you may take and each has its own advantages and disadvantages:

Noncredit courses. Many colleges allow adults to register for specific noncredit courses. These are courses that will not count toward a degree and are intended to provide skills and knowledge that will help in your professional development. If you just want to acquire new skills or knowledge or are going back to school for personal enrichment, then noncredit courses are a low-stress way to do it. Plus, you often don't have to go through the complex process of being accepted into a degree program. Besides taking a few specific, noncredit courses is also an excellent way to acclimate back into being a student. So before jumping headfirst into a degree program, you might want to take a few noncredit courses to make sure that you are ready for the academic rigors of college. You can also use noncredit courses as a refresher for basic skills that you might have forgotten (i.e., math) so that you'll be better prepared for a degree program.

Credit courses. These are courses that are part of an organized program to earn a degree or certificate. However, you may take credit courses even if you aren't seeking a degree. The difference between these courses and noncredit courses is that if you successfully pass the class you receive credit and can use that credit later on toward a degree. Be careful, however, about taking courses from a number of different schools because they may have different rules about which credits will transfer. Of course, to receive credit for a course you must also earn a passing grade. This makes credit courses a little more stressful than noncredit courses.

Degree and Certificate Programs

Many students who go back to college want to earn a degree. While individual schools may differ, you'll find that the most common programs will fall into one of the following categories:

Certificate program. Certificate programs are aimed at students who need to update their skills, acquire specific new skills, earn credentials or even change careers. They are usually shorter than degree programs, lasting for several weeks or months rather than years. If you take all of the classes in the series, you receive a certificate. One advantage of a certificate program is that you don't need to dedicate as much time or money to receive a certificate. For career advancement a certificate, which shows that you have learned a specific set of skills or body of knowledge, may be all you need. The disadvantage of a certificate program is that it is not as comprehensive or flexible as a degree. Obviously, if it takes four years of study to earn a bachelor's degree and only four months to earn a certificate, the bachelor's degree signifies a much greater amount of learning. One other advantage of a degree is that it is required to pursue an advanced degree. Most certificates will not allow you to advance into a graduate program.

Undergraduate degree program. Undergraduate degrees include associate's degrees from community or two-year colleges and bachelor's degrees from four-year colleges. You may receive your associate's degree from a two-year college and then complete the third and fourth year of your college education at a four-year college to receive a bachelor's degree. Earning a degree signifies that you have mastered a field of knowledge. When you hear the phrase a "college education," most people mean that you have earned an associate's or bachelor's degree.

Graduate program. If you've already obtained a bachelor's degree, you may further your education with a graduate degree, which is usually a master's or doctorate. There are also a variety of professional degrees such as Master's of Business Administration (MBA) and Jurist Doctorate (JD). Master's and professional programs typically require one to three years of study, and doctorate programs may require four to eight years. When it comes to education, this is the pinnacle.

Accelerated program. Some schools offer programs that allow you to obtain a degree in less time than is usually required. For example, if you have a number of college credits, you may be able to receive your bachelor's degree in about two years. An advantage of this type of program is that you will spend less time out of the workforce, but the big disadvantage is that because the program is accelerated, you will need to concentrate more time on your studies. There are accelerated programs for both undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Colleges and Universities

When it comes to where you will take courses and earn a degree or certificate, there are several choices:

Vocational or technical schools. These are specialized schools that teach skills that are directly transferable to a specific career. Automobile repair, medical assistance, cosmetology and computer networking are all examples of subjects taught at vocational schools. Vocational schools may award certificates, associate's degrees and even bachelor's and master's degrees. The main disadvantage of vocational schools is that they offer limited courses. This is not a problem if you are going back to school to learn a specific skill, but for students who have more general interests, a community college or university may be a better choice since it offers a much wider selection of classes. In addition, vocational or technical schools are often more expensive than other options such as community colleges.

Adult schools. These programs are typically run by state or county governments to provide specific skills to adults. They often offer practical courses such as computer training. Adult education is an a la carte system where you pick and choose classes. You usually receive a certificate of completion for these courses but not college credit.

Community college. These are the hidden gems of the education system. Cheap, local and with open admission policies (i.e., anyone will be accepted) they offer the chance to attend school for two years or more to receive an associate's degree. Then, you may transfer to a four-year college to receive a bachelor's degree in another two years. Attending a community college may be a great option to help you ease back into studying, take basic requirement classes and save money. Community college is where many adults get their first taste of returning to school.

Four-year college or university. There are more than 3,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. offering private and public educations. The advantages of four-year colleges are the resources that they have and the size and breadth of the faculty. Four-year colleges are more competitive to gain admission into than community colleges and are often more expensive. However, you cannot beat a four-year college or university for the range of courses, degrees and learning opportunities.

Continuing education. Many four-year colleges and universities have established continuing education or extension programs just for adults. These are typically held in the evenings and are usually open enrollment, which means that you don't need to go through a selective admission process to get into the program. Best of all you can earn complete degrees and graduate certificates without having to become a full-time student. Most of the faculty is also the same that teach during the day at the college or university.

Distance learning. Distance learning programs offer the same type of certificates and degrees as traditional colleges. The big difference is that you take courses from the comfort of your home. Many are online only, where you have "discussions" with your professor and classmates on the Internet. Other programs combine online learning with in-person learning. An advantage of distance learning is flexibility. You don't need to commute to classes, and you can participate in class discussions and complete assignments on your own time. Disadvantages of distance learning are that you may not have the face-to-face interaction that you do in a regular classroom setting. Plus, it takes a huge amount of self-discipline to complete a distance-learning program.