Published on 2013/01/29

What to Ask Before Signing on the Dotted Line

What to Ask Before Signing on the Dotted Line
Choosing to return to college or university is a big step for many prospective adult students, but the decision making does not stop there. There are a number of key questions adult students must ask themselves and their prospective institutions before they enroll.

If you work at an institution that serves working adults, it’s your moral obligation to help them truly understand what they’re getting into when they’re searching for a postsecondary program. You can enlighten them on important questions to ask as they slog through the tens (or hundreds) of educational options available.

First, have them do a little soul searching by asking themselves these questions:

Do I know why I want to go to (or back to) college?

Does the prospective student want to increase his or her salary, change careers, have better job security or finish a degree for personal fulfillment? Does he or she have a specific, coherent plan in place? If this person can’t say with certainty why he or she wants to go back to school, and a target date of when he or she wants to have the degree completed, the commitment may not really be there.

How will returning to school affect all areas of my life?

What impact will studying have on the individual’s work, family and leisure time? Is there support from the significant people in his or her life to pursue this goal? These are critical questions to ask before launching into an endeavor that is both time and effort-intensive.

How will I pay for this?

Is this person eligible for federal or state financial aid, military benefits, corporate tuition assistance or scholarships, or will he or she have to dip into savings or work extra hours to pay for school?

Do I have the ability to meet deadlines, and am I self-motivated and organized?

Make sure this prospective student understands there will not only be due dates for homework assignments and exams, but there are also expectations to abide by college payment deadlines, enrollment dates and finals schedules, just to name a few.

Do I have good computer skills and am I comfortable in an online environment?

Like it or not, even if the prospective student only intends to take classes on campus, he or she will need to be conversant with all of the basic computer applications, including email, word processing and spreadsheet programs, as well as Internet browsers.

Do I know the lingo?

Does this person know the difference between “full-time” and “part-time” status, the definition of a “credit hour,” the difference between regional and national accreditation, and how grants, scholarships, loans and tuition assistance help pay for school? If not, he or she must learn these, and more!

If they have addressed the above issues and are ready to get started, here are the critical questions you can help them ask as they shop for a school:

What accreditation does your institution have?

Many people don’t know that accreditation ensures the education received meets acceptable levels of quality based on relatively uniform evaluation criteria. If a student plans to complete a degree in order to pursue a career in a specific industry or company, now is the time to find out if that company will accept the accreditation, and thus, the degree, from his or her intended college.

Which majors, minors and degree and certificate programs do you offer?

If an institution doesn’t offer the degree that the prospective student desires, the conversation should end there. Your prospective student shouldn’t be talked into a degree that won’t go towards achieving his or her ultimate goal. Tell the student to always ask for a college catalog and current schedule of classes. If the college offers the degree this person is seeking, make sure he or she knows whether there is any prerequisite coursework that needs to be completed before beginning the program.

What exactly does the application process entail?

Are entrance exams required, how much is the application fee and which documents must be submitted with the application?

What is the bottom-line (total) cost of this degree, what financial resources do you have to help adult students and how much will I have to pay?

Encourage the prospective student to ask for information on all tuition, ancillary fees and book charges. He or she should find out how to apply for financial aid and how the aid gets applied to the account. It’s no fun to be surprised by hidden costs on a tuition bill, so the student must be a good consumer and do an extensive cost-analysis comparison when shopping for a college.

In what format are classes offered — online, face-to-face on campus or both?

Are campus classes offered during the day, evening or weekend? Are classes offered at more than one location and, if so, where?

What is the process for getting my previous college credits evaluated for transfer credit, and what is your policy on accepting them?

This might be a show-stopper if the institution doesn’t accept transfer credit from the prospective student’s previous studies. Shopping for another educational provider that does accept credit may save the student time and money in the long run.

What academic resources do you have to help adult students, such as tutoring or basic skills labs, and what is the cost to me?

Some adult learners are very self-aware when it comes to their presence in the classroom and their knowledge in a given course. As such, they want to be sure there is additional help available, particularly for subjects like math or English, so they’ll have a safety net.

How do I know which courses to take and how do I register for them?

Every institution has its own academic advising process and enrollment procedures, and some are, frankly, not very user-friendly. If this is an issue and the prospective student has a low frustration tolerance, he or she may not persist. It’s critical for advisors to have a strong grasp of available programming and provide the right advice to help students travel from enrollment to graduation.

What is the average class size and student-faculty ratio?

Some adult learners prefer a small, intimate environment while others are perfectly fine with a lecture hall of 300 students. Good to figure this out before registering for classes, as a higher comfort level will lead to greater classroom success.

What career services are available as I finish my degree and what is the cost to me?

This is an important question for prospective students to ask if their primary purpose for seeking education is to improve their job options after degree completion.

In our consumer-savvy society, with all of the information that is available on the Internet, there is no reason an adult learner should go into the college selection process unarmed. Good educators who work with this group can help them to find the tools and knowledge they need to make an informed choice about their education provider.

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Readers Comments

Eileen Peters 2013/01/29 at 8:15 am

I would add that prospective students also need to ask questions about what types of support systems are in place for them once they begin their studies. Besides skills sessions and other academic resources, would they have access to mental health support or perhaps mentorship from a former adult student? Going back to school and being in a new environment can be quite stressful. Students need to be sure they will have access to ongoing support as they’re completing their programs.

Natasha Rubin 2013/01/29 at 1:58 pm

This article highlights the important role that advisors must play in helping prospective students to make informed decisions. For example, advisors could be a resource for explaining academic “lingo” or pre-enrollment processes that aren’t necessarily intuitive. I like the way Ms. Miller put it, that it’s an advisor’s “moral obligation” to do so.

Diana Schriefer 2015/04/13 at 8:36 pm

Great information for academic advisors. I would add, if a prospective student is seeking a degree that your institution does not offer, the academic advisor should be well versed on other institution’s degree programs. At the very least they should be able to refer a prospective student to a reputable institution. The reason for this is that the prospective student may be discouraged, because this can be a daunting task for busy prospective adult students. Again, great information Ms. Cindy Miller!

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