Three reasons to return to college
Many colleges have added programs that allow students to complete studies long-distance, using the Internet to connect with professors and fellow students. Sometimes returning students can finish degrees without setting foot on campus.
About 75% of colleges and universities have some sort of online program. The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) in Washington estimates that roughly 4 million students are involved in doing coursework at a distance at U.S. colleges and universities. According to the Department of Education, the estimated total enrollment for both undergraduate and graduate students in the USA was 15.7 million in 2003.
But some employers remain skeptical of online studies because they're a fairly recent educational phenomenon. Education experts also say that's changing.
"Employers have learned (that) people who have the self-discipline and moxie to complete a degree online are going to be extremely good employees," says Michael Lambert, executive director of the DETC. "Right now, it's different, but it's becoming more accepted."
He added that the degrees must come from accredited institutions rather than degree mills that churn out diplomas for cash.
One reason online studies are more accepted is that schools have come up with unusual ways for students to take classes, such as offering all-day Saturday classes or courses that meet over lunch.
Paula Neal, 36, is a secretary who lives in Canton, Pa. She's completing an associate's degree in computer networking at Pennsylvania College of Technology. While she takes some courses in person, much of the work has been done on the Internet - connecting with other students via online bulletin boards and e-mailing with professors. She works full time and often uses lunches to study.
"I'm a morning person, so I get up at 4:30 a.m. on the weekends and put in my hours before my kids wake up," says Neal, mother to Travis, 12, and Alane, 10. Before going back to school in 2002, she'd attended a business institute to get certified as a medical office clerk. "This will really help with career advancement."
The traditional college student is changing
Today, college isn't just for recent high school graduates. Gray-haired students are more accepted. Two out of five college students are 25 or older, according to the Department of Education. An estimated 90 million individuals participate in some form of adult education each year.
At 52, Constance Clark is finishing a nursing degree she began in 1969. She left her studies in the early 1970s to get married. While she got a bachelor's in general studies in 1995, she's now returned to complete her nursing degree at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "It's something I've always wanted to do," says Clark. "People today have a different perception of age."
Many employees receive tuition help from their companies
Nearly 80% of employers offered educational assistance in 2002, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, up from 74% in 2001.
Going back to school can be costly, no matter how the degree is earned. Getting a degree from an institution that specializes in online courses and distance learning can be cheaper than from a traditional private university. But most traditional universities offer online classes, which cost the same as taking a course in person. A master's degree can be earned from some distance programs for $6,000 to $10,000, but can cost $30,000 or more at a traditional private university.
Some employers looking for hires with the latest skills see returning to finish a degree later in life as an advantage. A degree in computer science, electronics engineering or other technical fields is more valuable to an employer if it's been earned in the past 10 years, education experts say.
Going back to school is enabling Nicole Mehlbrech, 36, to change career paths. The office manager in Tualatin, Ore., took some college courses but left when she became pregnant. Her son, Anthony, is now 12. Mehlbrech went back to school in 1998 and got her undergraduate degree in sociology from Portland State University; she's graduating this summer with a master's in education from the University of Phoenix Online and plans to teach.
"Right now, I have a job, but I wanted a career," she says. "I worried at first that employers would think it was a fly-by-night degree, but that hasn't been the case."
Financial help from her employer and a desire to be more marketable were the main reasons Mary Beth Puryear, 51, went back. While she took a few college classes after high school, she left when she got married. Now she works in corporate communications at Health Alliance, a health care system of six hospitals in Cincinnati. She returned in 1992, and recently got her associate's degree from the College of Mount St. Joseph.
This fall, she'll go back again to work on getting a bachelor's in communications. She credits her ability to go back to her company, which reimburses employees up to $4,000 a year for continuing education. Last year, 830 employees at Health Alliance used $1.2 million in tuition benefits.
"We encourage people to go into areas where there are identifiable labor shortages. We have to grow our own talent," says Debbe Endres, vice president of human resources with the Health Alliance. "We can't wait for the schools to turn them out. And we also think it's important for people to continue to learn."