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Decipher Your College Options
By: Gen and Kelly Tanabe

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:

Know your 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.

Understand certificate programs.

Many students who go back to college want to earn a degree, but a certificate program may be a better fit. 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.

Know the options for degrees.

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.

About the Author

Gen and Kelly Tanabe
Founders of SuperCollege and authors of 13 books on college planning.

501 Ways for Adult Students to Pay for College

By: Gen & Kelly Tanabe
Learn how to go back to school without going broke. This is the only book that shows you how to find the best scholarships for adult students, get your employer to pay, have your student loans forgiven and much more.

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Adult Students: A Painless Guide to Going Back to College

By: Gen & Kelly Tanabe
Fulfill your dream of going back to school--painlessly! Whether you're going back to school for the first time, returning after an absence or advancing or changing your career, this book will help.

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