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By this time next year, you could be holding a new diploma -- or be well on your way to a bachelor's degree or an MBA. When the holiday season rolls around, you may have discovered new excitement in your current career, or you may have forged ahead into a new one.

In today's economy, education is not optional -- it's a requirement for most jobs and a major factor in career advancement. But something this valuable isn't easy to come by. This year, make sure your most important resolution -- career education -- gets the commitment it deserves. WorldWideLearn.com's step-by-step guide will walk you through the process.

Step 1: Focus Your Priorities

The typical MBA student in the class of 2006 made $61,302 before earning the MBA degree and expects a post-MBA salary of $86,350. That's a 41 percent increase.

Getting a degree takes commitment. In the midst of application forms (see Step 5) and loan research (Step 6), stay motivated by recalling the top three reasons why you're doing this in the first place:

  • Earning power
  • More responsibility at work
  • New expertise

Don't forget to include personal educational incentives in your priorities list, too. "I would like the feeling of finally finishing something I started," says one paralegal student. Mike M., returning to college after 16 years, reflects: "It was a really refreshing experience to get back to school and start exercising my brain again."

Step 2: Choose Your Degree and Major

Now that you've nailed down your personal motivation, it's time to get down to specifics. If career advancement is your goal, what will it take for you to get ahead? Here are some practical strategies for choosing a degree and major:

  • Talk to people whose careers interest you. What's on their resume? Did a degree get them there?
  • Research the standard qualifications for your chosen career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook gives an up-to-date snapshot of credentials and earnings expectations for just about any career you can think of--even Greeting Card Writer.
  • Examine your job skill repertoire. Is there a gap in your resume? This is especially important for technical careers. In some cases, a two or three-month certificate program can be all it takes to get those visual basic skills up to speed.
  • Take a look in your crystal ball. Where is your career field heading? Industry journals can point you in the right direction.

Step 3: Decide between Online Education or Campus

Which format is right for you? Thanks to new technology and more sophisticated teaching methods, the online format has emerged as a sound alternative to campus education. According to a survey by Vault.com, 85% of employers feel online degrees are more acceptable today than they were five years ago.

Luckily, you have two good -- yet very different -- options. You'll need to weigh the pros and cons, taking into consideration your particular field and its requirements, your personality and learning style, and your personal commitments.

Comparing Online and Traditional Formats

LifestyleFlexibility and convenienceCampus life and social network
Personal Learning StyleSolitary, electronic chat; visual and auditory learnerCollaborative learning; in-person interaction
Degree FieldTechnical proficiency; intellectual and written workHands-on training, lab work
Networking OpportunitiesBroad, worldwide network; communicate via email, chat, message boardsLocal network; face-to-face communication (handshakes, eye contact). Opportunity to develop friendships
PersonalityMature, self-motivated organizedBenefits from structure

The average online student is a working adult between ages 24 and 50, reports the Washington Post. These are the students most likely to appreciate the convenience and self-determined focus of the online format.

Mary, currently pursuing an online master's in Educational Technology, "chose the online program because of the flexibility. It allows me to continue working full time, obtain a degree, and manage family life."

In a nationwide study, students cited the following criteria for deciding between campus and online formats:

Source: The Sloan Consortium

Step 4: Find a School

Now you've got enough information to start looking for specific schools that offer your chosen degree and major in your preferred format, online or campus. Don't get overwhelmed by the sheer number of schools out there -- you'll gradually hone in on the right ones as you gather information and weigh your priorities.

Develop a list of schools. This is a brainstorm, a chance to survey the lay of the land. Location, reputation, flexible scheduling, faculty/student ratio, social scene, academic support, cost, career placement assistance... these are just some of the factors to consider as you start your search. The graph below ranks the most popular criteria for evaluating colleges:

Source: America's Best Colleges 2007, U.S. News and World Report

If you've decided to pursue an online degree, your priorities may look a little different. In a nationwide survey, prospective online college students cited convenience, length of program, and available technology among their top priorities.

Source: "America's Best Colleges 2007," U.S. News and World Report


The Internet is your greatest information-gathering ally. WorldWideLearn.com and other directories of schools allow you to search for schools through a range of different features.

Cast your net wide at this stage. It's unlikely that any one online directory will represent every school out there, or all your criteria. Ask people in your field for suggestions, or pick up an industry journal. U.S. News and World Report publishes annually an authoritative ranking of college degree programs, including bachelor's degrees, graduate and MBA degrees, and law schools.

Refine your search. Next, take a look at your list. If it's too long, whittle it down. First, are there any deal breakers? Seattle may seem like the dream location for your computer networking career, but you can't stand the rain. You might need to gather more information, either from the school's website or by talking to an admissions counselor.

Weigh your priorities. Once you have a manageable list, it's time to lay out the pros and cons. The fashion program in New York City will offer great networking. But that local fashion school is convenient and has a state-of-the-art design lab. If you have trouble deciding between schools, you may want to talk to alumni or visit the campus.

Step 5: Apply

Applying to the programs of your choice takes three steps, according to the College Board:

Nurse Kate Mullins found that her zoology degree left her a few credits short of the science prerequisites for a nursing program. A spring semester at a community college completed her profile in time to submit an application in the fall.
  • Get an application. Many schools have online application processes. Others will send you a paper packet.
  • Gather your application materials. Transcripts of previous classes taken, recommendations, a personal essay, financial statements. Make a checklist for each school to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
  • Fulfill Application Requirements. Many degrees will require you to take an admissions test such as the SAT (bachelor's degree), GRE (graduate), LSAT (law), or GMAT (business). Some programs may also have prerequisite courses - -math for an accounting program, biology for nursing school, and so on.

Here's where your New Year's planning pays off: you have plenty of time to prepare for these tests and even take spring or summer term classes before your application is due.

Step 6: Line Up Financial Aid

Now that you have your sights set on specific schools, it's time to line up financing. Most people rely on a variety of funding sources to make ends meet. Kristy Bleichner, for example, is forging through her bachelor's degree in social welfare with a series of federal and state grants, private scholarships, an employer contribution, and a part-time job.

Your eligibility for aid varies among different sources. Some funding is based on need, some on academic merit, other types are earmarked for students who meet a certain profile: ethnic background, field of study, gender--even last name starting with "Z!" "Private endowments total about $9 billion a year," says David Cassidy, president of the National Scholarship Research Service. "There is a scholarship for everyone and every interest."

Based on her mother's income of $20,000 for the year 2000, Betty Luz Morales qualifies for several forms of aid. She receives $1,354.50 per semester from New York's Tuition Assistance Program. Her $1,875 Pell Grant pays the difference and helps pay for books and other living expenses.

Scholarships and grants are, of course, the jewels in the financial aid crown. But unless you're a star athlete, you'll need to seek out federal or private loans as well. These loans offer low interest rates, and may be "subsidized," which means the government pays the interest while you're in school and for a nine-month grace period.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education offers a single application for all its aid programs, from grants to subsidized loans: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Plan to submit your FAFSA sometime between the October the year before you attend classes and the June before your classes begin.

Your Financial Aid Options
The following chart provides an overview of different sources of financial aid. For general financial aid information, consult FAFSA and FinAid.org.

Pell GrantFederalA federal need-based grant for students pursuing a bachelor's degree.
State, SchoolState and institutional grants may be available. Your FAFSA extends to these sources as well.
Employer49% of employees have access to employer funding for job-related education. Employer grants are especially generous for professional and technical employees. 43% of MBA students receive employer aid, for example.
Stafford LoanFederalA federal subsidized or unsubsidized loan available to all applicants.
Perkins LoanFederalA federal subsidized loan available to applicants with exceptional financial need.
Student LoansPrivateInterest rates vary by lender, but will be higher than federal loan rates.
ScholarshipsSchool, PrivateA stipend or other form of aid based on academic merit or other special qualifications.
Work-Study ProgramsFederal, SchoolA federally subsidized program administered by the school which places students in jobs to help cover tuition and related expenses.
Military AidFederalThe military offers financial aid in the form of ROTC scholarships, the Montgomery GI Bill, the Armed Forces Tuition Assistance Program, the Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP) and more

Bringing it All Together

Keep in mind these six steps, and you will set yourself up to achieve one of the most significant goals most people undertake -- a college education.

  1. Focus your priorities
  2. Choose a degree and major
  3. Decide between online and campus formats
  4. Find a school that fits
  5. Apply
  6. Line up financing

And it's all downhill from there, right? Of course there's still the degree program itself--the new ideas, networking opportunities, new challenges you'll encounter.

But that's an adventure all its own.

Additional Resources for Those Pursuing an Advanced Education

Additional Sources for College Majors