How to Go Back to School on Your Own Time

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Not sure if going back to school fits into your schedule? Check out these flexible education options.

By Terence Loose    

Is your heart telling you to go back to school but your daily work or family schedule is protesting that you don't have enough time? Sounds like it might be time to check out flexible alternatives to the traditional college offerings.

Flexible education options could include online courses, hybrid courses (a blend of online and in-person instruction), "mini-mesters" (shortened semesters), and evening classes… There are even midnight classes available for insomniacs.

And while not all schools offer each and every one of these flexible options, there's a definite push towards making it happen, says Norma Kent, a senior vice president for the American Association of Community Colleges, which is the primary advocate for the nation's community colleges.

"We're making a big effort to make it convenient and change the class schedules to the students' needs instead of vice versa," says Kent. "If you have certain constraints or needs and expectations, more than likely you're going to find there's a way to meet them."

Check out these viable ways to return to school while keeping your day job and family commitments.

Flexible Option #1 - Online Education

No one likes searching for parking. And committing to a strict on-campus class time is simply impossible for many part- or full-time workers with family obligations. That's where online education comes in.

It certainly is a popular option, according to a 2011 Survey of Online Learning by the Babson Survey Research Group. The study reports that over 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term, an increase of 560,000 students from 2009.
This 10 percent growth rate in online enrollment surpasses the two percent growth in overall higher education enrollment.

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"There's an increasing need for online because you've got lots of busy people out there, and ten o'clock at night after they've gotten the kids to bed might be the only time they can take a course. Because there is such a diverse amount of learners, there's a whole array of options," says Kent.


Flexible Option #2 - Hybrid Classes

Perhaps you're not ready to go full-on cyber student yet. That's okay. At some schools, you can dabble your online feet, if you will, with a so-called hybrid or blended class.

These courses can combine in-classroom instruction with online learning. With a good chunk of the instruction and learning taking place online, it could be easier for students to fit classes into their busy schedules. Plus, hybrid classes provide a great introduction to online learning.

"For a student who is brand new to this type of learning, they might want to start off by taking a hybrid class where part of their coursework is online and part is on campus, and finally transition into a fully online class. That way, they're slowly building their skills," says Jeanne Miller, Cypress College's distance education coordinator.

Studies indicate that hybrid courses could be as effective as traditional learning courses. Take for instance a 2009 study on the effectiveness of blended learning environments by Dr. Shawna Strickland at the University of Missouri.

"My study found that there was no significant difference in learning outcomes, so ultimately what we're talking about is that the blended environment can be as effective as face-to-face education. This increases our options to cater to the needs of students," says Strickland.


Flexible Option #3 - Part-Time School

Who says you have to be a full-time student to go back to school? Certainly not the schools… In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics, 2010, they have a record number of part-timers.

According to that same research, part-timers made up 7,705 of the 20,400 students enrolled in higher education.

Going part-time and taking only a class or two might be a good way to "test the waters" for potential students with busy work or family schedules, says Christine Sorensen, dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii.

"It's always good, especially if you're a working adult with family responsibilities, to try one course and see if that works for you before going for a full schedule," Sorensen says. "You may find that you can manage it just fine, but I wouldn't jump in all at once without exploring a little bit."

Although going to school part-time means it will take longer to complete a degree, it does allow for more flexibility and time for your job, family, and friends. And if getting a degree is your goal, a part-timer might be better than a no-timer.

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Flexible Option #4 - Night and Weekend Courses

Do you work better at night, even in the wee hours? Believe it or not, a handful of colleges nationwide offer midnight courses.

It's a phenomenon that grew out of a swelling demand for classes, according to Kent.

"Over the last two or three years, enrollment really has been dramatically increased," Kent says. "An increase in class availability and class types has lead to greater flexibility for students."

"When their enrollment went up so dramatically, colleges did a lot to make sure as many students as possible could get what they need," adds Kent.


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