Bachelor's degrees are becoming the new norm in today's job market, so you're definitely not alone in considering going back to school to earn one. Not to mention, the number of working adults out there who are looking to change careers is increasing, and a college degree is a great way to put yourself on a new path.
But let's put all of that aside for a moment. The reality is that going back to school—especially to pursue an online degree—after a lengthy absence from the classroom can be daunting, intimidating and overwhelming.
"Adult students need to realize that nearly all re-entry students feel some level of anxiety about going back to school," says Karen Gorback, a retired college dean and former re-entry student. "It's completely normal and will pass with the first completed assignment."
There has been a steady surge—especially among adult students—of enrollment in online courses in recent years. Approximately 62 percent of surveyed colleges reported offering completely online degree programs, according to a 2012 report released by U.S. News & World Report. Moreover, 32 percent of all students enrolled in college that year took at least one online course. And all indications suggest those numbers have risen every year since 2012.
The statistics are on your side, but you may still have some questions about how you can be successful in transitioning back to college in an online environment. We consulted a panel of experts to provide answers to those burning questions.
"Some students erroneously believe that online courses are an easy option," Gorback says, "however college and university courses—whether conducted in a classroom or online—must meet the same level of rigor."
The online classroom environment is simply one of several formats colleges and universities are offering to make higher education more accessible to students from all backgrounds. Institutions offer traditional on-campus programs, hybrid programs that mix on-campus and online classes, fully online programs and even accelerated degree paths that offer night and weekend courses. The important part is determining what format is best for you.
"Learning online is a great option for people who do not have a predictable schedule, who travel a lot or who simply love to learn!" says Lori K. Jass, associate vice president at Warner Pacific College. "Being successful in an online environment requires some ability to be a self-starter and the ability to communicate in writing."
There are also students who may find they thrive in the online classroom environment. "For students who traditionally felt like they didn't have a voice in the face-to-face classroom, online learning might be for them," says Lynne Hamre, dean of the School of Business and Technology at The College of St. Scholastica. "Everyone has a voice and everyone must participate."
This is a question asked by scores of prospective online students, regardless of their age or work experience. And the answer is encouraging! "Online students need to be computer literate, not computer geniuses," says Monique Anair, assistant professor at Santa Fe Community College. "If you are able to surf the net, manage your email and upload files from Word and Excel, then you are ready to be an online student."
Even if you don't have those basic skills mastered, there is still good news: They're really easy to learn! Enlist a coworker, neighbor or family member to give you a quick tutorial or search for one on YouTube. You can be online-ready in no time.
Many online programs are designed for students who are either returning to college after time off, are looking to switch career paths, or are finally able to access a college education for the first time. Younger students may have an edge because they're more directly familiar with the routines and processes of college, but every student has his or her own experiences to contribute to classroom communities.
"What [I] find is that the professional skills our students bring to the classroom—through their work in businesses, non-profit organizations, volunteer work or family management—provide them with a rich foundation of experiences that are directly applicable to the topics they will study," Jass says.
Don't stress about your student skills being rusty. Instead, tap into the skills and experience you've gained over the years and the rest will come to you in no time.
Put simply, form an extremely close bond with your calendar. "Competing priorities can be successfully balanced," assures Dr. Mindy Sloan, associate vice president of research and student success at a university whose student population is largely comprised of online learners. She urges online students that they will feel more in control over the course work if they schedule out their days, weeks, months, semesters and even the total time required to complete their degrees.
"I tell my students that it is easier to keep up than it is to catch up," she adds.
All of our experts agree that informing family and friends of your schoolwork schedule can help minimize potential distractions that can act as barriers to meeting assignment deadlines.
Consistency can also be an effective tactic in assuring you hit every deadline outlined on your syllabus. "The key to successful online learning is to be in the 'class' almost every day to do something—whether it be to take in some content, post to a discussion board or take a quiz," Hamre says, expressing that an added benefit to online learning is the ability to more effectively balance personal and educational commitments.
Online learners require a certain level of initiative and dedication. But even the most motivated student can get distracted by the dog whining for a walk or a pile of laundry begging to be folded. That is why an important part of discovering success in an online environment is designating a distraction-free home environment from which to learn.
"Be sure that you have a space in your home or at work to dedicate to online instruction and interaction," Jass says, explaining that setting boundaries with family members and friends so that they don't bother you while you're in your "space" can also be helpful.
Use the advice from our panel of higher education and online learning experts to help you carve your path toward earning a degree and achieving career success.
"College is a goal worth pursuing," Sloan says. "Knowing the reality of the challenge will help you find ways to overcome it. Do not doubt for a second that you can and will overcome any struggles associated [with] achieving your educational dream."
If any of your questions about navigating the online classroom as an adult learner have gone unanswered, let us know in the comments section. And if you're still unsure about jumping back into college, take advantage of practice or hybrid courses to test it out and read some expert advice on how you can ace going back to college.