Fall ceremoniously signals the traditional back-to-school season and with that a myriad of questions and concerns from those seeking to enroll in online courses or a community college to further their education.

Are you one of the 6.9 million students enrolled in community college this year according to the American Association of Community Colleges? Or the 1 in 10 individuals enrolled exclusively in online courses, according to the most recent report released by the National Center for Education Statistics? First off, congratulations. Making this immense and life-altering decision is not easy and making this commitment is just the first chapter (of which I assure you, there will be many) in the extensive career journey that lies ahead of you.

According to College Measures, there is currently only a 41.2% graduation and transfer rate amongst community colleges nationwide, making it clear that more needs to be done at the faculty and administrative level to prepare, guide and mentor students to greater academic achievement. I affirm that students’ education and subsequent career paths are not and moreover, should not be identical or homogenous. That’s why it’s imperative you choose the right career path for you.

So what steps can you take now to increase your success rate in the future? Do your homework. Research, research, research. It’s a must. I’ve compiled here some insight after years of research and data analysis to develop and institute individualized career pathways for students and job seekers through my company Viridis Learning. With some investigation, thorough planning, and a bit of discipline, you’ll be on your way to scholastic success.

Community College Versus Online Courses – The Great Divide

The first and quite possibly most important decision you’ll need to make is whether you should attend traditional face-to-face courses at a community college, or if you’ll better excel by enrolling in online courses. Another route is to enroll in a curriculum that implements both, so that your hands-on learning experience inside the classroom is complemented by the flexibility and convenience online learning affords. Ultimately, you need to honestly ask yourself what type of learning environment is right for you; there is no right or wrong answer to this question.

Do you prefer participating in lectures? Are you a morning person who learns best when collaborating with others in person? Or do you prefer a less structured environment? Do you have a hectic work schedule already in place that limits your availability during the week? You must be realistic about how school will affect your daily routine and what potential interferences may impede your academics.

An insightful resource that may help determine your decision is The College Board’s Community College Resource Center. It provides a wealth information targeted to and tailored specifically for the various questions raised by students, parents and professionals alike.

“A” is for Accreditation

Once you’ve selected the type of learning environment that works best for you, make sure your program of choice is an officially accredited institution of higher education. How? Visit the U.S. Department of Education’s online database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs to verify. Keep in mind, many colleges and universities will not accept transferable units from non-accredited programs, nor will employers hire job candidates that have certifications and degrees from schools that have not met the accreditation system’s specific standards for higher education.

Along similar lines, use this investigative time to learn more about student placement rates and other relevant scholastic statistics before enrollment by viewing performance ratings issued by College Measures. You’ll get a good sense of what the typical academic career looks like for students and any identifiable trends will help you make a more informed decision.

Take a Trial Run

Open houses, online webinars and orientations are great resources that unfortunately many students take for granted or do not attend altogether. I’m a huge proponent for students to gain first-hand exposure to a campus or online course right off the bat, that’s why Viridis users are required to attend an open house in order to attend the program they wish to enlist in.

Use this transition time wisely, it’ll be gone before you know it. Set up an introductory meeting with a college counselor to discuss your career goals or merely visit the career center to familiarize yourself with the resources available through your school. Find out early on if the student-to-counselor ratio is satisfactory; you’ll want a reliable source to be able to answer your questions and guide you along your academic path.

Don’t Lose Focus

Receiving your degree, certifications, and pushing yourself to accomplish your career aspirations won’t be a walk in the park. It will undoubtedly require focus, a strong work ethic, and likely some hours studying in the library. Remember to see the bigger picture and the light at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, remember that the research process does not end upon enrollment. Make sure you’re well informed of your education and career trajectory, and more importantly, what you need to do to accomplish your goals. It’s a perpetual, never-ending venture that’s constantly evolving. Keep your eye on the prize whatever it may be, but also recognize that you’re acquiring invaluable, lifelong skills and experiences along the way.

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