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College Basics: A Refresher For Adults


Adults thinking about going back to school are soon confronted with the vast, convoluted, and complicated tangle of school itself. For some, the mere terminology is new and unfamiliar, or just plain old and rusty. Either way, before you begin to wade into the depths of schools and programs, it may be helpful to brush up on the basics.

Academic Degrees

A degree indicates a level of qualification. An associate degree is one of two introductory levels of post-secondary education, the other being the more common and more expansive bachelor's degree. Having graduated with a bachelor's, students can pursue graduate-level degrees: the master's degree and the doctorate.

  • Associate Degree - Traditionally 60 hours of coursework earned in a two-year period, associate degrees are typically either academic or dedicated to a specialized vocation, technology, or occupation. Associate degrees are especially attractive to candidates who want to expedite a return to the workplace. Academic and pre-professional associate degrees are often transferable to four-year colleges for students who decide to pursue a bachelor's degree.
  • Bachelor's Degree - Many careers require the minimum of a bachelor’s degree for entry-level application. Often completed in four years, students earn 120-128 credits in a specific field of study to receive either a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) - with emphasis on the arts, languages, and humanities - or a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) - with emphasis on sciences, maths, and economics.
  • Master's Degree - Having earned a bachelor's degree, students can pursue graduate study. A master's program, dedicated to the mastery of a particular field of study, typically requires 32-36 credit hours and can take anywhere from one to four years to complete. Business (MBA), Education (M.Ed, MAEd, MSEd, Ed.M), and Fine Arts (MFA) are just a few examples.
  • Doctorate Degree - The terminal level of graduate study, a doctorate degree (Ph.D) requires 60-70 credit hours and can take anywhere from five to eight years to complete and requires an intensive and demanding inquiry into a specialized field of study. Seminar work and a doctoral thesis are typical requirements. Students with bachelor's or master's degrees can pursue doctorates depending on the field of study.

A Note on Certification Programs

Certification Programs are often lumped in with higher education options, as a great number of colleges and universities offer certificates, particularly in fields in which they specialize at degree levels. However, a certificate is not a degree. Certification programs are dedicated to practical training in a specialized trade or profession (e.g. accountants, project managers, software specialists) and are built to prepare students for national credential exams. Programs can take six months to a year, or longer, depending on the specialization, and may need to be renewed in time.

Community Colleges

The operative word is community. Most areas have a community college and the bulk of students are local. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, there are over 1,100 community colleges with a total enrollment of over 11 million students. Typically, community colleges offer dedicated academic, vocational, or technological programs that educate and train students for a specialized field or workplace occupation. Associate degree programs are the norm. Community colleges are inclusive and affordable. For adults married to a location and focused on a practical career goal, community college is often a perfect match. Also note that many associate degrees can be applied to bachelor's degree programs at a later date.

Public Colleges & Universities

Public universities (and the rarer public colleges) are funded by public means, typically by the states. Supplemental funds are provided by tuition and endowments. State residents are afforded lower tuition than out-of-state residents, given residents contribute to public institutions via taxes. Public universities - or state schools, as they are often called in colloquial terms - tend to have more diverse student bodies than private schools but this varies from school to school. Public schools are often cast as the underdogs against private schools, particularly brand-name prestige schools, but there is superior quality to be found in public higher education, to the point that often it is just as difficult to gain acceptance to a state school as it is to a private school.

Private Colleges & Universities

Private schools are funded by private means. The majority of private schools are not-for-profit and depend on the support of tuition monies and endowment coffers. With financial edge over public schools, private schools draw top talent into their faculties and are ever investing in updated and expanding facilities. Private schools adhere to a highly competitive and rigorous course of study. Typically, class sizes are smaller and extracurricular student activity is higher. For these benefits, private school is expensive. For-profit schools are less common and are run according to a business model; in a sense, students are customers and, like any business, customer satisfaction is a priority. For-profit schools tend to be responsive and flexible to student needs, and more financially efficient. Emphasis of study is often technical or vocational. Like online colleges, reputation is a concern, and students should only consider for-profit schools that are established and accredited.

Online Colleges

Online colleges are as advertised: degrees are earned via online vehicles. Degree programs are structured virtually rather than physically. The classroom can be as spartan as a professor posting or emailing coursework and students emailing assignments in return; or as elaborate as a professor and students signing onto a timed class session conducted via audio or video feed. The nature of online classes varies but the essential principle is distance. Students earn degrees from a school remotely, regardless of location, and with greater flexibility than a traditional degree program tethered to campus buildings and course times. This is a particularly attractive option for adults that can neither travel nor rearrange their schedules. Accreditation is key; be warned of online schools that aren't recognized by accrediting agencies or fraudulent outfits masquerading as schools.

  • "Your College Degree Options" The College Board (
  • The American Association of Community Colleges (
  • "The Pros & Cons of Private Colleges", (
  • "For-Profit vs. Nonprofit Online Schools", ("For-Profit vs. Nonprofit Online Schools")
  • Online Education for Dummies, Kevin Johnson & Susan Manning, EdD, Wiley Publishing, 2010

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Disclosure: Not all programs are accelerated, available in all locations, or in both online and on-campus formats. The transferability of credits is subject to each school's transfer credit policy. Financial aid including grants, scholarships and loans may be available to those who qualify. Program lengths and outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guaranteed. CompareTopSchools is a consumer information site that offers free ratings and recommendations of colleges and universities. We are an advertising-supported service and receive compensation from many of the schools that appear on our site. Compensation may impact which schools we rate and recommend and where those schools appear. CompareTopSchools takes into consideration several proprietary rules to determine how and where schools appear on our website. All opinions expressed on this site are our own, including, without limitation, our designation of a particular institution as being a "top" school.