(CNN) -- It's time to head back to school. But it's not just kids who are going back to class. Adults in their 30s and 40s are also gearing up for the academic year. If you've thought about going back to college, we'll give you the 101.
If you're thinking of going back to school, a little research is needed, says Gerri Willis.
1. Focus your goal
As an older student looking to make a career change, you really need to map out your academic goals. Get information on what careers are hot and what kind of training it takes to get one of those jobs.
Go to CareerVoyages.gov where you can learn what skill sets are needed for jobs in various industries that are in demand. You'll also get a breakdown of hourly wages by state.
Plus, you'll be able to see charts that track projected growth. For example, demand for registered nurses is expected to grow 35 percent by 2014 and you can make anywhere from $28 to $40 an hour on average. If you're interested in this career track, you'll need at least a college or postgraduate degree.
2. Go online
If you're looking for flexibility, distance learning may be something to explore. There are about 1500 online degree programs, according to Vicky Phillips of GetEducated.com, an online degree clearinghouse. In fact, about 90 percent of colleges have some kind of online presence.
Costs vary widely. For an MBA, you can pay from $6,000 to $120,000. To get the best bang for your buck look for public, nonprofit schools. Go to geteducated.com or go to monster learning. You'll be able to see what programs are available in your area.
Online programs can be just as competitive as brick-and-mortar universities. Public university systems, such as the University of Illinois, and California State University, are launching online versions of their residential degrees at an escalating pace, according to Phillips.
If you're worried about credibility, remember that most online graduate schools hold applicants to the same standards as residential students. You'll use the same textbooks, take the same exams and usually the same on-campus faculty teaches online.
3. Beware diploma mills
You do need to be wary of diploma mills. These are bogus online sites that will leave you holding a fake degree. It's a red flag if all you have to do to be admitted is to have a valid Visa or MasterCard. If you are promised a degree in exchange for a lump sum -- typically $2,000 for an undergraduate degree, or $3,000 for a graduate degree -- it's a scam. Real programs charge per credit or course. It's definitely a bogus operation if you have to pay a special price to "graduate with honors." You want to make sure the school is accredited by a legitimate accreditor. Check out the Web site for Council on Higher Education Accreditation. Or you can go to GetEducated.com and look under "Diploma Mill Watchdog."
4. Find the money
Before you borrow, don't overlook your employer as a potential source of college funding. A majority of large and medium-sized companies offer tuition benefits.
If you do have to apply for financial aid, you'll have just as easy a time getting aid as someone out of high school, said Mark Kantrowitz of Finaid.org, an online student-loan site. And don't forget about the scholarships. There are more than 250 awards created especially for students who are older than 25, and more than 1,800 scholarships that are available to someone of any age. For more information, check out the FastWeb Scholarship database. And don't forget, some schools may have their own scholarships for older students. It never hurts to ask before you apply. E-mail to a friend
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