Choosing your career college is a big decision, but it doesn't need to be overwhelming, especially if you break it down into smaller categories to help guide you, like the following:
- Credentials and Programs Offered
- Student Support and Success
Credentials and Programs Offered
Some people know right away what they want to do as a job or career, while others don't know what they want to do but know what they enjoy studying or are good at. Both of these senses of yourself can help decide the kind of education and the type of credential you might want to pursue&which, in turn, can influence your choice of a career college. For example, having an idea of your career goals--even just knowing the type of credential or certification your potential occupation will require--may aid in narrowing down your choices. Likewise, knowing what subjects interest you and how long you want (or don't want) to spend in school will narrow down which kinds of credentials are available in that area of study, since different credentials of different lengths are offered by different schools.
The key to making choices is knowledge. So here is a brief introduction to the credentials and programs offered at career colleges in the US.
- Associate's degree: A 2-year degree (for instance Associate of Applied Science) can stand alone or be taken as part of a career college's University Transfer Program, so that you can transfer your credits directly toward a university bachelor's degree.
- Diploma/ Certificate: Career colleges offer a wide variety of 1- to 3-year diploma and certificate. Most of these are designed to lead you into the job market right away, and often allow you to pursue a professional certification or write certain licensing exams. Or, career college diplomas and certificates can be used to fulfill prerequisites or to transfer into community college or even university degree programs. Some specialized career colleges (for example in allied health care) may offer higher level programs for those who have completed the diploma or certificate programs.
Zooming in closer, knowing the kind of program area you are interested in (such as agriculture, photography or dental hygiene) will help you to find criteria to evaluate when looking at the different career college offerings. Once you have a sense of your desired program, you can look at the college's or program's webpage to examine things like the size, options and level of specialization. For instance, you might ask the following: How many instructors are there? (a larger school isn't necessarily better, but it does mean you will have more course choices). What kind of courses are offered? Is enrolment limited or will you end up in large impersonal classes? Do the instructors seem credible? What credentials do they have? You may also want to investigate whether or not a practicum or internship option exists for your desired program, since many students find these valuable for work experience, networking, and as a source of income. Other features such as specialized facilities and industry partnerships or connections might also be factors in your choice.
Many community colleges and universities accept students who have completed some post-secondary work at any institution, including career college. If you're interested in continuing your studies, make sure you know how your career college credits will transfer to other colleges and universities. Find out if the career college has a specific University Transfer Program and what the requirements are.
With career colleges, the decision of where to go often depends on what you want to study. If you are interested in a specialized field of study or a particular program, you may not be able to find a school that teaches what you want nearby: you may have to go where your desired program is being offered. Or, if you are pursuing a program that is offered at many different career colleges, you may want to use this as an opportunity for change in this next phase of your life. Do you live in the southern US? Why not go north! Or if you live in a big city, try a small town. While some career colleges are single-campus schools, others have multiple regional campuses in order to make learning as accessible as possible to people in different areas. Bear in mind the climate of wherever you go, especially if it's dramatically different from what you're used to. Consider the pros and cons; for example, a long, harsh northeastern winter might be depressing if you are from a hot desert climate, or it might be an opportunity to experience winter sports you haven't tried before! In any event, make sure you know what temperature and weather conditions to expect, and make sure you can live with them for the duration of your studies.
You may also want to consider the college's proximity to home (whether distance or closeness is your ideal!) and be aware that if you choose a career college in another state, this will limit your visits home since travel back and forth can be both costly and time-consuming. You would have to budget for travel costs, and this makes it difficult to get home for thanksgiving or other short holidays. So when selecting a career college, consider how often you would like to visit home and the amount of time and cost it will take to do so.
Size and Culture
When selecting a career college, you may want to think about its size. Usually you can find this information on the college's website. Consider things like class size and availability of resources like labs and libraries. You should consider your personality and your personal preferences when choosing the size of your school. Are you a "people person"? Do you want anonymity in the classroom (i.e. do you want to seem invisible in a sea of students)? Or would you rather participate in class discussion or ask questions in a more personal atmosphere? Consider what learning environment best suits your personality.
Some career colleges offer education within the context of an affiliation, so in terms of a school's "culture" you might want to consider, for example, whether it's religiously affiliated or focused on specialized topics such as the technology of certain industries. Another "culture" aspect of career college could be in terms of your peers: do you want to mix and meet with people from your own area or from other parts of the United States? Or maybe you want to go to a career college with a high percentage of international students for a more culturally diverse experience. All schools have different "vibes" which can affect your choice as much as size or location.
The three biggest costs associated with post-secondary school are basic living expenses, tuition fees and the cost of books and other supplies. Living at home, on-campus or away from home but off-campus are all choices you need to think about, since rent, groceries, travel/ commuting expenses all add up. Finding a place to live can also involve differing amounts of time and energy, so you need to budget your money and your time. Be sure to explore your options for any scholarships and bursaries because every little bit helps-even if it is just $500 here, $300 there. Have you discussed finances with your parents? Maybe they plan to help. Where will you get money for added expenses, such as entertainment, clothes, cell phone bills, etc.? Will you need a student loan? A job? If you'll need to work, are part-time studies available? Are there added fees with certain career colleges or even particular programs (such as lab fees, parking, uniforms, field trips, etc.)? Make sure you know ahead of time what costs you will have to cover with each of your options, so that you can factor them into your selection process. Also, investigate the refund policy of each school: 'buyer beware' is always a safe attitude to start from.
Make sure you know what the entry requirements are (and ensure that you meet them) for each of your potential colleges. Most career colleges have open admission, and do not require a particular GPA. However, you should be sure to make sure you have the necessary courses for any prerequisites you might need.
Every student hopes to get a "good" education, so there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure "quality." Some aspects to investigate are licensure and accreditation (at the institutional and/or program levels--see the section on Career College Accreditation for more details) and the resources available at the school. Does it have good computing facilities? Does it have up-to-date equipment? Is there anything related to your specific program that you need? Do they have it? For instance, if you are studying cosmetology, do students have access to clinics and professional products? Don't be afraid to "google" the faculty or instructors: checking in to their backgrounds and experience can give you another level of insight.
Student Support and Success
Career colleges are called that for a reason: they are there to help you get a great career! Therefore, career colleges are only as good as the graduates they produce, and a good measure of a career college is the employment rate of its students. This information is often posted on the school's website. Because career colleges strive to help as many people as possible get a post-secondary education, you should also look at the kinds of student support they offer. Things like the financial aid and job placement assistance offered by each institution can be compared to help you make your choice of the career college that will serve you best.
Your Gut Feeling
In addition to weighing the pros and cons and costs of each career college, put some stock in your gut feeling about each--especially if you can visit the campus. Sometimes your intuition or gut instinct about a school can assess it more accurately than a list of its facts and figures. See for yourself what the school is like before committing time and money to it.
So make the most of this time, wherever you choose to go. Don't fret or obsess about "what ifs" once you finally decide: if you ultimately find you are very unhappy with your decision, you can always transfer. Career colleges in the US are there for you!
NOTE: Financial aid may be available for those who qualify. Job placement is not guaranteed.