THE BLOG
07/29/2015 12:58 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

Your Work Experience Can Help You Complete a Degree: 3 Tips from an Adult Learner

I took a different path to a career than most college students.

Instead of completing college at 22, I dropped out of school after two and a half years. At the time, I wasn't prepared to balance work and school at the same time. Instead, I chose a different path. I started a family and continued to pursue a fulfilling career.

Fast forward 14 years. I am proud to share that I have recently completed my degree. Why now?

I realized throughout the years that as I worked to advance my career, I was losing out on interesting opportunities. Even though my performance and experience were as good as other candidates, they had the education I didn't have. At that point, I made the decision to take advantage of my employer's tuition assistance program and completed my degree. I chose a flexible online degree program that was competency-based, and allowed me to apply the skills I had already developed throughout my career. I was able to move at pace that complemented my personal and professional responsibilities.

What began as a career decision to make me more competitive and advance my career, quickly grew into something much more meaningful and valuable, both personally and professionally.

It was encouraging to learn that I wasn't the only working adult returning to college. Today, more than a third of college students are over the age of 25. For those working adults, like me, who are considering completing their degree, here are my suggestions for what to look for in a program:

  1. Flexibility. For me - a business leader, father, and husband - being able to set my own schedule and learn at my own pace was critical. My program allowed me to keep my job and continue performing at a high level. I had the ability to set my own deadlines within the 12-week time period, and use the down time I had while traveling during the week to complete my assignments and work ahead if I chose to do so. This meant that I could vary my workload according to my schedule and still spend quality time with my family. Ultimately, honing my organizational skills in order to balance my academic, family, and professional commitments also made me a stronger leader.
  2. Competency-based. Up until now, all of my business skills were acquired on the job. At the time I began my degree program, I was already familiar with the ins and outs of financial data and navigating spreadsheets. I had a knack for knowing how to connect with people and how to motivate and manage employees. A program that would have required me to take classes on things I already understood would have been a huge waste of time and resources. Instead, competency-based programs are designed around the critical skills, knowledge, and abilities required to master a subject. If you are already familiar with a topic or have those skills, you can move more quickly to the next topic, and potentially finish the course in less time. This approach allowed me to not only learn new skills and ideas to bring to my career, but I was also able to use my real-life experience to benefit my education.
  3. Support. Making a life-changing decision is always nerve-wracking. I was in my thirties and I was going back to school when I had already spent over a decade building a career. It was imperative that I have the support I needed to succeed, especially in an online program. I recommend looking for a program that provides on-demand coaching and support. I had guidance every step of the way, both from professors as well as a coach that was trained to provide the unique support I needed as an adult student.

I was able to attain my bachelor's degree while continuing to grow in a career that I enjoy. I've recently moved into a role where I support small businesses across the country. My bachelor's degree isn't just a check on my resume. I benefited from a meaningful educational experience that helped me to refine critical skills, enhance my career knowledge, and grow as a successful manager. Achieving my degree has now encouraged me to pursue my master's.

Making the shift to completing your degree can be intimidating, but it's far from impossible. With the right program, you can actually balance your life and career. Ultimately, it's not just a career move. It's an investment in yourself.