How to Choose the Right Degree

Here are three critical questions to consider before you start pursuing an on-campus or online education

By Greg Scott Neuman
Posted 2011

Choose the Right Degree
Choose the Right Degree

When you were a kid, figuring out what you wanted to be when you grew up was simple. But now that you actually are grown up, things seem a little more complicated. Factors such as job outlook, salary potential, personal fulfillment and the availability of online education options are important. So before you invest thousands of dollars and years of your time in a degree program, consider these three questions:

1. Are you degree-oriented or career-oriented? If you are a degree-oriented student, you probably want to pursue a major that you’re passionate about, then find a way to make the degree pay off after graduation. This offers you the advantage of studying something you love and can give you a lot of flexibility once you finish school.

If you are a career-oriented student, you probably know what field you want to work in; you simply need to pursue the educational path that will get you there. This allows you to create a clearly defined college plan and choose a career that offers high growth, decent wages and other opportunities.

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And remember that in either case, online degree programs are an option that can save you time and money. As long as the school you choose is regionally accredited, online classes are generally just as valuable as traditional ones.

2. What are your strengths? Whether you’re pursuing your degree to get a specific job or simply for love of the subject, you should study in an area that you have some aptitude. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be gifted with exceptional ability (though if you are, more power to you!) just that you should be able to regularly pass classes in the subject without too much trouble.

For example, math is critically important for accountants. They simply cannot do their job without skill in this area. If you can consistently get Bs in math without struggling, then accounting is an option for you. However, if you have to study four hours every night just to squeak by with a low C, you should probably pick another field. A student with poor math skills will find earning an accounting degree to be five years of torture, and may never be able to pass the CPA exam.

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3. Are you able to meet the time and money requirements? Completing a degree program can be a big commitment. An associate’s degree will take about two years of full-time study, while a bachelor’s will require four. Both can take up to twice as long if work, family or other responsibilities force you to attend school part time. While you’re working on your degree, studying and attending class will be major responsibilities that you must keep up with.

As a general rule, undergraduates need three hours of study time per week per credit hour. So if you’re taking 12 credit hours, you should plan to spend about 36 hours outside of class studying and completing assignments. And you must maintain this pace for as many years as it takes to complete your degree.

Finances are another consideration; public universities charge in-state students about $250 - $300 per credit hour, and the cost of an online degree program is similar. Recent studies by The College Board report that once you add in other fees, this translates to roughly $7,500 per year.* This is significantly better than what public universities charge out-of-state students (about $12,000 per year) or the cost of a private college (about $27,000 annually).

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Make sure you are able meet these costs. Financial aid can help; grants, loans and scholarships can offset some or all of the cost of your college education. You can get started on applying for financial aid right now by downloading U.S. News University Directory’s free financial aid guide.

*Trends in College Pricing, 2010

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