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Career Advancement Through Higher Education

Deciding about higher education means examining what you are planning to do, and how to do so. Establish the specific objectives that higher education will help you achieve. What knowledge, skills and attitudes do you need for your goals? What results and outcomes can you anticipate if you get a degree? Why do you want to pursue a degree or specialization/ certification?

In most cases, a degree is going to help you earn more money and perhaps gain advancement in your career. Those can be motivators, of course, but they cannot be your only reasons to get a degree because higher education is going to involve a substantial outlay of your time, money, and leisure. How much time can you dedicate to the rigors of classes, homework, projects, and special requirements such as individual and group projects, internships, or in the case of a Master’s or Doctorate, a thesis or a dissertation?

Most likely, you already know today’s high school diploma is only a start on educational achievement. Unfortunately, the high school diploma has devalued when compared to the standards of education from generations ago. These days, students of both vocational education and liberal arts and sciences need to attain, at least, an Associate of Arts degree (two-year college program) to have more credibility with potential employers, and a better chance at advancement with an existing employer.

 

Three Advanced Degrees

The Bachelor’s degree (four-year program) is even better. Both the Associate of Arts degree and the Bachelor’s degree help you develop general education in language skills, mathematics, general science, social sciences and the arts, but the Bachelor’s degree uses the additional two years’ study for deeper specialization in a particular field, and the development of critical thinking.

At the next level is the Master’s degree. It is much more specific to a particular field of learning than the studies for a Bachelor’s degree because nearly all its courses are directly related to a field of specialization. You can expect courses in theory, practical applications, statistics, research and perhaps even internship. Generally, the Master’s degree curriculum requires about two years to complete, and a thesis is usually required, reflecting an individual in-depth research project you have completed. 

A Ph.D. degree is the pinnacle of college degrees. Its objective is to create a leader in a specialization. Its focus is coursework that develops skills in methodologies, intensive research, creativity, and transformation and improvement of existing processes. Most doctoral level degrees require an additional two years or more of education, plus a specific project that is worthy of publication in professional journals. 

A committee of professors decides on the quality of the project, the dissertation about it, and its significance to the field of specialization. Without that committee’s approvals, the Ph.D. is not granted. For those persons seeking to teach in a college department in Criminal Justice, Security or Security Technology, a Ph.D. is usually required because you will not only be teaching, but you are also required to do research. You will also be expected to write journal articles, books, texts or websites in your field of specialization, for your peers and for students. 

  

 

Payment Options

Education is expensive, period. To pay for the courses, lab fees, books, computers, printers and other tools, you may be digging into your savings; however, student loans, grants, scholarships and other financial aid are available. Part of your research in deciding about higher education must evaluate your income, and the costs to attend the colleges most likely to meet your needs.  

Public colleges and universities usually cost less than private educational institutions, but your enrollment will depend on your legal residency in the State served by the college, plus your academic record.

If you are working now, your coursework will likely be done on a part-time basis, meeting the demands of work and school on your time and budget. As you research college programs, study the merit-based (scholarship) and need-based financial aid available, the terms of that aid in what it covers, how it is repaid, interest owed, and any income tax concessions. 

Online education is generally about one-third less in cost than traditional in-class education, but there are exceptions, depending on the particular college. Like any other business, colleges vie for business, but there are few bargains in tuition and other costs. Changes—usually increases—occur almost every school year. Check the catalogs and websites of the colleges you are considering to determine the comparisons between in-class and online tuition, lab fees, and other costs. 

While you might wonder which is better, first consider your present skills and your personal discipline. Each college has its own matriculation requirements. If necessary, get a tutor or do self-study to bring up your language, writing or math skills. As to your self discipline, whether you attend in class or online, you will encounter the structure needed to pursue education, but, understandably, online learning demands more structure. 

 

Self Discipline

To succeed in an online program, you must be self-motivated, self-managed, and dedicated to your education to set, plan and organize your schedules, deadlines and priorities—something the professor would usually do in the traditional in-class setting. There are calendaring tasks to do, assignments to complete within the framework of the course, programs to follow, files to maintain, deadlines to meet, e-mails to send and answer, and websites to check. Main lessons and assignments may have to be divided into more manageable sections because of your job or family demands. 

It takes self discipline to start an online assignment or lesson, break away from it, and then come back, within a reasonable time, to complete it. And you must have a quiet study site away from conversations, TV, radio, or other distractions. It must be roomy enough for the technological tools needed (computer, printer, etc.). 

    

There is no doubt an in-class program will offer the opportunity to work closely with professors and mentors. That kind of rapport is especially important to personalize Master’s and Doctoral level learning so each student’s particular abilities and interests are developed to the best possible. Also, in-class programs place like-minded students together, and that can grow close networks of contacts for your near and far future. 

But, on the negative side, in-class programs require regular attendance at a fixed location regardless of time constraints, weather, job demands, or other restrictions that might interfere with the time and effort involved in attending classes and in commuting to/from the learning center.

 

Online Campus

The growth of the Internet and technology created the online ‘campus,’ and flexibility is its hallmark, but the learning experience is very different from traditional in-class education because it uses different teaching methods and has different demands. For those who work full time, or who are serving in the military, or who are raising a family or caring for a family member, online education may be the only viable alternative. 

The flexibility of online courses sees many being offered at monthly or even weekly start-up dates. Most online programs have no physical attendance requirement at the campus at all. Yet online programs can offer quality instruction, competent faculty, and library resources—provided the program is offered by a reliable educational institution that is accredited and that adheres to a strict goal of quality education.                    

An online program’s studies can be done in synchronization with the student’s individual schedule. Without having to commute to a traditional class, there is more time for study and homework. Technology delivers the lectures, assignments, group interaction for projects, and attention from professors. Internet-connected computer delivery of the course is the mode of instruction and most study can be ‘paused’ when necessary. Usually, lectures can be downloaded to other electronic devices, for later study or review. 

While you are virtually self-paced through a course, there will be deadlines that must be met within a specific time frame or else you will have to repeat the course. Most colleges have more frequent offerings of courses in their online schedule as compared to the in-class courses, but there may be times when you have to wait for a particular course you need or want. Generally, though, you can anticipate that your online program will be a bit quicker than part-time, in-class attendance, but the two alternatives are very close in the time required to complete a Bachelor’s degree.

 

Time to Completion

Master and Doctorate degrees usually need about two years each to complete, but the nature of the research done for a Master’s thesis or a Doctoral dissertation may dictate a longer time before completion of the degree. Full or part-time residency may be required, especially for the Doctoral degree. 

Those pursuing a law degree will have to complete the curriculum not only in accord with college or university requirements, but also in accord with the State’s rules in which study occurs. A student with an Associate of Arts degree will earn a Bachelor’s degree in law. 

Students who already have a Bachelor’s or higher degree usually earn a Juris Doctor degree.

 

The course of study is the same for both degrees and is generally set by what the State requires of its lawyers.

 

Entrance to a State Bar is a rigorous process, and most college programs take at least 3.5 years to four years to complete, plus the State’s Bar Examination (most States offer their Bar Examinations once or twice a year). While it is possible to earn a degree in law for its own sake, the Bar Examination must be passed if one wants to practice law within the jurisdiction where the Bar Examination is offered. Each State sets its own requirements for licensing. 

Generally, admission to the Bar in one State does not qualify a person for admission to the Bar in another State, but some States have an Attorney’s Examination for those already licensed and practicing in another jurisdiction. Successfully passing that exam allows the person to apply for admission to the Bar in the new State. The college’s accreditation is important because unaccredited schools’ students may have to meet additional course or testing requirements before being allowed to take the State’s Bar Examination. 

     

 

Traditional or Online

Employers may still prefer a candidate who has attained a traditional education—a factor that may or may not be overcome in the near future. There is an aura of quality that is associated with traditional education, even for an average rather than outstanding university. This is actually despite the fact the course content and time the student has devoted are nearly the same for traditional and online courses!

There have been a handful of online institutions that have blackened the quality by being ‘diploma mills’ and that is still something yet to be overcome. But the fact is most colleges and universities use online education either for full programs or for a hybrid blending with traditional education. Whether that trend will continue remains to be seen, but even students at in-class settings sometimes enroll in online courses that will benefit their education or a particular body of knowledge or skills needed. 

 

The availability and popularity of online programs are both growing rapidly, but there is still the fact that some employers see traditional education as a higher achievement than an online education. And some universities may view traditional education in a better light for those students seeking to be admitted to a Master’s or Doctoral program.   

 

Identical Course Work

For reputable colleges and universities offering online programs, the courses are nearly identical to those done on campus because quality institutions of higher learning require that online courses be as rigorous as traditional courses. The online course merely uses the advantage of technology to deliver education via software programs, tools for student-to-student or student-to-professor conversation and interaction, media links, and resources. 

In other words, in a reputable college, the online course is more than just the traditional course put on a recording accompanied by a series of PowerPoint™ presentations and lecture slides!  

There are student discussions, applications of course content to individual and group projects and research, homework assignments, exams and ongoing evaluation of progress, just as is done in traditional in-class settings.

 

 

Accreditation

When deciding about an online program, check the accreditation of the institution offering the program. Attending courses or completing a degree from a non-accredited school will not likely advance your career, and may even adversely affect the quality of the education you receive.

For the most part, college and program accreditation is a voluntary process and not overseen by State or Federal governments. The college or university agrees to the standards set by the accrediting organization, and agrees to allow periodic reviews and evaluations of its curricula, faculty, library, administration, financial status, and student services via in-person and document examination reviews by peers. 

A college exists to educate its students, and those students should enjoy the fruits of their education by having success in their work and careers. If it is found that they do not, the accreditation organization looks at the college’s effectiveness in traditional and online education, and where the college needs improvement.

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education recognize these major associations: The Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges; The New England Association of Schools and Colleges; The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities; The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools; and The Western Association of Schools and Colleges. 

The U.S. Department of Education uses the accreditation of these organizations in deciding whether the college is successful enough to qualify for government-sponsored student financial assistance programs. The department also examines the college’s recruitment strategies, financial status, and its student learning outcomes. 

Attending an accredited college makes transfer to another college easier and usually eliminates the need to repeat a similar course at the new college. Credits from an unaccredited college rarely transfer to an accredited college, nor do they usually qualify an individual for a particular State license, if such is needed for a particular line of work. 

In essence, education will never supply everything you will need for every aspect of a job or career. Education’s true role is to let you learn how to learn. When a new challenge of any kind happens to you, you will have the ability to explore it and meet it.

 

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security.



Published in Law and Order, Feb 2016

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