The Student’s Guide to Starting a Post-Secondary Education

The Student’s Guide to Starting a Post-secondary Education


Trends in Post-secondary Education

More students are enrolling in post-secondary education than ever before, and being able to get a practical education that leads to a lucrative job is a major motivating factor. More students are choosing a college education that will give them the skills needed to get a job right out of school, enrolling in healthcare programs, business programs, computer and technology programs, and other career-driven areas of study.

Overall, according to statistics, enrollment in any kind of degree-granting postsecondary college or institution is on the rise. From 2004 to 2014 enrollment increased by 17 percent. Enrollment in the same period was also up for technical and vocational colleges offering diplomas and certificates for career-oriented skills.

Another important trend in postsecondary education is an increase in students relying on federal financial aid. This increase has occurred across all types of educational institutions, degree types, and among both degree and certificate or diploma students. The most popular type of federal grant that students rely on is the Pell Grant, which requires a demonstration of financial need. Students are also using federal student loans, which do not require proof of financial need. This has also led to record amounts of student loan debt for graduates.

In terms of majors and degree programs, the most popular are business and healthcare. During the 2013 to 2014 school year, colleges granted more than 358,000 business degrees and nearly 200,000 healthcare related degrees. Most students are getting into their degree or certificate programs immediately after high school. Sixty-nine percent of high school graduates are enrolled in postsecondary education the following fall. This number has increased over the last decade.

Online learning is another important trend in post-secondary education. In 2014, 5.7 million post-secondary students took one or more online course. Three million students were taking online courses only. Further evidence of this growing trend can be seen in the fact that the University of Phoenix, an online post-secondary school, has the largest enrollment of any other school in the U.S., with over 195,000 registered students in 2014.

Business Careers

One trend that has been fairly consistent in higher education is the popularity of business degrees and business careers. It is the most popular type of degree for both undergraduate students and master’s degree students. There are several reasons students are interested in business degrees, including high earning potential, room for growth in future careers, and challenging and interesting careers.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), business careers on the whole are growing by about eight percent, but some areas of business are growing much faster, including accounting and auditing. The BLS attributes this to a stronger regulatory environment in business, driving a need for professionals that can prepare and analyze financial documents and records. Accounting and auditing are growing faster than average and offer a median annual salary of $68,150.

To get a job in a business field, including accounting, auditing, financial advising, human resources, and management, requires some postsecondary education, but not necessarily a four-year degree. A two-year degree in business can get your foot in the door and get you an entry-level positon from which you can learn more on the job and work your way up to advanced positions.


Healthcare and Nursing Degrees

The second most popular type of degree in postsecondary education right now is healthcare. There is a wide range of options for careers in healthcare, from nursing to administrative work. While nursing and medicine are still popular careers, a major trend in healthcare education is the growth in the number of students pursing allied health certificates and degrees. Allied health is a term that refers to the professions that complement and support nurses and physicians, like medical assistants, radiology technicians, health information technicians, and nursing assistants, among many others.

These careers have become popular, in part, because of explosive growth in the healthcare industry. According to the BLS, healthcare jobs are growing faster than any other type of career, at a rate of 19 percent. An aging population and expanded health insurance coverage are two reasons that healthcare is growing so much. Allied health careers are important in this growth because they provide much-needed support for physicians and nurses and for patient care. For students, programs in allied health represent an easier, faster, and more affordable way to get into a healthcare career.

The median annual salary for healthcare practitioners is $62,420, but there is a lot of variation by specific career. Registered nurses, for instance, earn a median salary of $68,450 while medical assistants earn a median annual income of $31,540. The difference in salary reflects the educational requirements. Most nurses have a four-year degree, while medical assistants can start working after earning a certificate or diploma that takes a year or less to complete. Some of the fastest growing healthcare careers are medical assistants, EMTs and paramedics, occupational therapy assistants, nurses, medical records technicians, and surgical technicians.

Legal Careers

To become a lawyer requires an undergraduate degree followed by a graduate law degree. It takes a lot of investment of time and tuition costs to become a lawyer. There are other careers in the law, however, that are popular because they require less education and allow students to find careers right away and that provide a competitive salary.

Legal careers are currently growing as fast as average job growth, but there is growth in several careers that do not require a law degree: court reporters, paralegals, and arbitrators and mediators. Court reporters earn a median annual income of $51,320 and only require a postsecondary certificate to get a job. Paralegals earn $49,500 per year and are in more demand than court reporters. These professionals assist lawyers and typically have an associate’s degree. Arbitrators and mediators earn a median salary of $59,770 per year and work with legal clients trying to resolve issues outside of court. This is a great career choice for someone interested in law, but not in getting a law degree.

Graphic Design Programs

Graphic design careers and related careers like web development and web design are popular with students who are both artistic and creative and interested in technology. Unfortunately, careers for those students with degrees only in graphic design are not growing very fast. In today’s technology-driven economy, designers need to be able to do more than just be the artist behind a website. They also need to be able to develop and build that website. While a graphic designer can expect to earn an annual median salary of $47,640 with a bachelor’s degree, a web developer earns $66,130 and can expect faster than average growth in the number of available positions with only an associate’s degree.

Computers and Information Technology Careers

The number of computer and technology degrees conferred in recent years has gone up compared to several years ago, reflecting the increase in reliance on technology in nearly every market. According to the BLS, computer and information technology careers will grow by 12 percent over the next several years, faster than average job growth.

This is a lucrative field too, with the median annual salary for computer and tech jobs overall coming in at an impressive $82,860. Most of these careers require some type of postsecondary degree or certificate, but there is also a lot of room for self-taught tech specialists. Often it is more important for an employer that a candidate has the necessary skills for a job than a certain degree.

Some of the fastest growing careers in computers and technology include computer support specialists, database administrators, computer systems analysts, information security analysts, and software developers. Only one job in computers and tech is actually on the decline: computer programming.

Beauty Programs

Career and vocational postsecondary programs are growing in popularity with students after high school. These career paths require learning concrete skills, often hands-on skills, rather than more academic subjects. Beauty, cosmetology, barbering, and other esthetic careers are included and are proving to be popular vocational choices for women and men alike.

A career in beauty is a great choice for anyone interested in hair, makeup, and beauty, and for whom traditional university or college programs just aren’t appealing or feasible. Working in this industry does require some level of postsecondary training, but not a degree. A certificate or diploma program is usually adequate and can prepare a student for licensing or certification if it is required, for instance as a nail technician.

If you are interested in beauty careers and beauty programs for postsecondary education, it could be a great investment. All areas of beauty are growing right now, faster than average job growth. This includes hair dressers, makeup artists, barbers, manicurists and pedicurists, and skincare specialists, also known as estheticians. College search sites like can help you find a program near you that has the kind of degree or certificate you need for your beauty career goal.

Culinary Arts

Another hands-on vocational career path is culinary arts. This is good choice for anyone interested in food and cooking and in getting a job right out of a short postsecondary program. There are some food service careers that do not require any higher education, but these jobs do not necessarily pay well, or if they do, the lucrative positions are more difficult to get. A good example of this is working as a bartender or server. In the right restaurant, these workers can earn a lot of tip money, but it takes experience, rather than an education, to get there.

Careers in food that begin with a diploma or certificate include cooks, chefs, food service managers, and pastry chefs. Most of these careers are growing quickly with more positions available every year for those who are trained. One exception, according to the BLS is cooks. Cooks are the culinary professionals who work under chefs or in restaurants that do not have chefs. Although this particular culinary career is not growing quickly, it is growing, and it can be a great stepping stone to a career as a chef.

Automotive Careers

Cars and trucks are only getting more complicated and technical, which means that professionals with the skills to repair them are increasingly in demand. To become a mechanic or a glass and body repair worker requires postsecondary education, but not a degree. This is a highly-skilled job that requires training, both in the classroom and on the job.

Jobs for mechanics and service technicians are currently on the rise. Trained technicians in this field earn a median annual salary of $38,470. Body and glass repair work is also in demand and is a career that is growing. This type of work may not require a postsecondary degree and in many cases can be learned totally on the job. These workers earn a median salary of $40,370 per year.

Aviation Programs

Completing an aviation program can lead to an exciting career in the high-technology world of aircraft, either piloting or repairing and maintaining airplanes. Jobs for mechanics in aviation are unfortunately not on the increase, but they are not declining either. To become an aviation technician or mechanic, you can either learn through on-the-job training, or you can earn a diploma or degree from a technical school approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Careers for pilots are growing faster than for aviation mechanics, and these professionals can earn much more. While mechanics earn a median salary of $60,270 per year, pilots take home a median income of $105,720 per year. To get into this lucrative career takes more time and commitment, though. Most airline pilots hold a bachelor’s degree, but you may be able to find a career as a commercial pilot through a different avenue, taking flight lessons and ultimately getting an FAA commercial pilot’s license.

Let Your Goals, Needs, and Skills Guide Your School Choice

There are so many different career options and degree programs to choose from when you begin to think about post-secondary education. It can be overwhelming unless you are very certain about what you want to do. If you’re not, rest assured most students are like you, not sure what to do next. What you really need to do to decide your future education and career path is to learn more about yourself. Ask yourself what your skills are, what you’re good at, and what your goals are for the future. From online school to vocational and career technologies, to traditional universities, you need to know you before making that choice. Here are some possibilities:

  • You Are Career-Oriented

For a career-oriented student, the choices can be narrowed down pretty easily. You want to go to college less for the experience and more for the opportunity to get the kind of education that will lead you to a good career, even if you don’t know yet exactly what that career is. As you search for your postsecondary program, keep these things in mind:


  • Look for schools with career-focused programs.
  • Research the rate at which graduates are placed in jobs.
  • Check out the career services departments at prospective schools.
  • Investigate alumni networks and statistics, such as salaries.


  • You Excelled Academically in High School

If you were one of those students who found it relatively easy to get good grades, to spend time studying, and you enjoyed learning, you are an academic student and you may be more interested in a traditional, four-year university. At a university you have a broad range of academic subjects to explore and you’ll find that the educational environment is one in which you will thrive as a traditional learner.


  • You’re Just Not Sure What You Want

If the idea of a four-year university seems overwhelming, but the idea of committing to a career through a vocational program is equally intimidating, you may want to consider two-year and community colleges. These postsecondary programs give you a variety of academic subjects to explore, as well as the choice of more career-oriented programs. They are also less of a commitment of time and money than a four-year school, so you can save money as you decide what you want to do next.


  • You Need to Stay in One Place and Keep Working

Some students after graduating high school find that they need to stay in the local area or they need to be earning money, or both. This may be the case for various reasons, like taking care of family responsibilities. If this sounds like you, consider an online program. With an online degree program, or even just dabbling in online courses, you get the flexibility of being able to continue your education while also having the time to hold down a job and earn a living. If you think you might go online temporarily, transferring to a college later, make sure you choose a school with credits that will transfer.

Types of Degrees and Certificates

To help you decide where to go and what to do for higher education, you need to know what all the options are. You may have heard of certificates and diplomas, but do you know what they really are? Do you know how they differ from degrees and how choosing one over the other could affect your career goals and future? You need the answers to these questions to make the best choice.



A certificate is an academic award that requires the least amount of course credits to achieve. Credits are related to the number of hours spent in class. The more credits required for a program, the longer it takes to complete. A certificate typically requires between nine and 30 credits, and usually takes a year or less to complete.


Certificate programs may be stand-alone programs that lead to a specific career, such as a certificate in nail technology, which would allow you to work as a manicurist and pedicurist. A certificate program may also be a program that is designed for workers who already hold diplomas or degrees and are looking to add to their skill base.


Some careers that may only require a certificate, depending on location and employer, include radiography technician, nursing assistant, automotive service technician, fitness trainer, court reporter, information technology specialist, medical transcriptionist, medical biller and coder, cook or food service worker, and emergency medical technician (EMT).


A diploma program requires more time and more credits, typically somewhere between 30 and 70. A diploma may take between one and two years to complete, but there is some flexibility depending on whether you attend courses full time or part time. With diploma programs you can often choose whether to complete the coursework all at once or stretch it out longer on a part-time basis.


Diplomas may be required for careers that are a little more advanced or require more skills than those that only require certificates. As with many certificate programs, diploma programs are designed to teach students specific skills that will lead directly to a career. Examples of careers that usually require a diploma include: cosmetologist, automotive repair technician, massage therapist, medical assistant, medical records technician, surgical technician, court reporter, cook, pastry chef, and computer support specialist.

Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree is a two-year degree, which means that it requires an amount of credits that takes two years of full time participation to complete. Some students may take longer to complete the degree, depending on how much time they devote to the program. Associate’s degrees are typically offered at junior and community colleges, but are also available at some private, vocational, and online schools.

Some careers that typically require a two-year degree are veterinary technician, nuclear medicine technician, cardiovascular technician, medical sonographer, dental hygienist, physical therapy assistant, paralegal, web developer, aircraft mechanic, funeral service worker, and certain entry-level business careers like accounting, auditing, or program management.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree program that requires enough credits that it takes most students a full four years of study to achieve. A traditional university is a typical institution that offers four-year degrees, but online colleges and private colleges, even some vocational schools offer bachelor degree programs. In career-focused colleges the four-year degree programs are more career-based and less academic. They may include degrees in business administration, nursing, or computer and technology subjects.


Earning a bachelor’s degree requires a greater financial and time commitment than a two-year degree or diploma or certificate program. Settling on a four-year program means putting off starting your career for at least an additional two years as compared to choosing a two-year or diploma program. There are some benefits, though, including more career options and the ability to earn more or to get into careers that have room for growth.


If you know what kind of degree, certificate, or diploma you want to work toward, you can use a search site, like to narrow down your options. For instance, if you know you want to get a certificate in cosmetology so you can get a job as a hairdresser in a salon, search on career type and certificate program and you’ll get a list of options in whatever city, region, or state you choose.

Online vs. Traditional Programs

Starting your post-secondary education requires more choices than ever before, and one of those choices is between a traditional college education on campus and learning online. Of course, there is also the option of doing a little bit of both. More and more post-secondary programs are offering a mix of classroom and online learning. Some online search programs, like can help you figure out what your options are, but first you need to understand what it means to learn online and which choice is best for you.



The State of Online Post-secondary Education

Online education has grown significantly since the very first offering of an internet-based class. Distance learning, however, is not new and correspondence school using the old-fashioned post has been around for decades. Thanks to email, online chats, websites, and the internet, we can now learn easily and quickly without ever leaving home. Enrollment in online post-secondary programs continues to grow every year, but there are other more specific trends.


One of these is the rise in blended programs. These are certificate, diploma, or degree granting programs that offer students a mix of traditional, in-class courses and online courses. Many of these programs are flexible, allowing students to choose how many or which courses they take online and which are in classrooms. Another hybrid option for online learning is a program that hosts lectures and reading materials online, but also requires students to meet in smaller groups, in person. Some courses may have lectures and group discussions online, but live.


Another trend in online education is mobile access. You no longer have to be tied to your desk and are likely able to access class materials, lectures, and discussions using a tablet or smartphone. This makes online learning even more accessible. Along with making courses more mobile, technology specialists at university are improving the ways in which students access courses, working out bugs and difficulties that made online learning more challenging a decade ago.

The Pros and Cons of Learning Online

There are many reasons why students choose online learning, either in full or as part of a blended program. Some students may find they have made the right choice, while others wish they had gone with traditional learning. Before you make this important decision, it is important to understand the benefits and the downsides to this growing trend in post-secondary education. Here are some of the pros:


  • Lower costs. Online programs are usually less expensive. Because they don’t require a physical location, a lot of costs get cut from online classes as compared to traditional courses. They may also be cheaper because there is no commute. In general, you will pay less in tuition for online courses.
  • Greater flexibility. Online learning usually saves both money and time. You spend less time commuting and can work through the course materials at your own pace, although there may be some required time slots you have to be online. This gives students greater flexibility in terms of earning a diploma or degree around a current job, family obligations, and other responsibilities.
  • More access. Not everyone is able to access a traditional, on-campus program. Being able to learn and complete a program from home opens more doors to people who live in remote areas, have physical disabilities, or who have other limitations that make it challenging to get to campus. Sometimes, greater access is also related to program availability. Some types of programs may be more available online than on campus.
  • Depending on the student, the use of technology required for online learning may seem like a pro or a con. Overall, though, being forced to use different types of technology to complete a program is a bonus. You learn the skills and information for your particular program, while also becoming adept at working remotely and working with people online. These are additional skills that you can add toy your resume.


Online learning is not perfect. There are drawbacks too, and for some students, these may outweigh the benefits of distance education:


  • Technology use can be a major bonus for online learning, but it can also be a big con. When technology problems strike, it can bring your study to a grinding halt. Getting problems worked out in a timely fashion will depend on your resources at home and the quality of the school’s IT support.
  • While some students thrive when learning alone, others find it very challenging. Living on learning on campus is a very social experience. You see your fellow students every day and interact with them regularly. Online you will likely still have opportunities to interact, and in fact it may be a requirement of a course, but it will mostly be done online. Being physically isolated from others can take a toll on mood, motivation, and progress.
  • Lack of engagement. Feeling engaged in your education is so important to succeeding. If you don’t feel engaged, you are more likely to drop out or just not finish a program, and being engaged is more challenging in an online environment. It requires a good instructor to use strategies to ensure that students remain engaged through interesting activities and regular interaction and discussion.
  • Time management. Not everyone is good at time management, but it is a crucial skill for online courses, many of which are self-paced. If you struggle to manage your time or if you tend to procrastinate without hard deadlines, being in an online course may be a challenge.
  • Student-teacher interaction. In traditional learning environments, student-teacher interaction is a given. You are in the same room with your instructor, and you have the option to visit with your teacher during office hours. This can make learning more engaging and getting help easier. Without that face-to-face interaction, you may struggle to understand the material or get extra help when you need it.

When to Choose Traditional, Classroom Learning

Most students can succeed in online programs, but there may be some very good reasons to opt out and buck the growing trend of completing courses online. One reason is if you are choosing a career and type of program that requires you learn hands-on skills. If you want to be a hairdresser, for instance, or a mechanic, you cannot learn what you need to know online; you have to be there in the classroom.


Another good reason is if you know yourself well enough to know that online learning isn’t a good option. This takes some self-awareness, but if you know that you need social interaction, if you know that you need to be able to work with your instructors in real time, and if you know that you really struggle with time management and self-paced learning, it may be a good idea to either choose a fully traditional program or one that gives you the option of choosing one or more online courses while the rest are in the classroom.

How to Enroll in a Post-secondary Program

Once you have made your choice about your postsecondary education, it’s time to take action and get enrolled. Depending on what you have chosen, this may be a lengthy or a short process. For universities, you may get turned down, so prepare with a few options. For community college or a career college, enrolling will be much easier.

Technical, Vocational, and Career Colleges

To enroll in a vocational or career college, you will most likely have to go through an admissions process that involves first setting up a meeting with the admissions office. Someone there will talk you through the programs offered and the process of getting enrolled. The requirements for admissions at these kinds of schools are not usually strict, but you will likely need a copy of your high school transcripts, an admission application, and possibly a letter of reference.

Community Colleges

The process may be similar for enrolling in your local community college. You will probably meet with an admissions professional and will have to apply. However, most community colleges have a policy of open enrollment. An exception may be high-demand programs in subjects like nursing, or programs that have certain academic requirements. For some programs you may not even have to prove that you have a high school diploma.


Enrolling at a four-year university, whether public or private, is a much lengthier and more involved process. You will start with the admissions office and an application. You will need to have your high school transcripts and results from any required tests, such as the ACT or SAT. You will probably also have to complete an essay and have letters of references from teachers or administrators. Because these schools are more selective, know what the admission requirements are before you apply and have some back up options prepared.

Online Colleges

Online colleges vary in admissions requirements. Those that offer four-year degrees like a traditional university may have a similarly lengthy process and strict admissions requirements. Others, like those offering diplomas and certificates, may have fewer requirements. Admissions requirements should be a part of your research as you determine which school you hope to attend.

Financial Aid


As you researched and made your final selections, you probably considered tuition costs as part of the process. Financial aid is a big part of the decision-making process for many students because few can pay for college outright. If you need assistance, check with the schools you are applying to and find out what kinds of financial aid services they offer. Most will walk you through the process of applying for loans, getting grants, and searching for scholarships. The financial aid office will have many more resources than you may find on your own, so take advantage of it.

Allied Health – A Case Study


One of the most popular career choices for post-secondary students today is allied health. Reasons include wanting a job that pays well but that is also meaningful, having a career with room for growth, and choosing a career that does not require a four-year degree. Allied health careers are also popular because there is so much variety. You can choose to work directly with patients as a radiology technician, alongside surgeons as a surgical assistant, or in the background, working on billing and coding.


With the healthcare industry continuing to grow, the options and the opportunities for allied health careers also grows. If you choose this kind of work you have a lot of choices and the chance to get a quick education and to be working in your field in a year or less. To help you search for allied health schools that will get you on that path, turn to Here you can input an exact health career, your location, whether you want to learn online or not, and the site will give you a range of options.

Choosing your post-secondary education is one of the most important decisions you will ever make. To make a smart choice that you will be happy with for years to come, consider your goals, your skills, the career you want, financial needs, and the type of learning most suited to you. By taking these steps you can feel confident going forward with your education and your career.