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If you’re preparing to return to school next year, you may be wondering where to begin. Fortunately, attending college at any stage of life has become more accessible than ever before. Although it’s an exciting adventure, choosing and funding your next stage in life is not fool-proof, and some careful planning is necessary in order to put you on the right course. Here are five ways to prepare to go back to school.

Choose Your Study Plan Carefully

The number of classes and degrees offered at colleges can be overwhelming. Simply getting a degree, unfortunately, does not always translate into gainful employment. More than a few students have pursued a plan of study they found compelling only to discover the classroom was the end of the adventure. Before laying down any tuition, create a list of the career fields you find most interesting and why. Be honest with yourself about your motivation, whether it be money, family benefits, or a higher calling. Use resources such as salary.com and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to research the prospects for your chosen field. If you’re able, spend time volunteering or shadowing others who already do the job, and be sure to ask pertinent questions about job outlook, salary, and job satisfaction.

Get Your House in Order

College is expensive, and not just in terms of cash. In addition to your current job commitments, you can expect to spend many hours a week studying and doing the required schoolwork. This added pressure can affect a person’s ability to manage their load, and being unprepared for it can collapse your efforts. Before registering for classes, be sure that your financial status is comfortable enough to allow for a reduction of work hours if necessary. If you’re caring for a family while attending classes, arrange for child care and “backup” sitters in advance that will reliably come to your rescue when school commitments overlap with other ones, as they invariably do.

Don’t Dismiss the Possibility of Grant Money

The notion that grants are only available to the very needy is an expensive misconception. There are millions of dollars in both federal and private grant money out there, a large portion of which goes unclaimed due to a lack of awareness. In fact, almost $3 billion in private funding was passed up by students in 2015. Before paying a cent in tuition, fill out your university’s student funding application. This will allow you to see what federal money may be available to you as a first-time college student, healthcare hopeful, tribal member, or any number of countless other qualifiers. At the same time, do an extensive online search of private school grants particular to your experience and personal field of study, and be prepared to write a few essays on your own behalf.

Consider Online Coursework

According to Independence University, online schooling has revolutionized the way people pursue higher learning. The traditional classroom has always been a barrier to adult students who have work or family obligations. The advent of the virtual classroom changed it all. There are a number of online-only colleges that offer a full range of associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in business, healthcare, IT, and more. Most brick and mortar educational institutions offer many online classes as well, so that students can create the combination of classroom settings that work for their lives.

Compare Tuition Plans

The cost of college has gone up dramatically in recent years, so much so that the US is now the most expensive place in the world to attain higher education. This sobering fact makes price shopping more important than ever when preparing to return to school. Tuition actually varies widely between institutions, so do your due diligence when comparing the bottom line on your chosen program. If you’re aiming ultimately for a four-year degree, consider utilizing your local community college for up to half of the necessary credits at a sizeable cost savings.

College can be a daunting but exciting time in a person’s life. Remember, scholastic achievement is a marathon, not a sprint. It may be your most important investment in your future. Use your resources wisely and pace yourself according to your abilities to ensure success in your academic endeavors.

This article was contributed by guest author Lizzie Weakley.