Going back to school is a common and often necessary step for people who want to change careers. As counsellors, we listen to our clients’ stories and know it’s challenging to navigate different education systems.
I’ve been there myself. When I went back to school as a mature student, first for fine art in my thirties and later for a Master of Education, I remember thinking that prospective students should be awarded a degree for figuring out the admissions process—it can be incredibly complicated! There’s academic upgrading, bridge training, language classes, apprenticeships, degrees and certificates. In addition, there are questions about how to pay for school, get recognition for prior learning, secure accommodations for a disability and thrive as a mature student among high school graduates. How can we support our adult clients in their education planning?
The benefits of educational counselling
As an Educational Counsellor, I see that clients benefit from having help working toward their training goals. In addition to having someone research their options and distill the essential from the overwhelming, making an action plan together breaks the planning process into smaller pieces and reduces stress. It holds clients accountable (because I follow up with them). Gaining clarity about their motivation for going to school also increases confidence in their decision. Perhaps most importantly, sharing concerns about their barriers with someone who listens with sensitivity and an open mind leaves them feeling supported and encouraged.
5 steps to education planning with a client
Employment counsellors are not always specialists in education (and there are few adult educational counsellors out there). Here are some steps you can take to support your client in their planning.
Tips for getting started:
- Find out what your client wants to study and their highest level of education in advance of your appointment. This focuses your research (so you can look for post-grad diplomas for someone with a degree, for example).
- Start the appointment by asking your client what they want out of the session. Information? A feeling? Let their answer direct the goals for the session.
- Spend a few minutes hearing your clients’ concerns about their barriers while keeping the conversation positive and solutions-focused.
- At the end of the session, recap the needs addressed and next steps.
Step 1: Encourage occupational research
Often, clients want to pursue a program without knowing how or if it will enhance their employability. Encouraging the client to do occupational research helps them confirm:
- The skills needed for their desired occupation
- Work opportunities available with the training they get
- The reputation of schools/programs in the eyes of employers (encourage careful research and employer information interviews if they are considering a private college)
- Personal commitment to their chosen career path
Employment counsellors (to whom I refer my clients for help with this step) can help clients research their career choices through information interviews, job postings, career/job workshops, volunteering and online tools such as Career Cruising or the National Occupational Classification codes.
I recommend occupational research as the first step for all clients since education is a significant investment of time and money, and because answering any lingering questions about the field and their fit can increase a client’s confidence in their decision to retrain.
Step 2: Research schools and programs
Typically, I will research schools and programs for the client in advance of our appointment but I will also demonstrate to them how I do the research (so they can repeat the process for themselves). Here are the resources I use:
- Career Cruising is an ideal starting point for an occupation’s educational and licensing requirements, and a list of institutions offering related programs. You can also research programs through your provincial college/university online application systems (e.g. ontariocolleges.ca) or through local community-based training providers.
- For regulated fields, research the governing body’s list of requirements and accredited educators.
- For language training, search the Government of Canada immigration website, local school boards and YMCAs.
- For information on upgrading, use oklearn.ca and this Pathways to Postsecondary for Adult Learners guide.
- For apprenticeships, try the College of Trades in your province, Red Seal and earnwhileyoulearn.ca.
Step 3: Paying for Education
Most clients are debt-averse, so I have to spend some time convincing them to give government financial assistance (e.g. the Ontario Student Assistance Plan, or OSAP, in Ontario) a try. It usually works when they realize that this program is for grants as well as loans and they may receive money they don’t have to repay. Generally, I recommend clients consider the following options in the following order:
- Government financial assistance
- Savings/employment (including on-campus jobs)
- Scholarships and bursaries from their school of choice
- Second Career
- LLPs (Lifelong Learning Plans; withdraw money from your own RRSP)
- scholarshipscanada.com and yconic.com
- Social services caseworker (social assistance/disability programs)
- BSWD (Bursary for Students with Disabilities; available at their school)
For more on advising clients on how to pay for training, stay tuned for a future CareerWise article.
Step 4: Applying
When clients are ready to apply for school, they may request your guidance with the admission processes, including understanding the credit system, degree/diploma requirements and online application system. They may also benefit from help with getting international credentials assessed (through World Education Services for example), writing a letter of intent or preparing a portfolio, securing references and any transcript questions.
Step 5: Accessing student services
Once they have been accepted, encourage your client to embrace all that their school has to offer. They are paying for many student services through their tuition fees. If your client expresses concern about a learning challenge, refer them to academic learning centres or centres for accommodation.
If your client is concerned about their age, encourage them to seek out mature student groups and get involved on campus to see that in a learning environment, age is often an asset or matters less than they think. If your client is worried about money, tell them that the financial aid office is there to help and they have emergency bursaries to assist in times of crisis.
I’ve been very fortunate to be an educational counsellor and to work with my favourite people: life-long learners. There is nothing better than hearing the success story of a client who returned to school, thrived in their studies and started down a career path they love. When you help someone with their educational planning, the results are tremendously rewarding for client and counsellor alike.