In many cases, a graduate degree is highly useful. To help you prepare for graduate school, or as an alternative to grad school altogether, enrolling in individual university and college courses may be a helpful option for you to consider. Individual courses can help you prepare for grad school, master material better and faster than simply reading, brush up on a subject you used to know well, and understand principles in a field more clearly.
Attending a college or graduate level course in your city need not be an alternative to grad school, but rather a way to test the waters. Use the course to explore your sense of yourself and the work in this context:
Taking a single class can help you test the graduate waters
Another reason to enroll in courses one at a time is to take the prerequisites you will need for grad school. Public affairs schools, for example, will often require incoming grad students to have completed coursework in economics and statistics. Be sure to check with your target schools to find out what the prerequisites are for their programs. Completing your prerequisite courses early has several benefits:
Taking a course in certain subjects or skill areas (such as Mandarin language acquisition or grantwriting) may be more helpful than simply reading books. By participating in a course, you expose yourself to an expert—your instructor—who can structure your learning and emphasize key points and best practices. Ideally, your instructor's personal or professional knowledge or experiences will help you remember the material better, and their passion will connect with yours. Your homework and impressions of the material have a chance to be confirmed or corrected. In addition, conversations with classmates about the course material also help you master the content faster than you would if you were reading it by yourself. Knowing that you will meet with the group, including the instructor, may motivate you to meet deadlines and to work harder than you would without that sort of accountability. And of course, taking courses with a class full of other people allows you to network with those that have similar interests and who may work in your field.
As a current or future public service professional, you are likely exposed to one or more issue areas that you have come to care profoundly about. Enrolling in an academic course can help you understand your issue area(s) in deeper ways. For example, if you market programs for a nonprofit that serves clients with developmental disabilities, you may benefit from taking a course on autism spectrum disorder and new theories in its causes and treatments. The knowledge you gain in class may not only help you to understand your clients much better, but also to do your job more effectively.
If you have been away from your field for a while, you may benefit from taking a course or two to get back up to speed on the latest trends, buzzwords, and theories in this discipline. If it's a language course, you may simply want to remember what you used to know before you leave on a trip abroad. Just remember that it can be much easier to learn in a classroom setting, with an instructor and classmates, than through self-study. Opportunities for networking with those in your field, making a connection with your instructor (an expert in the field), and learning from a community of people can all be beneficial to refreshing your knowledge base.
You can enroll in courses at any post-secondary school: community college, four-year college, or university. Courses may be offered by the relevant department, or through a department called Continuing Education or Community Education. Note that courses may be offered in the evening and on weekends, and/or online. Private, for-profit schools exist that can also help you. For example, Berlitz is a famous franchise of language schools.
If you want an education and academic credit for the courses you are taking, but are not ready to enter a program as a degree candidate, you may be a good fit for post-baccalaureate work. Some universities have a status called "post-baccalaureate" or "post-bac" status for students who have completed a bachelor's degree (and have the required minimum GPA). Some post-bac students have a program focus (pre-med is the most common), while others do not. Some post-bac courses can help prepare students for certification in the field.
Reasons to take the post-bac option include the preparing for grad school, or postponing a commitment to grad school:
Courses offered through the Continuing or Community Education departments are designed for people who are not currently enrolled in a degree program, and usually the courses are not for credit (you may be able to pay more per course if you'd like to earn credit).
Taking courses through regular academic departments, you might face the same choice. If you are not aiming to count your course credits towards a graduate degree, the level of the course is up to you. You should find a level you are comfortable with by reading the course description (does it suggest prerequisite courses?) and asking students or department staff. If you hope to count the course credit towards a graduate degree eventually, you should make sure the course you plan to take is a graduate-level course.
The application process to enroll in a course or two as a non-degree candidate is typically much easier than enrolling in a program as a degree candidate.
In some schools, non-degree admission is as simple as filling out a form and paying tuition and/or fees. This can be called "quick entry" and is available to help students access higher education for a variety of reasons other than seeking a degree. You may be limited in the number of credit hours you can take per term and in the availability of certain campus services (i.e., Career Services may not be available to you). Course registration for quick-entry students may also open later than it does for degree candidates.
Individual courses can be useful in getting you closer to your goals, whether you are bypassing a grad degree program or are preparing for enrollment. Keep in mind, though, that committing to even one course will still require time (attending classes, doing homework, and studying for exams), brain power, and money. It is best to look ahead in your calendar for work and family obligations, special events, and other activities that will require your attention during the months that you are enrolled in the course. Especially if the course is non-credit, you may find that it falls further and further down your list of priorities as the semester goes on, if you have not ensured that you are ready for it.
However, when you are equipped with the time and energy needed to complete an individual course, you can benefit from such course offerings in many ways. Courses can establish new networks that include professors and other professionals in your field of interest. Best of all, individual courses can help you clarify your interest in the subject area, complete prerequisite course work, deepen your knowledge of an issue, refresh your knowledge of the trends in your field, and allow you to access expert insight into your topic—all without the major commitments that come with pursuing a graduate degree.