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If you’re looking to broaden your intellectual horizons, advance in your career, or transition into a new field, enrolling in a grad school program is an excellent route to take. But whether it’s time constraints, financial concerns, or uncertainty about direction, there are also many reasons why it might not be the right path for you.

So what other alternatives are there? How else can you move forward if you’re hoping to explore a subject of interest, advance in your career, or even cover requirements for an eventual grad school track?

One option you may want to consider is becoming a non-degree-seeking student. This allows you to take individual college and university courses without the pressure and commitment that comes with full- or even part-time grad school enrollment.

Read on for reasons why a non-degree course of study might be the way to go, and suggestions for getting started.

Preparing for grad school

If you think grad school might be in your future, but you’re not quite ready to take the plunge, enrolling in a non-degree college- or graduate-level course is great for testing the waters. You can also use the experience to adjust to an area of focus that’s different from your undergraduate degree, if you’re considering a change.

Another reason to take individual courses is to complete grad school prerequisites. For example, many community psychology graduate degrees require a background in statistics and psychological research methods, which may not have been a part of your undergraduate work. Completing prerequisites before graduate school demonstrates your commitment to the field, looks great on your application, and can save you money if you’re able to take them at a local state or community college. Before moving forward with this, however, be sure to get in touch with your graduate schools of interest and confirm that these course credits will be accepted.

Professional development

There are a variety of professional reasons to become a non-degree-seeking student, including:

  • Specialization. If you’ve been working for a few years after earning your undergraduate degree, your work experience has likely exposed you to new areas of focus or specializations you’d like to explore more deeply—but not so deeply that it justifies enrolling in a full- or part-time graduate program.
  • Upward mobility. Your organization may have opportunities for advancement that continuing education can help you prepare for, and selecting only the classes you need to achieve that goal can speed up the process.
  • Refreshing or updating current knowledge. A non-degree program is a great way to get up to speed on the latest progress and practices in your field, as university classes tend to provide the most up-to-date information for their students. And without the costs and time commitment of a full-on grad program, you can dip in every so often and keep yourself on the cutting edge with minimal fuss.

Taking individual courses may also help you avoid some of the time constraints and expenses that come with traditional grad school enrollment, especially if you’re trying not to work and study full time. And if your employer is financially supporting your professional development, enrolling only in the classes you absolutely need will help to keep things within budget.

Personal interest and enrichment

Taking courses in certain subjects or skill areas like Mandarin or statistics can be much more effective and enjoyable than studying on your own. You’ll have access to an experienced and qualified instructor who can facilitate your learning, assess your progress, and correct your work. You’ll also have classmates with whom you can connect and collaborate, making the experience more communal and enjoyable.

The ability to work on assignments and projects that have been time-tested with other students can also be a more structured and fulfilling way to deepen your knowledge. And with a clear timeline for your learning, you can more easily keep yourself accountable and on track.

How to become a non-degree-seeking student

Enrolling as a non-degree-seeking student is typically much easier than the traditional grad degree route. Community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities typically offer options for non-degree enrollment either directly through their departments, or via their continuing education or community education offices. In some schools, it’s as simple as filling out a form and paying tuition. Be sure to reach out to your local institution to inquire about their specific policies, processes, and requirements so you can adequately prepare before getting started.


There are always options and opportunities for you to develop your skill set, deepen your knowledge, and pursue professional development. Enrolling as a non-degree-seeking student gives you the freedom and flexibility to continue your education in a way that works for your particular schedule, budget, and professional aspirations.

If you’re looking to explore other grad school alternatives, take a look at our post on professional development workshops instead of graduate school.