Making the decision to go back to school can be a little overwhelming. As your union, we understand and we are here to help you through this process. First, there is no ‘right way,’ nor is there ‘one path.’ Getting your degree or deciding to take courses is something that has to meet your busy firehouse and family schedules.  Here are six steps to help you make important decisions to lead you to a successful higher education experience.

Step OneOnline vs. On campus

Thanks to continued advances in technology, we’ve seen an increase in traditional colleges offering online learning programs. Several colleges have developed complete degree programs for students who are not able to take the time needed to physically go to a college campus. Many IAFF members who are taking (or have taken) college courses find that online programs are easier to manage because they are flexible in terms of when and where you complete your course work. Start by identifying a few colleges and degree programs that you are interested in. There are multiple factors to consider, so feel free to contact college admissions counselors and ask questions to determine what best fits your educational and career goals… which brings you to step two.

Step Two:  Talking to an Admissions Counselor

Talking to admissions counselors will help you get direct answers to your questions about each program. Think of these calls as interviews – this is your time to explain why you want to be a part of their community. You should feel free to get to know the college as a community as much as an academic institution, and the only way to do that is to ask all of the questions you have, and get the answers you need.

Step ThreeApplication and Funding 

The application process does take time. Not only do you have to complete the application, but generally there is a short essay required.  Be prepared to submit letters of recommendation and obtain your transcripts from high schools or colleges that you have attended. Depending on your educational history, there may be other testing requirements made by the college. Funding is always an issue for students but even more so for students who have added life responsibilities. First, look within the union. Find out if there are any local scholarships available. Also visit the IAFF scholarship section of our website for possible opportunities. And be sure to go online to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  FAFSA is a federal tool that evaluates your funding and loan options based on your income. The first question that any financial aid officer will ask you is whether or not you have filled out and submitted this document.  Next, look into the options available at the college that you have selected to attend. The college’s website will be a great resource and will give you an idea of the types of scholarships for students (i.e., public service, veteran funding, funding based on need, etc).

Step FourThe Hardest Part

For many non-traditional students, the hardest part is registering. There is a reason for the saying, ‘the first step is always the hardest.’ At this point, you have to encourage yourself to enroll in a degree program to create upward mobility and additional career advancement. This is the first step to set you on the road to your higher education success.

Step FiveMentorship and Community Support

As a member of the IAFF, you already understand how the support of your IAFF brothers and sisters can help get you through tough times. Having this type of support can make a big difference while going through difficult times in college. You should feel free to reach out to others who are going through or have gone through a college experience. See if you can find another IAFF member who is interested in taking courses with you – this will help create support to get both of you through the process.

Step SixSet Goals

Long-term and short term goals are very important. Talk with your advisor and set a goal for the number of courses that you want to complete every year. This plan will give you a range to stay within every semester and will give you a target to maintain. Having this in place allows you to take courses in smaller pieces within the program you have chosen and will be a little easier to manage. This process can be extremely rewarding. Thinking about each step of your education as a separate phase will make the process more manageable. Take a minute to assess and then move to the next phase.  Also consider Kaplan University, the IAFF’s partner for higher education. Go to for more information on IAFF members’ tuition reduction and the Kaplan Commitment. Always remember, if you need any assistance, feel free to call (202-824-1533) or email ([email protected]) us so we can help!