Often, as adults, we decide to go — or go back — to college in a relatively short time frame. Parents, on the other hand, often think about college while holding their newborn in the hospital, mumbling to themselves that 18 years just doesn’t seem like enough time to save all that money. We adult learners are on a slightly tighter schedule when it comes to paying for school, so we need to be a little aggressive about our options.
If you’re an adult considering going back to college, whether it’s to remain competitive in your field, advance in your career or learn new skills, you’re not alone. It’s estimated that a record 21.8 million students are attending American colleges and universities this fall and roughly 8.7 million of them are older students, ages 25 and up.
Determining how to balance work, family, personal passions and other grownup demands with college courses can be challenging for adults who return to school. Another challenge for many is determining how to pay for those credits.
The Traditional Approach
If you feel like you missed out on the “college experience” or you simply feel a need to do school the way you did it the first time and go all in; or you’re just going to school for the first time as an adult, most of the same financial aid alternatives that are there for younger students are there for us. The only problem we have is that, as adults, we tend to have more income and assets, and thus, often, are less eligible for such aid.
Pell Grants are available to adult learners who have demonstrated financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s-level degree. If you qualify, a Pell Grant can help cover more than $5,000 of your annual education costs. Subsidized and unsubsidized loans are also available for us, as well. Just like “regular” students, we need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to determine eligibility.
Adults returning to school as dislocated workers may also qualify for state or local educational assistance. Contact your state’s employment — unemployment, in some cases — or economic opportunity agencies to see what programs are available to you. Employed adults may want to check with their employers about tuition reimbursement programs. If your company doesn’t have a formal program, consider putting together a proposal detailing how the additional education would benefit your productivity and on-the-job performance and presenting it to your boss. She may surprise you.
Regardless of how you pay for it, if the experience of lifelong learning is valuable to you — and you pursue it — then it will be worth it. But that is a decision we all have to make as individuals.
Here are some other tips to consider, courtesy of the Poughkeepsie Journal:
• Think things through. Whether you plan to stay in your career field or to enter a new one, carefully research what you can expect to make. Start by using an online salary calculator for ballpark salary figures in your geographical region.
• Look at your total expenses. Although you may not have campus housing costs, you could incur other education-related expenses such as technology fees, transportation and parking or child care. Talk with an admissions counselor to see what costs you should anticipate and whether they have services or programs to help with these incidentals.
• Apply for federal aid. Federal Student Aid, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, is the largest provider of student financial aid in the nation. Financial aid isn’t just for first-time students. It provides grants, loans and work-study funds to qualified students attending college or career school. Visit fafsa.ed.gov.
• Search for scholarships. Many scholarship programs don’t have an upward age limit — some are specifically for adult students. Also consider talking with your employer and school admissions counselor or program director to find out whether you qualify for any scholarships, discounts or tuition reimbursement programs.
• Determine if you qualify for tax credits. There are two tax credits that may benefit you. The first, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, offers up to $2,500 of the cost of tuition, fees and course materials paid during the taxable year for each of the first four years of post-secondary education (while enrolled at least part-time). Also, 40 percent of the credit (up to $1,000) is refundable for qualifying taxpayers even if you owe no tax. The second, the Lifetime Learning Credit, offers up to $2,000 per return to students who are taking one or more post-secondary education and courses to acquire or improve job skills. Visit irs.gov.
• Set up a 529 plan. A 529 plan is an educational saving plan operated by a state or educational institution.