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.
Pay as You Go
This is probably the best option for those of us who are debt-averse and who aren’t going back to school because of a drastic employment (or lack thereof) crisis. The trick is to find a school that will: (1) accommodate your schedule; (2) get you your degree or certificate in a relatively short amount of time; (3) charge you a fair price per credit hour; and (4) offer you a return on your investment. Under the pay as you go plan, finishing your course of study may take a little longer than attending school full time, but ultimately, you will fare better financially than cutting back on working hours or borrowing money to go.
Community colleges and on-line programs are good options for adult learners who will keep working while attending school. One caveat, though, is that some online programs — especially those operated by private, for-profit schools, may be more expensive and offer less credibility to employers than traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and the distance learning programs they offer. Do some research before you leap. Ask around in your chosen field. If you’re going back for a nursing degree, visit a local hospital and see if you can get a feel for where employed nurses got their educations. Check out professional associations. Give them a call and see what they think about the schools your considering.
If you’re going to pay money to further your education, ideally, you’ll be able to recoup what you pay with better employment opportunities. Unless, that’s not your goal.
Education for Education’s Sake
Those who are not seeking a certificate or degree, on the other hand, may benefit from community or education classes. Often offered through non-profit organizations, community centers or the continuing education programs of traditional colleges, such classes tend to be considerably less expensive than for-credit courses. If you’re taking the class to enhance your job performance or to give you a leg up, you can still sell it on your resume or report it back to your employer… it will just cost you much less to do so.
Community education is especially conducive to more artistic endeavors, such as writing workshops and drawing classes and cooperatives. Many community organizations also offer informal language courses, which, for many, can be a faster, more fun way to learn a new language than a classroom or online setting.
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.