Fast Fact

In 2005, an estimated 40% of adult learners had an annual income of less than $25,000.

Source: Lumina Foundation for Education, Winter 2005

The Cost of Going Back to School

Paying for school can be challenging. As a nontraditional undergraduate, you need to ensure that the cost of school does not also put a strain on your ability to fulfill your personal financial responsibilities.

Fortunately, you have many options.

How to Pay

There are many resources available to help nontraditional students pay for school. If you are considering getting more education, here are a few things to do to get help with financing:

Search the Web for scholarships.

Very few scholarships have age restrictions. So you are able to apply for the same scholarships available to traditional students. And you don't need to pay back any scholarship money as long as you meet all of your obligations.

For a good place to start, join Fastweb to find scholarships based on your personal profile.

Submit a FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

The FAFSA is your ticket to federal financial aid, including federal grants and federal loans.

  • Federal grants—Always pursue grants before loans, since you don't need to pay grants back as long as you meet all of the obligations. Nontraditional students are frequent recipients of the Pell Grant and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which are both need-based. If you already have a bachelor's or professional degree, you are not eligible to receive these grants.
  • Federal loans—The information on the FAFSA helps determine your eligibility for Direct Stafford Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, and Perkins loans. Loan limits are based on your financial situation and the cost of your educational program. Be aware that your school must be eligible to participate in Federal Student Aid programs for you to receive any federal funding. And keep in mind that you must pay any loan money back.

Contact the school's financial aid office.

The financial aid office is a great source of information and support. They can help you find scholarships and federal aid. Plus, they will know about any school-specific programs that you may qualify for. For example, you may be eligible for a tuition waiver—a reduction in tuition to make school more affordable for you. Learn more about tuition waivers.

Talk to your employer.

Seven out of eight employers in the United States offer tuition reimbursement to their employees. You generally do not need to pay this money back, although you'll need to meet any requirements that your employer has set. Learn more about tuition reimbursement.

Research state aid.

If you don't qualify for federal student aid, you may be eligible for certain state programs. For example, some states set aside aid for single working moms (and dads). Contact your state education department to see what aid is available and how you can apply. Some state programs will require that you submit the FAFSA to be considered.

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Minimizing Your Debt

It goes without saying that the best way to minimize your total debt is to take on as little new debt as possible. But that may be difficult to do if you're planning to return to school.

Before you commit to more schooling, take a close look at your finances and take what steps you can to keep any additional debt low:

Pay down any existing debt.

High credit card balances and other types of debt can really put a strain on your budget. Before you add on new school debt, try to pay down any existing debt you have. The more you are able to get your finances in order, the easier it will be to develop a budget that is within your means.

Compare total program costs.

Make sure you look at the big picture when it comes to the cost of school. Tuition—the largest expense—will vary from school to school. But in addition to tuition, you need to consider the costs of books and transportation and other necessities, like daycare. Only when you factor in all costs can you make an accurate comparison.

Look for ways to lower school costs.

Check with your school to see if you qualify for an Advanced Placement Program (APP), the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), or the Provenience Examination Program (PEP). Under these programs, you must take an exam, and if you score high enough, you'll receive free college credit. Not only will you save on costs by needing fewer credits, you may be able to finish school in less time.

Always look for "free" money first.

If you need to get additional funding to pay for school, first look for money that you do not need to repay (such as grants, scholarships, and tuition assistance). The more "free" money you're able to get, the less debt you'll have when you finish your program.

Pay your bills, including your loans, on time.

If you take out loans to pay for your additional schooling, make sure you are prepared to pay them back when you enter repayment. Late payments can have penalty fees and can wreak havoc on your credit score. A simple way to achieve financial success is to pay all of your bills on time.

Take advantage of free or discounted services at school.

Schools provide many services to make education more accessible to nontraditional students. For example, on-campus child care is usually available at a competitive rate, you may be eligible for discounts on parking and transportation, and you'll likely have free use of any school facilities (such as the gym, pool, and computer lab). Use these savings opportunities to your advantage.

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Maximizing Your Investment

School is expensive, and more schooling can lead to more pay and more opportunity. Is it worth it? It definitely can be, as long as you make wise decisions:

Borrow only what you need.

Remember, you MUST pay back student loans. So borrow only what you need to cover your costs, not what you are eligible to receive. Be an informed consumer and don't get in over your head.

Anticipate your future income.

Keep in mind your employment and career prospects: A good rule of thumb is to not borrow more for your education than you intend to make in your 1st year out of school. Curious about the salary range is for your future career? Check out salary.com.

Choose a major in your career.

Education and experience within the same field make you a very attractive candidate to employers. Not only will this combination open more doors, you'll have more opportunities to advance. (Be sure to choose a major that interests you, however. It benefits nobody if you major in a field that you don't like.)

Choose your degree carefully.

Depending on your professional interests, you may need only an associate's degree or professional certificate to get a job and excel. There's no need to overinvest in a bachelor's or master's degree if you can accomplish your goals with an associate's degree, which costs much less.

Get good grades.

Grades are the only way schools have to qualitatively measure a student's success. Although good grades don't directly correlate to career success, they may provide benefit in other ways. For example, they may increase the amount of aid for which you are eligible (merit-based scholarships), and if you continue to pursue more education, they make you a more attractive applicant.

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Budgeting

No matter what your financial situation is, the key to effective budgeting is always the same: Don't spend more than you make. Easy enough? If you're like most people, it's not easy at all.

You've already gotten a head start by visiting YouCanDealWithIt.com. When you return to school, take the steps necessary to minimize your debt and maximize your investment, as discussed above. You will be better prepared to take on the additional costs of education without neglecting your other financial responsibilities.

And use our online budget calculator. Our budget calculator can help you take control of your money to ensure your expenses don't exceed your income. Using our budget calculator, you can even determine how much you can put aside in monthly savings, so you'll be prepared should an emergency arise.

With a solid budget in place, money will be one less thing to worry about as you focus on your studies.

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