Nearly 4 million adults ages
35 and older are currently pursuing a degree, according to the National Center
for Education Statistics. Most have a goal of landing a better-paying job or
advancing their careers. Indeed, individuals with an associate's degree earn
about $500,000 more over the length of their careers than high school
graduates. People with a bachelor's degree earn an
additional $500,000 more, on average.
Of course, returning to
school requires an upfront financial commitment. Tapping into savings or
retirement accounts, or going into major debt, is generally not a good idea.
But college can be affordable when you put these tasks on your personal
1. Apply for financial aid. Almost all schools require students to complete the Free Application
for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to
receive financial assistance. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and
individual colleges use this information to determine financial aid
eligibility. There is no age restriction for FAFSA, and it is available for
full- or part-time college students. You can submit the application from Jan. 1
to June 30 every year. You must re-apply annually.
2. Research aid options. The DOE supplies more than 60 percent of student aid.
Most of that aid is awarded via low-interest loans. As with any loan, credit
history can affect eligibility. You may need someone to co-sign if your credit
score is low. Grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid as long as you
fulfill agreed-upon terms, such as staying enrolled in a program. Individual
state education departments also may offer financial help in the forms of loans,
grants and scholarships to older or nontraditional students. Visit scholarship
websites like FastWeb.com and Scholarships.com to search for scholarships that are based on
individual characteristics, such as age and geographic location.
3. Take advantage of tax breaks. With the Lifetime Learning Credit, students can
offset 20 percent of tuition and fees. This credit can reduce taxes owed by up
to $2,000. To claim the maximum credit, modified
adjusted gross income must be less than $62,000 for singles, or $124,000 for
married couples filing jointly. You also may want to consider setting up a 529
college savings plan for yourself. Many states allow tax-deductible 529 plan contributions.
You also can tap unused money in your child's 529 plan for your own college
expenses if you are listed as a beneficiary.
4. Explore employer and military assistance. Some employers offer tuition-reimbursement programs.
Employees can exclude up to $5,250 of tuition reimbursements from taxable
income each year. You also may be able to deduct some expenses, such as buying
a laptop, for work-related education. For veterans, the Post 9/11 GI
Bill may cover all tuition and fees
for eligible service members. It also provides a housing stipend and covers
some books and supplies. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has a list of education benefits programs available
for active and inactive military personnel.
5. Be smart about your schooling. An advanced degree may or may not be right for you.
Before investing in an education program, learn more about job opportunities
and pay scales in the field that interests you. In addition to community and
traditional colleges, you also may find online schools, professional and trade
programs, certifications and apprenticeships that suit your needs. Also, some
colleges and universities offer a life experience credit. This type of program
combines past work experience with college credits, enabling you to earn a
Remember that more education
does not automatically equate to more money in your paycheck. In fact, it could
mean less money in your bank account if you make the mistake of over-borrowing.
Those who are fewer than 10 years away from retirement, in particular, will
want to take out as few loans as possible. Whatever route you choose, doing
your homework before you enroll in school can help you find a more lucrative,
more satisfying career, even as an adult.
Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.
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