College can be difficult enough as a teenager, but going back to school as an adult often presents a new level of challenges. You may be balancing a job and childcare responsibilities along with your educational goals, and dealing with other financial considerations such as a mortgage. Perhaps you are returning to the workforce after taking time off to raise children, lost your job and are counting on retraining for a new career, or need a higher degree to advance your current career.
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Regardless of the reason you are returning to school, a successful adult educational experience requires both time management and money management. For help with money management, consider the following steps.
- Lay Out Goals – Why are you going back to school? Explicitly laying out your objective will help you choose the proper school and program for you. Do you need a four-year program, two-year program, certification training, or simply a few classes to pick up specific skills? This will help you pinpoint colleges that meet your needs, and you can begin searching for scholarship programs sponsored by the individual colleges. If you cannot find what you need on the websites, contact the financial aid offices at your schools of interest to check out school-specific options.
- Fill Out FAFSA – Virtually all student aid outside of private loans requires filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, located at https://fafsa.ed.gov/. FAFSA compiles your financial information for the previous year and assesses your ability to pay college costs. Beware of similarly named websites that charge you to submit the form. Do not assume that you make too much money or have too many assets to qualify for student aid. Assets such as retirement accounts and your primary home are not taken into account with FAFSA, which is mostly based on income and relatively liquid assets. If you have life-changing circumstances that alter your ability to pay – for example, job loss, unexpected medical bills, or divorce – inform the financial aid offices at your preferred schools. Paying down debt prior to form submission may also help your status by lowering your available cash. Generally, you want to fill out FAFSA as early as possible in the year – it is common to apply in early January using estimates from the previous year's taxes and update them later. The deadline for FAFSA submission is June 30th of the academic year in question, but do not wait until then. FAFSA money is first-come, first-served.
- Search for Grants/Scholarships – Start by looking for grants or scholarships that do not have to be paid back. If you haven’t received a professional or bachelor's degree already, you may qualify for a Pell Grant. Even with a degree, you may qualify if you are in a postgraduate teaching certificate program. Check for scholarships and grants at sites such as https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/, www.fastweb.com, and https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/scholarship-search, as well as your college’s financial aid office. If you can’t find scholarships or grants, you may qualify for student loans at relatively favorable rates – but consider that your last resort.
- Work-Study or Employer-Based Financing – If you are currently employed, check with your employer for educational opportunities that can be paid at least in part by the company. If the education relates to your job and a suitable schedule can be worked out, your employer may comply. If you aren’t currently employed, look into work-study options at your preferred school. You will be given some form of campus job to help pay for education – and as an “experienced” student, you may have skills that are more valuable than that of the average college student.
- State/Local Programs – Consider alternate local financing programs that are specific to your situation – for example, local programs for displaced workers, programs targeted at single parents, or those sponsored through professional organizations.
- Plan Your Finances – Once you know your expected assistance level, refine your budget to adjust for the extra expenses associated with school that financial aid will not cover, such as textbooks and extra transportation costs. Check into ways to save on these expenses as well – for example, buy used or online textbooks instead of purchasing them new at retail price from the campus bookstore. As you review your finances, don’t forget to consider tax issues. Verify whether your aid package is taxable, and take advantage of all educational tax benefits available to you, such as the Lifetime Learning Credit. Check http://www.irs.gov/uac/Five-Ways-to-Offset-Education-Costs and IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education for more details.
It is not easy, but the educational experience later in life can be just as liberating as it is straight out of high school. Good luck on your educational journey, study hard, and don’t forget to have some fun along the way. An additional bonus: you won’t need a fake ID to get into college bars.