Older Students: Cut the Cost of Earning a Degree

Some colleges and universities offer tuition discounts for people who are older than the typical student. (Getty Images)

There comes a time during the professional life of many adults when they come to the conclusion that going back to school to earn a new degree is the best choice moving forward.

Perhaps you’ve decided on a complete career shift, or maybe it’s just something as simple as wanting a higher degree in your field to increase your earnings potential and career ceiling. Whatever the reason, a new degree is what you need.

The catch – there’s always a catch, isn’t there? – is that going back to school is expensive. Not only are tuition costs higher than ever before, there’s also the issue that you’re potentially walking away from significant income to earn that degree, which will make your day-to-day home life much more difficult.

Here are six strategies you can consider if the idea of going back to school for a new degree or certification is potentially in your future.

[See: 11 Money Tips for Older Adults.]

1. Start a 529 college savings plan for yourself immediately. The best financial move you can make in terms of managing the financial impact of going back to school is to have money saved up for it, and a 529 college savings plan is simply the best avenue for most Americans to do that. If you want to make your return to the educational world as financially sustainable as possible, start saving now for that education, even if your return to school is several years off.

When you invest in a 529 college savings plan, the return on investment that you earn is tax free (in terms of federal taxes) if you use it for educational purposes. Plus, many states offer additional tax benefits simply for contributing to your state’s 529 college savings plan, which can lower your state income taxes right now.

[See: U.S. News 529 Plan Finder.]

2. Talk to your employer. If you’re hoping to earn more degrees and certifications within your field, have a conversation with your employer about it. Many employers offer some degree of assistance for their employees as they further their education. They may help cover tuition costs or offer flexible hours while you’re pursuing your education.

Often, these arrangements come with agreements to stay with the company for a certain period of time after completion of study, but that’s a small price to pay for drastically raising your career ceiling.

3. Look for tuition discounts based on age. Some colleges and universities offer tuition discounts for people who are older than the typical student. In some cases, particularly in states with strong state university systems, this can even mean tuition-free schooling.

Contact the state universities and other colleges near where you live and see if they have any tuition discounts or other programs for older students. You may be surprised at what they have to offer for returning students.

4. Start at a community college. If you’re pursuing a new degree, you can often take many of the basic educational requirements in the evenings at a local community college before attending a four-year university, transferring the credits when you enroll at your final school.

This offers a number of advantages. First of all, community college credits are less expensive. Second, community colleges often have evening and weekend classes that work well for professionals. Attending community college classes on the nights and weekends also enable you to start on your degree without having to leave your current employment situation.

If you live near a community college, see what it offers in terms of classes that can help push you toward your educational goals at a reasonable price.

[See: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About 529 Plans.]

5. Talk to the school about “experiential” credit. Many universities will allow you to bypass some coursework related to your career path by accepting “experiential” credit, meaning that they award you some academic credit for your real-world experience.

The benefit of experiential credit is that you’ll be spending less time in school earning your new degree, which means lower tuition costs and potentially less time away from the workforce.

Talk to the schools you’re interested in about use of experiential credit in your degree plan. You might be surprised by what you can save.

6. Look for grants, scholarships and fellowships that target older students. There are many grant programs, scholarships, fellowships and other types of assistance that target adults who return to school during or after their careers, reducing the financial impact of their educational return.

Google can be your friend here. Another place to look is in the financial aid office at your school. Ask around about grants, scholarships and fellowships for older students, because every dollar from those programs is a dollar that stays in your pocket.

Returning to school can be a very powerful way to jump-start your career, but it’s a very expensive way to do so. These strategies can help you keep the costs of going back to school in check so that you can focus on your education and get the most value out of your new degree and your increased earnings potential.

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