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How to Afford & Pay for College as an Older Adult

The consensus these days seems to be that getting a college degree is a smart financial move. A 2019 College Board report found that for full-time workers, having a bachelor’s degree increased median earnings by 61% compared to having only a high school degree. And for adults ages 25 to 54, it cut the chances of being unemployed by over 35%.

If you’re an adult without a college degree, these statistics can sound like a depressing reminder of what you’ve missed out on. But there’s another way to see them: as an opportunity.

Not only is it possible to get a college degree as an adult, but it’s also quite common. According to the Lumina Foundation, roughly 37% of college students today are over 25 years old, 24% have children, and 64% are working while attending school. It can even be an advantage to attend college a little later in life since your experience in the working world will make it easier to figure out what you want to study.

One obvious downside of pursuing a degree as an adult is figuring out how to pay for college while also meeting your work and family obligations. The good news is there are many ways around this problem.

As an adult, you can take advantage of many programs designed for “traditional” students, including grants, scholarships, loans, and 529 plans. You can also benefit from special programs just for adult students, such as targeted scholarships, tuition benefits from employers, and credit for past work experience. And you can look into less traditional ways of earning a degree, such as online learning and discounted college classes for senior citizens.

Ways to Afford College as an Adult

1. Grants & Scholarships

Scholarship Key Keyboard

Any teenager applying to college knows to look for grants and scholarships to reduce the cost. Grants cover all or part of a student’s tuition based on financial need, while scholarships are awarded based on academic merit. Both types of gift can cut your tuition costs, reducing your need to rely on burdensome student loan debt.

However, adults heading back to school don’t always realize they’re eligible for these programs too. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the same for all students, regardless of age. By filling out the FAFSA online, you can learn whether you qualify for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs.

Grant Programs

Both the federal government and state governments offer a variety of grants that are available to students of any age. These include:

  • Pell Grants. The best-known federal grant available for undergraduates is the Pell Grant. The amount of this grant varies based on your financial need, the cost of your tuition, and whether you’re attending school full-time or part-time. For the 2020 to 2021 academic year, the maximum amount is $6,345.
  • FSEOG. The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or FSEOG, is an additional grant available to students who qualify for the Pell Grant. However, unlike the Pell, it’s available only at schools that choose to participate in the program. The FSEOG can provide anywhere from $100 to $4,000 per year, depending on your financial need, the amount of other aid you get, and what funds are available at your school. The earlier you apply for this grant, the better the chances are that you will qualify.
  • TEACH Grants. The federal Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant provides up to $4,000 in aid for students who plan to become teachers. To qualify for it, you must sign a contract promising to become a teacher in a high-need field at a low-income school after graduation. High-need fields include math, science, foreign languages, reading, special education, and bilingual education. Unlike many federal grants, the TEACH Grant is available for graduate as well as undergraduate students.
  • State-Specific Grants. Several states offer grants for students, including some specifically for older students. For instance, from 2009 through 2014, New Jersey ran a grant program to help “disengaged” students – those who started college but didn’t finish – go back to school and get their degrees. Visit the U.S. Department of Education site to look for grants available in your state.

Since grants are based on financial need, you can qualify for more aid by making some tweaks to your income and bank balance. Putting your available cash into a 401(k) or IRA or using it to pay down consumer debt can make you look needier, improving your chances of qualifying for a grant. However, be careful not to sequester away so much of your money that you can’t meet your expenses while you’re taking classes.

Scholarships for Adults

There are several scholarship programs aimed at older students, including:

  • ASIST. The Adult Students in Scholastic Transition (ASIST) Scholarship, sponsored by Executive Women International (EWI), is for “adults facing economic, social, or physical challenges, who are looking to improve their situation through educational opportunities.” To apply for it, you must live in an area covered by one of EWI’s local chapters. First, submit an application and compete with other candidates from your local chapter. If you win, you move on to the corporate level to compete for one of 13 scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.
  • Imagine America. The Imagine America Scholarship is sponsored by the Imagine America Foundation, which promotes trade schools and career colleges for adults. This $1,000 scholarship is aimed at “adult learners with little or no secondary level education.” To apply, go to the Imagine America member portal, or download the free Imagine America mobile app, and create a profile and password. Click the “Apply for Scholarships” tab and, under “Scholarship Type,” select “ASEP” (Adult Skills Education Program). Next, select the school or program you’re interested in, watch the informational video, and complete a skill assessment test. After submitting your application, you can track its status through the app and find out if you’ve qualified.
  • Oregon Ford ReStart Program. The Ford ReStart Program, sponsored by the Ford Family Foundation, is one of the most generous scholarship programs for adults. It covers 90% of all college costs that haven’t been met by any other grant or scholarship. However, the requirements for application are narrow. The scholarship is only available to residents of either Oregon or Siskiyou County, California who are at least 25 years old and “have significant financial barriers to college.” They must plan to attend school full-time in their state of residence and to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree program, but they must not be more than halfway through the program already. If you meet these requirements, all you have to do to apply is complete the FAFSA and  the application form at OregonStudentAid.gov.
  • Return2College. The Return2College Scholarship is for students of all ages, traditional and nontraditional. It’s open to U.S. citizens and legal residents age 17 and up who are either enrolled in or about to start college or graduate school. Applying is easy; simply fill out a short online form and submit a three-sentence essay explaining why you’re getting your degree. Since three sentences aren’t much, the site allows you to submit up to a dozen entries if you want to say more. The first-place winner receives a $1,000 scholarship that can be paid directly to them or to the school they’re attending.

This is just a short sampling of the scholarships available to adults. You can search listings for hundreds more on sites like Fastweb and Scholarships.com. By filling out a profile on either of these sites, you can find and apply for scholarships that fit your specific needs. Other sites to try include CollegeScholarships.org, where you can search more than 23,000 scholarships and grants based on such factors as amount, location, gender, and ethnicity, and CareerOneStop, a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor that lists more than 8,000 scholarships, grants, and other financial aid programs.


2. Prior Learning Assessment

Student Employee Colleague Classmate Meeting Discussion

If you’re an adult heading back to school, you already have at least a few years of experience in the workforce. Perhaps you’ve taken on-the-job training courses or even earned a professional license. Or maybe you’ve done some study on your own, reading up on or pursuing subjects that interest you as a hobby.

There are several ways to turn all that real-life experience into college credits. Programs that give credit for work and life experience are often called prior learning assessment (PLA). Other names for them include experiential learning and credit for prior learning.

PLA can take several forms. For instance, many colleges will give credit for challenge exams, special tests to prove you’ve mastered a subject without officially studying it. There are also programs that convert workplace and military training into credit toward a degree. Each school has its own rules about what forms of PLA it will accept and how much credit you can earn this way.

Challenge Exams

Challenge exams are kind of like Advanced Placement (AP) tests, but instead of being tied to a specific high school course, they give you credit for material you’ve learned anywhere – in school, on the job, or through an online course or independent study. These exams are most often multiple-choice tests with around 100 questions that take an hour or two to complete. The fee for taking them is usually under $100, a small fraction of what you’d pay for a single college course.

The leading challenge exam is the College Level Exam Program, or CLEP. It’s administered by The College Board, the same organization responsible for AP tests. More than 2,900 U.S. colleges and universities grant credit for a high enough score on a CLEP test.

There are 34 CLEP exams that can take the place of introductory-level college courses in world languages, literature, composition, history, social sciences, math, science, and business. You can take CLEP exams at more than 2,000 test centers nationwide. Each CLEP test costs $89, but members of the military can take them for free through the government’s Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) program.

The DANTES program also offers its own challenge exams, the DANTES Subject Standardized Tests (DSST). There are more than 35 DSST exams, covering subjects such as business, humanities, math, physical sciences, social sciences, and technology. Eligible military members can take all tests once for free. You can search for test centers that administer the DSST, and for schools that grant credit for it, on the DSST website, GetCollegeCredit.com.

In addition to these two programs, some colleges and universities offer their own challenge exams. For instance, National University, a San Diego-based school specifically for adult learners, administers exams for specific courses for a $100 fee. Students can earn up to 13.5 quarters of credit toward a degree from the exams.

Credit for Workforce Training

These days, it’s possible to learn a lot of skills through on-the-job training. Some large companies even have “corporate universities” that offer formal classes in everything from marketing to computer programming. Other organizations, such as labor unions, government agencies, professional associations, and volunteer groups, also provide various kinds of training for workers.

In some cases, it’s possible to get college credit for these workplace classes through the CREDIT program established by the American Council on Education (ACE). Under this program, employers and other people who provide training can have their courses reviewed by college assessors. These assessors look at the materials and procedures for each course and figure out how many college credits it should be worth. However, their findings are only recommendations; colleges aren’t required to grant credit based on them.

You can find out if your school grants credit based on CREDIT recommendations by consulting the admissions office or by checking the ACE Credit College and University Partnerships site. If it does, you can use the CREDIT Registry and Transcript Service to get an official transcript for any training course you’ve taken that carries an ACE credit recommendation. ACE’s National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training can help you find courses, certifications, and exams with credit recommendations.

In addition to workplace training programs, ACE makes credit recommendations for a variety of professional certifications, such as Certified Public Accountant or Chartered Financial Consultant. Also, any national or state professional license or degree – such as a pilot’s license or real estate license – is likely to be accepted for college credit. Check with your school’s admissions office for more details.

Credit for Military Training

Another ACE program recommends college credits for military training. College and university faculty members evaluate military courses and occupations to determine whether they “have the appropriate content, scope, and rigor for college credit recommendations.” The results of these reviews, dating back to 1954, appear in the ACE Military Guide. You can search for courses by their ACE ID number, military course number or title, subject, or the place and year in which you took the course.

If you’ve received any military training that earned you a credit recommendation, it will show up on your Joint Services Transcript (JST). According to ACE, more than 2,300 colleges and universities currently accept the JST as official proof of military training and ACE credit recommendations. However, each college makes its own decisions about which items on the JST count as credit toward its classes. For instance, some colleges grant credit for military courses but not for military occupational specialties.

If your college decides to give you credit for a course, that credit will show up on your transcript. However, grades usually aren’t included in the transfer process, so whatever grade you got in the course won’t count toward your GPA.


3. Employer Tuition Assistance Programs

Tuition Assistance Chalkboard Bush

Depending on where you work, there’s a chance your employer may be willing to help foot the bill for your college education. Many large companies offer tuition assistance programs, also known as tuition reimbursement plans, which cover the cost of college classes for their employees.

According to the IRS, employers can provide up to up to $5,250 per year in “educational assistance” – tuition, fees, books, equipment, and supplies – to their employees without counting it as part of their wages. That means that you, as an employee, don’t have to pay taxes on it.

Check with your human resources department to find out if your employer has a tuition assistance program. If it does, get a copy of the written plan to learn details like:

  • What kinds of classes it covers
  • How payments are handled
  • Whether you must get a specific grade in the class to qualify
  • Whether you need approval from a manager
  • How to enroll

4. 529 Plans

529 Plan Piggy Bank Textbooks

If you’ve researched ways to pay for your child’s education, you’ve likely heard about the benefits of 529 plans. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, any money you earn on your investments in these savings plans is not subject to federal income tax, as long you use it for education. In many states, you can avoid state income tax as well – not just on your earnings, but on all the money you put into the plan.

What many adults don’t realize is that you can also set up a 529 plan for yourself through CollegeBacker. You simply name yourself as both the account holder and the beneficiary. Also, if you have any money left over in a 529 that you set up for your child or another relative, you can roll over the money into a new plan with yourself as the beneficiary.

Each state sets its own limits on how much money you can make tax-deductible by stashing it in a 529 plan. In addition, anyone else who wants to help you fund your education can put up to $15,000 per year into your plan without paying gift tax.


5. Student Loans

Student Loan Letters Laptop

After you’ve used grants, scholarships, PLA, tuition assistance, and tax-advantaged savings to cover as much of your college costs as possible, you can finance the rest with student loans. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there is no age limit to apply for any form of federal student aid, including loans.

If you have to borrow money to pay for your education, a federal student loan is probably the best way to do it. These loans typically have lower interest rates and easier repayment terms than other types of debt, such as credit cards and home equity loans. Plus, applying for them is free and easy. There’s no credit check involved, and all you have to do to see if you qualify is fill out the FAFSA.

For more details on federal student loans and how to apply, visit StudentAid.gov.


6. Online Learning

Online University College Classes Learning

Another way to earn a college degree for less is to take college classes online. Studying online has many benefits for degree-seeking adults. It’s easier to take classes on your own schedule, so you can continue to hold a part-time or even full-time job at the same time. Also, you can study from your own home, rather than moving to a college campus or traveling back and forth.

The cost of studying online depends on the school you choose. According to U.S. News, for in-state students studying at online colleges in the United States in 2019 to 2020, the average cost of tuition was about $317 per credit, or $38,516 for a four-year degree. That’s roughly the same as the cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at a public four-year college, according to The College Board – although students at online colleges avoid other costs, such as room and board.

However, U.S. News reports that there are many online colleges where the tuition cost is significantly below average. The 10 online schools with the lowest in-state tuition costs charged an average of $101 per credit, or just under $12,170 to earn a bachelor’s degree. Also, according to GetEducated.com, a website that ranks online colleges, most online schools will give you up to 30 credits – the equivalent of one full year of college – for PLA. That could save you thousands of dollars and help you get your degree faster.

You can also earn credit for individual online courses. For instance, at Study.com, you can choose from over 180 courses that are accredited by ACE or the National College Credit Recommendation Service. Courses typically include lessons in video format, interactive quizzes, and a remote proctored final exam. Another option for online learning is Coursera. They offer over 3,900 courses that can lead to more than 20 different degrees and MasterTrack certificates.

If you pass, you can transfer the credits to any of more than 1,500 colleges and universities. The Study.com search tool can help you find schools that will accept your course credits.


7. Classes for Senior Citizens

College Classes For Senior Citizens

If you’re over a certain age – which, depending on where you live, could be anywhere from 50 to 65 – you can attend classes at some colleges at a significantly reduced cost. There are schools in every U.S. state that offer cheap or even free classes for senior citizens.

Most of these schools only allow senior citizens to audit classes for free – that is, sit in on the lectures without completing any coursework or earning credit. However, some programs treat non-paying senior citizens as full students. For instance, at the University of Delaware, state residents over 60 can take classes for free as long as they’re not taking space away from tuition-paying students.


Final Word

Going back to school as an adult has many possible benefits. If you’re unhappy with your current career, it can give you a chance to become qualified in a different field that interests you more. It can also open the door to higher-paying careers that require a college degree.

However, pursuing this path has its challenges too. Unless you have relatives who can support you for the next two to four years, you’ll need to work while you attend college. Unless you choose an online school or one that offers night classes, trying to fit both work and classes into your schedule is likely to be a challenge. And if you already have children or other family responsibilities, that will only add to the strain.

So before taking the plunge on pursuing your college degree, crunch some numbers. Think about both how you’ll fit the cost of college into your budget and how you’ll make time in your schedule for classes and homework. Making a solid plan ahead of time will make it easier to stay on track and get that degree, with all the benefits it can bring you.

Have you thought about going back to school as an adult? If so, how do you plan to pay for it?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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