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How to Afford & Pay for College as an Older Adult

Studies continue to show that getting a college degree is a smart financial move. For example, a 2019 College Board report found that for full-time workers, having a bachelor’s degree increased median earnings by 56% compared to having only a high school degree. And for adults ages 25 to 64, it cut the chances of being unemployed by over 45%.

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.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 27% of undergraduates in 2017 were age 25 or older. It can even be advantageous to attend college later in life since you have a better idea what you want to study. The only difficulty is figuring out how to pay for college while also meeting your work and family obligations — and there are many ways around that problem.

Ways to Afford College as an Adult

As an adult, you can take advantage of many programs designed for “traditional” students as well as some nontraditional students may not have access to.

1. Grants & Scholarships

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, and organizations award scholarships based on academic merit or grade point average (GPA). Both 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 FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) 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 numerous grants that are available to both traditional and nontraditional students. 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 2021 to 2022 academic year, the maximum amount is $6,495.
  • FSEOG. The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or FSEOG, is an additional grant available at certain schools to students who qualify for the Pell Grant. It can provide $100 to $4,000 per year, depending on need, other financial aid, and available funds. The earlier you apply for this grant, the better your chances to qualify.
  • TEACH Grants. The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant provides up to $4,000 for students who plan to become teachers. To qualify, you must sign a contract promising to teach 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.
  • State-Specific Grants. Several states offer grants for students, including some specifically for older students. For instance, Indiana’s Adult Student Grant helps adults who started college but didn’t finish go back to school and get their degrees. Visit the United States 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 tweaking your income and bank balance. For instance, you can put more of your earnings into a 401(k) or individual retirement account or use available cash to pay down consumer debt. But don’t sequester so much money you can’t meet your expenses while taking classes.

Scholarships for Adults

There are several scholarship programs aimed at older students. A few examples include:

  • ASIST. Executive Women International (EWI) sponsors the Adult Students in Scholastic Transition (ASIST) Scholarship for “adults facing economic, social, or physical challenges, who are looking to improve their situation through educational opportunities.” Scholarships range from $2,000 to $10,000. Apply through your local EWI chapter.
  • Imagine America. The Imagine America Scholarship provides up to $1,000 in scholarship funds for “adult learners with little or no secondary level education.” To apply, create a free account on the Imagine America member portal or via the free Imagine America mobile app, and click “Apply for Scholarships.”
  • Oregon Ford ReStart Program. The Ford ReStart Program provides up to 46 need-based scholarships for adults age 25 and older in Oregon or Siskiyou County, California. It covers 90% of all college costs that aren’t met by any other grant or scholarship. If you meet the requirements, apply by filling out the FAFSA and application form.
  • Return2College. The Return2College Scholarship is for U.S. citizens and legal residents age 17 and up who are in or about to start college or graduate school. To apply, fill out the online form and submit a three-sentence essay on why you’re getting your degree. You can enter up to a dozen times. The first-place winner receives a $1,000 scholarship.
  • Unigo. Another scholarship available to students of all ages is the Unigo $10K Scholarship. You just have to be a legal U.S. resident living in any state or the District of Columbia who is attending or plans to attend college within five years. Just submit a 250-word essay in response to a prompt, and you could win a $10,000 scholarship.

And that’s 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.

Another site to try is CollegeScholarships.org. On this site, you can search more than 23,000 scholarships and grants based on such factors as amount, location, gender, and ethnicity. Also, CareerOneStop, a site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, lists more than 8,000 financial aid programs, including scholarships and grants.

2. Prior Learning Assessment

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.

Each school has its own rules about what kind of PLA it accepts and how much credit you can earn that way. PLA can take several forms.

Challenge Exams

Challenge exams are kind of like Advanced Placement (AP) tests, which give you college credit for learning college-level material in high school. 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.

Challenge exams are most often multiple-choice tests with around 100 questions. They take around 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. College Board, the same organization responsible for AP tests, administers the exams. 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 intro-level college courses in various subjects.

You can take CLEP exams at more than 2,000 test centers nationwide. Each CLEP test costs $89, but military members 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 38 DSST exams covering subjects such as business, humanities, sciences, and math. Eligible military members can take each test once for free. You can find test centers that administer the DSST and schools that grant credit for it at GetCollegeCredit.com.

Additionally, 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.

Academic Portfolios

If you have knowledge in a subject not covered by challenge exams, you might be able to turn it into college credit by putting together an academic portfolio. A portfolio is a collection of works that shows your proficiency in a subject. It can include written reports, artwork, articles, videos, software, professional certifications, or business plans.

Only some colleges accept academic portfolios. Some colleges require you to take a course that shows how to create a portfolio based on your work and life experience. Others allow you to assemble your own portfolio based on their guidelines. They charge a fee for evaluating your self-created portfolio, but it’s less than the cost of a portfolio course.

Credit for Workforce Training

These days, it’s possible to learn many 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, and professional associations, also provide various kinds of training for workers.

In some cases, you can get college credit for these workplace classes through the Learning Evaluations program established by the American Council on Education (ACE). This program rates courses offered by employers and others to see if they’re worthy of college credit.

College assessors look at the materials and procedures for each course to decide if it’s equivalent to a college course. If it is, they decide 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 determine whether your college grants credit based on Learning Evaluations through the ACE National Guide or your school’s admissions office. If it does, the ACE Transfer Guide can show you how to transfer your course credits to the school.

In addition to workplace training programs, ACE makes credit recommendations for various professional certifications, such as certified public accountant exams. 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

ACE also offers Learning Evaluations 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 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 experience. 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.

Competency-Based Education

A final way to turn life experience into college credit is through competency-based education (CBE), also known as personalized learning. This method doesn’t take the place of entire college courses, but it lets you test out of the parts of a course that cover material you already know. That helps you make faster progress toward your degree.

Only certain colleges offer credit for personalized learning, and each has its own methods for testing what you already know. Two schools known for their CBE programs are the online colleges Capella University and Western Governors’ University.

3. Employer Tuition Assistance Programs

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 $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 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 it handles payments
  • 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

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 as you use it for education. In many states, you can avoid state income tax as well.

But many adults don’t realize you can also set up a 529 plan for yourself. You simply name yourself as both the account holder and the beneficiary. Also, if you have any money left over in a 529 you set up for your child or another relative, you can roll over the funds 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. But anyone else who wants to help you fund your education can put up to $15,000 per year into your plan without paying a gift tax. To set up your own 529 plan, visit Backer.

5. Student Loans

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’s no age limit on eligibility 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 is fill out the FAFSA.

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

6. Online Learning

Another way to earn a college degree for less is to take college courses 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 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 & World Report, for in-state students studying at online colleges in the U.S. during the 2020 to 2021 school year, the average cost of tuition was about $334 per credit, or $40,674 for a four-year degree.

According to College Board, that’s actually a bit more than the cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at a public four-year college. And it’s significantly more than the cost of community college. But earning your degree online allows you to avoid other college costs, such as room and board.

Moreover, 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 $131 per credit, or just under $16,000, to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Also, according to GetEducated, 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 400 classes that qualify for college credit. Courses typically include lessons in video format, interactive quizzes, and a remote proctored final exam.

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 accept your course credits.

7. Classes for Older People

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 free classes for older adults.

Most of these schools only allow senior citizens to audit classes for free. They can sit in on the lectures, but they can’t submit any coursework or earn credit toward a degree.

However, some programs treat nonpaying older adults as full students. For example, at the University of Delaware, state residents age 60 and up 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 attending college. Fitting 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 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 makes it easier to stay on track and get that degree.

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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