Published on 2013/10/03
Steps Adult Students Can Take to Reduce Their Costs
While institutions have been under severe pressure to reduce their costs for the past few years, there are some strategies students can explore to lessen the financial burden of higher education.

Recently, I attended the 35th Annual National Training Institute of Blacks in Government (BIG), an organization that has been focusing on the success of its members for many years. The quality of the presentations was excellent (although they did allow me to present, so that last statement may be questionable), and the topic of college affordability came up again and again as participants sought to improve their advancement opportunities.

It seems to me college affordability is a lot like the weather: everyone complains but nobody does anything about it. That is, until now, when we are beginning to see promising signs of change. But until those trends become universal, which will likely take years, there are some things non-traditional learners who want or need to go to school can do to manage their costs.

Clarify Your Goal

For most people, completing a degree they started years ago or starting a new degree program to enhance their career is the goal of enrollment.

But before you move on to the next step, take a moment to challenge your assumptions. At the BIG conference, I heard over and over again, “I need to get an MBA.” When questioned, however, I learned what they really needed often was something such as project management skills, enhanced accounting skills or training that is probably a sub-set of the degree program on which they have set their sights. Let’s face it; getting an MBA to learn project management is like buying a supermarket because you’re hungry for tomatoes. Nothing against supermarkets, of course, but I believe you can see how a poorly-defined goal will drive up the cost of education very quickly.

In today’s economy, education has become a need, but interestingly, the value of a degree is being questioned more than ever. So, focus on the specific knowledge and skills you need for a new, better job or to help keep the job that you have or to secure a promotion, and go to the next step to find the best path to that goal.

Research, Research, Research

You have already thought of this, but just for the record: investigate scholarship opportunities and federal financial aid. Are you, or is one of your parents, a member of an organization or group that offers scholarships? There are resources in the local library outlining many such opportunities. I recently heard of an entrepreneur who started a photography website that has been so successful she is providing scholarships to aspiring photojournalists.

With your goal in mind, it’s time to conduct what those in the corporate world call “due diligence.” Basically, as you narrow down your choices, you need to investigate each of the schools and programs you’re considering. School is an investment, and just like any other investment, you need as much information as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Online study is improving all of the time, so don’t assume you need a ground-based program. My experience in online education has taught me if you really want to learn something, study it online, because you can’t hide in the back of an online classroom.

  • In many cases community colleges are the least expensive, but there are tradeoffs. Availability of classes may extend the time it takes to complete a program, and support is not uniformly high in these schools. If the community college has done its homework, the credits it offers will transfer to other schools (if needed).

  • For-profit schools are often more expensive than not-for-profit schools, but there are tradeoffs. Higher tuition often translates into faster progression through the program and more support both in school and in finding a job after graduation.

  • Get into the right program for your goal. Do not assume you need a degree if a certificate will do the job; you can always go back and earn the degree when degrees are a dime a dozen.

Finally, look around for those low-tuition schools, of which there will be more and more in the coming years, and most will represent a very good bargain.

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Readers Comments

Jeff P 2013/10/04 at 1:59 am

I appreciate the point Rawls is trying to make about how pursuing a credential other than a degree could make higher education more affordable for adult students. However, the issue is financial aid often gets cut for those who pursue this route. This needs to change. More financial aid options should be available for certificate and diploma seekers, as well as online students. Even though these learning options tend to be cheaper than a degree program, they’re still out of the reach of many.

Stacy Hexner 2013/10/04 at 1:01 pm

For many adult students, especially those who have been out of the postsecondary system for some time (or were never in it at all), it’s difficult to identify which knowledge/skills are required to meet their career goals. They need access to advisors who can act as sounding boards and who are trained to give neutral advice to help them make the best decisions.

Kendra Willis 2013/10/04 at 3:09 pm

Institutions need to start designing programs with a certificate credential as the foundation and other credentials as building blocks on top of that. There should be a smooth transition for students from certificate to diploma or specialized credential to degree. That way, nothing is ‘wasted,’ because a student who enrols in a degree program only to drop out later can still have the option of earning a certificate with the credits he or she has already accumulated. And students who choose to return to school having previously earned a certificate or other credential can easily have it applied to a degree-track program. Program design like this could make higher education more affordable by allowing students to leave (with some type of credential) and return when their financial situation allows it, and by eliminating the need to redo courses upon re-entry.

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