Published on 2013/07/16

Five Ways for Adults to Finance Their Lifelong Learning Goals

Five Ways for Adults to Finance Their Lifelong Learning Goals
As interest rates on loans have increased, prospective adult students should be wary of borrowing money to finance their education. There are other pathways for adults to earn their degree without overstretching their wallet or dipping into their retirement savings.

If you want to feel young again and improve your lifelong learning goals, re-enroll in college and then figure out how you’re going to pay for it.

You’ll quickly find out some things never change.

All of the forms and requirements you went through back in the day — and went through again if you put a child through college — are still there. Sitting down at your computer and punching in answers to the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) will make you feel like a hopeful, energetic and excited 18-year-old again.

It’s possible you might feel even better because, this time, you have experience on your side. That’s a good thing. Contrary to popular belief, there is no age restriction for receiving federal aid, so being old isn’t a factor. You’re just as eligible for Pell Grants and Stafford Loans as the 18-year-old coming out of high school.

And, just like the teenager, you don’t need a credit check to qualify for federal aid and you don’t have to pay to apply for it. How much aid you qualify for depends entirely on your financial status. Unfortunately, that’s where things can get a little fuzzy, based on your age.

There is no rigid definition for who falls into the category of “older students,” but if you’re going back to college to catch up with the slew of changes since you were last in school, you probably fall in the 40-and-above category.

If you’ve had any success in the 20 years (or more) since college, you may have too many assets to qualify for a Pell Grant, which is free money from the federal government. You have to make less than $12,000 annually to qualify for the $5,350 Pell Grant allowed for full-time students. Part-time students can get smaller grants but, again, their income and assets have to be minimal.

If you don’t want to pay to go back to college, there are other options, but they’re limited:

1. Ask your employer

This might be the easiest place to find money for tuition. If you think a few courses at the local school will boost your value and production, most employers will be happy to pay all or a portion of your tuition. Anyone in HR should be able to provide an answer if you ask.

2. Check state or local schools

Some states offer incentives to older students to go back to government-funded schools. Some schools value the experience you’ve gained in the workplace and may waive tuition or give you some kind of break to get you back in the classroom.

3. Seek out scholarships

Look for scholarships associated with specific jobs, such as SMART Grants (Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent) and TEACH Grants (Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education). Some of these come with quite a few qualifiers, so read the fine print.

4. Work for the college

Most schools allow employees to take courses free of charge.

5. Use web resources

There are a number of sites that list the full bevy of scholarships available for today’s students. Fastweb.com, for example, has information about 1,800 scholarships that don’t have age restrictions and another 200 created specifically for students aged 25 and older.

Less ideal options

The less enticing choice is to look at a student loan. If you are 25 or older, you have gained “independent status,” which makes you eligible for up to $45,000 in loans and the nasty responsibility of having to pay it all back.

One place you shouldn’t look is your retirement account. There are penalties for early withdrawal and it is impossible to make up the time you’ve already invested in building that account. If at all possible, stay away from the retirement savings.

Education still the pathway to success

As the American economy continues to reinvent itself, going back to college might be the only way to catch up with all of the changes. Besides, who wouldn’t want to feel like an 18-year-old again?

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Readers Comments

Heather Willis 2013/07/16 at 10:01 am

This is a pretty helpful piece. However, I would say that the most important thing adult students should do is speak to their academic/financial aid advisors about funding options.

Sure, a site like Fastweb.com might be able to identify 1,800+ scholarships, but many adult students might not have the time or the expertise to sift through them to find the ones they are best suited for. It’s much better to work with an advisor who can narrow down their options quickly, walk them through the application process and otherwise offer support.

Tawna Regehr 2013/07/16 at 6:23 pm

Good advice by Bill Fay. I’ve heard other financial gurus advise adult students to dip into their retirement savings to fund their education, but Fay makes the point that even though education is a worthy investment, it’s shortsighted to use up what should be a long-term investment. Most adults likely have some sort of savings account (for a car or vacation or whatever), which would be a better choice to fund their education.

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