Going Back to School? We’re Sharing 8 Tips That Will Help You Afford College as an Adult

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College graduate showing excitement

Going to college as an adult is possible!

Want to go back to school, but not sure how to pay for it? 🤔 Looking to advance your career? 💼 Getting a college degree may help you climb the corporate ladder, but it can also be expensive. Read on for these simple tips to help you pay for college as an adult! Start with applying for FAFSA.

Many adults today are going back to college to get their bachelor’s or master’s degrees. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an estimated 7.8 million students age 25 and older will attend college in 2020. And that number is expected to grow to 8.1 million students by 2027!

1. File your FAFSA.

person typing on laptop

Think federal student aid is only for high school seniors? It’s not! One of the most important things you can do as an adult going back to school is to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form – and do it as soon as possible! By the way, the U.S. Department of Education provides over $150 billion in federal aid every year to those who qualify, so it’s definitely worth doing.

See the 2019-2020 FAFSA deadline for your state.

There are three types of federal student aid you may qualify for:

  • Grants: This is essentially free money for college that doesn’t need to be repaid! Most federal grants are based on financial need.
  • Work-study: This is money earned through a job on or near campus while attending school.
  • Loans: This is money that must be repaid with interest, but federal loans are known to have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options than private loans.

💡 Did you know? In addition to using financial aid for the usual school expenses like tuition, fees, books, or housing, you can also use it to pay for dependent care, the purchase of a personal computer, costs related to a disability, and more.

2. Apply for scholarships.

stack of cash with iphone and laptop

Like grants, scholarships don’t have to be repaid – and there are lots of opportunities for older students, too! First, check with the financial aid office at the college you are planning to attend to find out if they offer scholarships. They can help you with financial applications and explain the types of aid available.

You can also find scholarships at these free information sources:

  • Use the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool.
  • Visit sites like Scholarships.com, Unigo.com, or Fastweb.com.
  • Ask foundations, religious or community organizations, local businesses, or civic groups.
  • Research organizations related to your field of interest (including professional associations).
  • Check with your employer for scholarships.

3. See if your employer offers tuition benefits.

business man working on laptop

Don’t be afraid to talk with your employer to see if tuition assistance or reimbursement is available to help you pay for school. Some employers like to offer benefits to cover education expenses as they believe that relevant coursework can sharpen workers’ skills, thus strengthening the company.

Plus, tuition reimbursement is tax-deductible (up to $5,250 per employee per year), making it a cost-effective choice for companies. Your employer may be willing to invest in your future, so don’t hesitate to ask!

4. Attend community college.

stack of textbooks and ipad in classroom

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), there are over 1,100 community colleges in the U.S. with over 13 million students. If you’re looking to save money, check into a community college where tuition can be significantly lower than a four-year college (especially for in-state students).

Even if you already have a degree or career, a community college is a great way for adult learners to gain professional development, learn a new skill, or make a career change. Find a community college near you!

💡 Not sure which career is right for you? Research various careers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. Or, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s career search website or careeronestop.org to find potential opportunities.

5. Take advantage of tax benefits.

calculator, pen and tax documents

Did you know that you can qualify for a tax break when you go to school (either as a deduction or credit)? Tax deductions reduce your taxable income, while tax credits lower your tax bill. In addition, some tax credits are refundable (meaning you can not only reduce your bill to zero, but you can get some money back). 🙌🏻

A couple of the biggest tax deductions and credits:

  1. The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is a credit for qualified education expenses paid for an eligible student for the first four years of higher education. You can get a maximum annual credit of $2,500 per eligible student. If the credit brings the amount of tax you owe to zero, you can have 40% of any remaining amount of the credit (up to $1,000) refunded to you.
  2. The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is for qualified tuition and related expenses paid for eligible students enrolled in an eligible educational institution. This credit can help pay for undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree courses – including courses to acquire or improve job skills. It is worth up to $2,000 per tax return.

If you don’t qualify for either credit, you may still be able to take the Tuition and Fees Deduction. And if you have student loans, be sure you are deducting the interest on them. You may be able to deduct up to $2,500 of student loan interest paid. Visit the Federal Student Aid website for even more tax benefits.

6. Opt for part-time enrollment.

CSUGlobal screen on laptop computer

If you’re not able to pay for a full-time program, or you have family and work obligations, consider going to school part-time. It may take a little longer than you’d like to get your degree, but it will be easier to balance work, family, and schoolwork and also makes costs more manageable. Keep in mind that part-time enrollment may limit the amount of federal student aid that you qualify for, but you’ll also have fewer costs than a full-time student.

7. Get college credits for work life experiences.

man teaching course in front of group

If you’re an adult college student, you may have acquired college-level knowledge on the job for your career or through various hobbies. Your life experience and work experience (such as corporate training, professional licenses, etc.) can actually be converted into real college degree credits, which can make an online degree more affordable.

You can turn your experience into valid online college course credit by:

💡 If you’re wondering which colleges offer credit for work and life experience, visit the Affordable Colleges Online website for a list of nine online colleges and four traditional colleges.

8. Get money for your (or your family member’s) military service.

three military men standing side by side in uniform

If you’re a member of the U.S. armed forces or have a family member in the service, you may be eligible for special grants, scholarships, or loan repayment assistance. The federal government and various nonprofit organizations offer money for college to veterans, future military personnel, active-duty personnel, and their relatives!

The following organizations offer military scholarships:

Visit the Federal Student Aid website for details on military scholarships.

Want more? These college student discounts & freebies will save you LOADS of money!

Join The Discussion

Comments 23

  1. DrVlasic

    Also, if you are needing a particular program not offered at a community college, and you have a have a choice between schools, you’ll usually pay less at:
    1. An in-state, state university or
    2. A nonprofit private college/university

    Always check the tuition rate per credit, as well as the cost of completing the whole program!

    • Amber (Hip Sidekick)

      Thanks so much for the helpful comment! Good to know!

    • Marni

      And when comparing the tuition rate per credit, make sure to keep in mind whether the school is on the semester or quarter system. “Bachelor’s degrees require between 120 and 130 semester units, or between 180 and 195 quarter units.” 🙂

  2. LS

    Thank you for such an informative article 👏🏻

    • Collin (Mrs. Hip)

      You’re very welcome, LS! Glad this was helpful!

  3. Jennifer G

    Thank you for this post!!

    • Mary (Stellar Sidekick)

      You’re most welcome!!

  4. Maggie

    Also look at online programs that allow you to work at your own pace. I’ve completed 60% of my Master’s degree in my first semester. Each semester costs approximately $3600, which is much less than the state university in my area.

    • Amber (Hip Sidekick)

      That’s awesome! Thanks so much for the tip!

    • Jennifer Manwaring

      Yes! WGU lets you take as many credits as you can finish in six months. It’s also the most affordable online School.

      • Nancy

        Night owl over here!! 🙂 I attend WGU and try to take as many credits as possible. Also, they allow you to make payments on the tuition. 4 pmts of $842 per semester, not bad.

  5. raedee

    Remember at ANY school (online or oncampus) that you will have various “fees” that are unavoidable and don’t have coupon codes 🤣 Like a degree audit fee, technology fee, activity fee… I attended Phoenix (in person) for my bachelors and Florida (online) for my masters. Both had various fees that I just had to suck up and pay. 🤷🏻‍♀️Also, community college and online courses are AWESOME ideas for saving money. The snobbery that comes with an Ivy degree is really only needed if you’re staying in academia, and even then, it’s lost some of its shine with recent scandals. UF PhD 2020 🐊

  6. barbara

    I attend WGU online. I love it! After almost three and a half years I graduate in a couple of months. The cost is about $3500 a semester. I work at my own pace , have a fulltime job and an elementary age child. If you do not have a job or kids you can finish so much quicker. It might cost more than some other schools in my area but I dont think I would have been able to finish my degree if I had to be on someone else’s schedual and drive to and from a campus. I can sit at my desk at home in sweats and work. If you are self motivated I highly recommend it.

    • Amber (Hip Sidekick)

      That’s awesome, Barbara! Congrats on your upcoming graduation! 🎉

    • Sara

      My husband received his Masters from WGU and he loved it! It was extremely affordable compared to grad school at other universities and the support that he received from the school was great! He went to Ashford for undergrad and while he excelled there it was despite the lack luster support offered by the school.

      • Mary (Stellar Sidekick)

        Wow – that’s awesome, Sara!

  7. Deb

    Other ideas:
    Consider getting a job at a college or university. Many allow their own employees to get a degree for free or greatly reduced cost. Also, speak with the Academic Counseling department at your school. You might be eligible for funding if you are reentering the workforce, are a first generation college student, etc.

    • Mary (Stellar Sidekick)

      Thanks for the tips, Deb!

  8. 3boys

    There are some “free” options:
    “Freshman Year for Free – Take tuition-free, high quality courses online from top institutions for college credit.”: https://modernstates.org/
    “Tuition Free” (pay for the exams): https://www.uopeople.edu/

    • Jennifer (Hip Sidekick)

      Thank you so much, 3boys!

    • lisabestboyer

      This is awesome information! My girls are entering their senior and sophomore years of high school and I’m freaking out over how to pay for college. We didn’t set aside college money (under advice from our financial advisor. So now to pay for college comes out of our retirement – yep freaking out!!). I’m so confused and lost looking for what is best and still affordable, ugh! Thanks so much for offering some great info!

  9. Tammy Mauk

    If you live in the state of TN, we have TN Reconnect. If you do not have a college degree, TN Reconnect will pay for you to finish at a community college. The basically pay for tution and cost of classes. You have to buy your books and other fees. I love this program. If you have questions, you can ask @Dyersburg State Community College on Facebook. In May, I will graduate, if all goes well. I am so thankful for this opportunity. I started in 1985 and if I graduate, it will be 35 years. Sometimes things get in the way and then life changes. I am so thankful.

    • Jennifer (Hip Sidekick)

      Congratulations, Tammy Mauk! That is a HUGE accomplishment!

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