There are a lot of reasons to choose to go back to school. Maybe you’re ready for a career change. Perhaps you’ve been forced into having a career change (quite common given the economy). Maybe you’re finally ready to finish your degree.
Whatever the reason, one thing is universal: College is expensive, and figuring out how to afford it is a challenge.
Most people approach college tuition the same: They focus on trying to earn or save money to help them afford the astronomical cost of school. This is definitely an option. Another option is finding a way (or many ways) to reduce the cost of the tuition itself.
Here are some ways you can do that.
Grants are a fantastic way to help pay for school and reduce the amount you’ll have to pay out of pocket. The great thing about grants is that, unlike loans, you aren’t under any obligation to pay them back. Often, because the grants are sent straight to the school, you aren’t required to report them as income come tax time.
Finding grants as a returning student is easier than it was a few years ago, but it can still be a challenge. Most grants are for first-time students or students going to college straight from high school. That does not mean, however, that there aren’t grants out there. You just have to search for them.
Like grants, scholarships are given money that you aren’t required to pay back. Most scholarship funds are set up to attract first-time students, but that does not mean you won’t find scholarships for returning students. As a returning student or non-traditional student, your best bet is to search for merit-based scholarships, scholarships for people who are the first in their families to go to school, etc. Community-based scholarships might be an option, but these tend to be given to teenagers first.
In addition to running your own scholarship searches through systems like FastWeb, make sure you contact your school directly. The school will have information on internal scholarships for which you might qualify (information that won’t be shared with a scholarship search portal). They will also be able to tell you about any internal grants that might be of interest to you.
Do you have your eye on a specific job or position within a particular company after you graduate? Has a company expressed interest in hiring you – but only if you get that degree? Talk to someone at the company about sponsoring your college tuition. Some companies will agree to pay a person’s tuition – sometimes in full, sometimes only part – in exchange for the student agreeing to spend a specific amount of time working for the company after graduation. Check around to see if there are any of these opportunities available to you.
When you fill out your FAFSA (yep, even returning students will have to fill one of those things out), make sure you check the box that says you are willing to take on work-study positions as part of your financial aid. Work-study is where you work on campus and then use the money you earn to cover your expenses. Some schools will allow you to funnel that money right back into your tuition to help lower the amount of money you have to pay out of pocket.
Most work-study positions require at least twelve to fifteen hours a week. Keep this in mind if you’re planning on doing work study and taking a job outside of school.
Employment at the School
Are there any jobs available at the college or university itself? Some schools grant full tuition to employees. Working for the school helps you earn a living wage while also allowing you to get your degree. You might not be able to find a super glamorous position, but isn’t it worth working in a cubicle or cafeteria line if it means you can go to class for free and build a better life for yourself?
Unless you are interested in a specific program at a specific school or are going to be pursuing a degree in a field that requires in-person learning (performing arts, for example), you can reduce the cost of your tuition by quite a lot by getting your degree from an online university. University of Phoenix has the biggest brand right now, but there are other online schools out there that you can attend.
With an online school, you don’t have to worry about room and board, fees, commuting costs, etc. You can also typically arrange your learning around an existing work and family schedule that requires accommodation.
A Note About Loans
When you fill out your FAFSA, you are automatically applying for student loans as well as grants and scholarships. You are likely to be able to get loans that will cover all of your tuition, cost of living while you are in school, etc. The lure of student loans can be strong. They help you go to school full time, cover at least basic expenses while you do so, and you don’t have to start paying them back until six months after you graduate. If you go into a service field, you can even get a huge chunk of your loans forgiven!
The point, though, is that these loans do need to be paid back. They don’t really lower the cost of your tuition so much as they put off your paying it (with interest) until later on. Keep this in mind when they are offered to you. How much debt are you willing to accept?
Going back to school can be exciting and scary. It’s natural to be concerned about how well you’ll fit in to the collegiate atmosphere and how you’ll do academically. Obviously, your tuition is going to be of concern as well. Use these tips to help alleviate that burden.