By Selena Garrison
So, you are thinking about going back to school. Perhaps you will be a first time college student pursuing an associate or bachelor’s degree. Maybe you are going back for a graduate degree. You might want to advance within your chosen career field or branch out into a different field altogether. Regardless of why you are thinking about going back to school, it is likely you have some hesitation and more than a few questions.
Thankfully, you are not alone, and there are many resources available to you. “Non-traditional” adult learners have actually become very commonplace in today’s college scene. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 38 percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 (estimated to increase by another 23 percent by 2019) and 25 percent are over the age of 30. In fact, the “non-traditional” student is now the norm instead of the exception! Kathryn Ivey, academic adviser at the University of Florida, said that adult learners are oftentimes more determined due to life experience. “They know their end goal and will do what they need to accomplish that goal.”
Of course, one of the main concerns with going back to school is money. Will the cost (and potential debt) you incur be worth the outcome? Going back to college might not be the best choice if the career or position you go into won’t pay back the debt you take on to pay for your education. You have lots of options for funding your studies, however. The most common ways to fund your return to school are through grants, scholarships and loans. Grants/scholarships are “free money” that does not have to be repaid. “Depending on the college or university to which the student is applying, there may be scholarships available for returning students in their specific field. Other organizations, such as the Kiwanis Club, local alumni clubs, and churches might also have scholarship funds available for students to apply,” said Ivey. A loan, on the other hand, is money that you borrow and must pay back with interest and can be supplied by the federal government or private sources (like a bank).
Aside from these typical routes of funding, adult learners have several other options. First, many colleges and universities will allow you to trade in your real-world experience for college credits. You may also be able to bypass some classes by taking their equivalent College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests. Do you work for a large company that offers a “university”? These corporate universities may not grant degrees, but hundreds of their classes have been accredited, meaning you can get college credit for them and save BIG bucks. Additionally, it may be worth asking your employer about covering some portion of your educational costs. Up to $5,250 of the tuition assistance you get from an employer is tax-free!
Speaking of taxes, the Lifetime Learning Credit gives you a tax credit for up to $2,000 spent on education each year. By spreading out your school expenses, you can save even more. Even if your program of study is one year long, spreading your costs over two tax years can earn you two years worth of tax savings.
Kathryn Ivey’s last piece of advice for returning students is to get to know your academic adviser. “We are here to help make your two to four years go as smoothly (and quickly) as possible,” she said. “If you have a question, do not hesitate to ask it! However, do help your adviser out and come prepared for your meetings with questions and a potential plan to get you through.” Every credit that you don’t have to earn is money that you don’t have to spend. Every class that you don’t have to take is time shaved off your graduation date. Your academic adviser will be the best person to help you pave the path that works best for you and your goals!