“Ask Brianna” is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out.
Q: I’m going to college for the first time in my late 20s after working for several years. How do I pay for it while dealing with potentially less income in the meantime?
A: Making a big change like this requires weighing the benefits against the cost. While only you can decide whether college is the right move, in most cases, a postsecondary degree is a straight path to more money and more job security. Median after-tax earnings of bachelor’s degree holders were 61% higher than high school graduates’ in 2015, according to a report by the College Board; median earnings of associate’s degree recipients were 23% higher.
But expecting that you’ll make more money someday won’t totally ameliorate the sticker shock now. Make college attainable, without amassing a mountain of debt, by maximizing financial aid and re-evaluating your budget. Here’s how.
Get help from lesser-known sources
As an older student going back to school, you have access to money for college that younger students may not. If you’re in a labor union, ask about scholarships open to members. If you plan to keep working — generally the most cost-effective option for students juggling other financial obligations — many companies offer tuition reimbursement up to a certain amount each year. Chances are you don’t even know it’s available, says Ted Beck, president and CEO of the National Endowment for Financial Education.
“I’m surprised how often as a manager I’ve had to remind people that we have it,” Beck says.
Are you eager to change careers or learn a new skill that’s in high demand in your region? Look into nearby community colleges’ workforce development programs, Beck says. Local companies in need of specially trained workers may help pay for your schooling and consider you for a job afterward.
Siemens, for example, offers subsidized apprenticeship programs that can lead to full-time jobs in fields like manufacturing technology; participants are paid while they attend classes and work for the company. Contact your nearest community college or state apprenticeship office, listed on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, to learn about programs available near you.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, isn’t just for 18-year-olds. Everyone interested in higher education should fill it out to qualify for federal, state and school-based financial aid. On the FAFSA, students age 24 or older are considered independent students, so only your income and assets — not those of your parents — will be used to determine eligibility for aid.
One of the most valuable undergraduate financial aid options is the federal Pell Grant, which doesn’t have to be paid back. For 2017-18, the maximum award is $5,920, but the amount you’ll receive depends on financial need and your course load. Use the government’s FAFSA4Caster to determine if you qualify for a Pell Grant. They can be used for up to 12 semesters, including summers. Nearly half of Pell Grant recipients in 2014-15 were 24 or older, according to the College Board.
If a Pell Grant won’t cover your college costs, prioritize taking out federal student loans before private loans, as the federal ones come with more flexible repayment options. Keep loan payments affordable by borrowing no more than you expect to earn the year after you graduate.
Spend and save with purpose
While in school — or if you’re saving up for it — you’ll likely need to re-evaluate spending to address any lost income or to cover out-of-pocket education costs. Put money into an emergency fund, too, so unexpected expenses don’t derail your plans.
Avoid thinking of it as budgeting if that sounds restrictive; frame it as a spending plan that aligns your purchases to your values, says Megan Lathrop, lead money coach at Capital One in San Francisco. Consider cutting in half the amount you spend on eating out, she says, and scrutinize the cost of attending weddings or other pricey obligations. Remember your end goal: more earning potential and a better chance you’ll be able to ride out a tough labor market.
“When you’re doing this, you’re taking steps to improve your long-term situation,” Beck says. “Never lose sight of that.”