As companies begin to cut jobs in a deepening recession, it’s a good time for older workers to stay one step ahead of a pink slip by returning to school and beefing up their resume with a master’s degree or simply some extra credits in their professional field.

And there’s no reason the cost of additional education has to fall on your shoulders alone, especially if you’re an older worker. Here are six ways that age can help you land financial aid:

1. Target scholarships for grown-ups

People who believe the only students receiving financial aid are graduates fresh from high school should talk to Abigail Nall. A recipient of the REACh Scholarship, an aid award from the group Resources for the Education of Adults in the Chicago Area only available to adults ages 25 and older, Nall is putting her free $1,500 toward her master’s in speech language pathology at Rush University on the city’s West Side.

“I applied for this scholarship because it was geared toward adults and that meant there was a smaller pool of applicants,” Nall says. “As an adult student, I thought that I had a story to tell.”

Indeed, working adults can get a leg up on the competition by applying for scholarships aimed exclusively at older audiences, such as the Talbots Women’s Scholarship Fund and the Jeannette Rankin Foundation awards. They also can use their work experience to their advantage when applying for scholarships available through professional associations.

When starting the scholarship hunt, Kelly Tanabe, co-author of “501 Ways for Adult Students to Pay for College,” recommends that students with work experience head directly to their school’s financial aid office and their academic department to ask about profession-specific scholarships.

Older students also should look for scholarships targeting older students through their school’s office of adult education or office of continuing studies. Only after school-based aid options have been exhausted should older students begin making national aid searches aimed at traditional college students.

2. Use your experience

Tanabe says working adults who have spent a lifetime in a particular profession or occupation may be able to opt out of some classes before going the financial-aid route to take additional classes.

“People who have worked in a certain field might be able to get credit for two or three courses because of life experience,” Tanabe says. “Not every college has a program where you can use life experience to get credit, so adults should research that before applying.”

Tanabe adds that adults attending schools that don’t accept life-experience credit may be able to opt out of a few introductory courses by passing placement tests. If the school doesn’t offer its own placement testing, working adults can save money by scoring well o standardized advanced placement, College Level Examination Program or the SAT Subject Tests, all of which are available through the not-for-profit College Board. Many universities nationally accept them.

3. Passing the buck

Tuition bills from Johns Hopkins University, one of the most prestigious and expensive schools in the nation, don’t intimidate Alison Cieszynski. A senior consultant at the McLean, Va.-based management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, Cieszynski let her company pick up half of the tab when she decided to return to school for her master’s in business.

“Booz Allen has a partnership with Johns Hopkins, so they not only paid for about $5,000 of my tuition per year, they also locked us in at the tuition rate we started with,” Cieszynski says. “I paid the same amount per credit for the entire two-and-a-half years I attended. My costs didn’t go up, while the rest of the world’s did.”

Cieszynski estimates that she saved about $12,000 on her degree thanks to company-sponsored tuition, money she never would have received as a traditional college student.

The book “FastWeb College Gold: The Step-By-Step Guide to Paying for College” reports that 85 percent of large and mid-sized companies nationwide offer some form of employer education assistance.

Tuition reimbursement programs typically require workers to pursue degrees directly related to their current position as well as to stay with the company for a certain period of time after receiving aid. But employer-based educational assistance is one of the simplest ways for older students to get free college cash.

4. Don’t forget the discounts

In states like Virginia, Illinois, Florida, Alaska and Connecticut, being over the hill can also mean being over big tuition bills. That’s because those states offer tuition waivers to senior citizens ages 60 to 65 (depending on the state) and older who attend in-state public colleges and universities.

Senior students who live in a state without a waiver may be able to get around paying tuition if they apply to the right schools. While a handful of four-year institutions, such as Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., offer partial tuition waivers to seniors, the programs are available more broadly on the community-college level.

In addition to offering discounts ranging from 50 percent to 100 percent of the cost of tuition, many two-year institutions also offer low-cost credit and noncredit classes designed for senior students only.

5. Scholarships in your field

One of the biggest trump cards that older students hold over traditional college coeds is that they already have a career, Tanabe says. Armed with years of experience, real-world connections and a well-rounded resume, older adults seeking field-specific financial aid often are better positioned than 20-somethings for some scholarship programs.

“Somebody who’s offering scholarships in an area like marketing, for example, they want to make sure they’re giving that scholarship to a person who knows they’re going into marketing,” Tanabe says. “You can raise your chances of getting that scholarship by demonstrating that you’ve had experience working in that area.”

6. Cash in on service

Thanks to new legislation, military veterans may be able to pass their tuition bills on to Uncle Sam. After Aug. 1, 2009, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act will allow those who served active military duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, access to veteran educational assistance for up to 15 years after service, five years longer than under the current law.

Eligible vets can use their education benefits almost anywhere to cover tuition, fees, books and housing, says Keith Wilson, education service director for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We’ve got veterans at about 6,800 locations throughout the world drawing benefits from us, and this is just one more way we’re trying to help them readjust (to civilian life),” Wilson said.

Wilson adds that veterans also start receiving a 20 percent increase in educational assistance as of Aug. 1, 2009, to keep up with climbing tuition costs and inflation. The bump boosts assistance to $1,321 a month for those enrolled full-time.

In addition to all the financial assistance the federal government offers former military personnel, there’s another government source for aid. Several states, including Oregon, Connecticut, Montana, Texas and Wisconsin, offer full tuition waivers for veterans.

“Just about every state offers some type of discount program,” Wilson says. “In addition to our programs, there are literally thousands upon thousands of places that veterans could receive aid from.”

“That’s the biggest challenge for veterans — getting their hands around all the aid that’s available and what the eligibility requirements are,” he says.

Christina Couch is the author of “Virginia Colleges 101: The Ultimate Guide for Students of All Ages.”

Promoted Stories