Heading off to college as a grown-up

A new kind of college student is taking over campus.

These students juggle work, college and family, and they pay their own education bills.

Nontraditional students account for 73 percent of today's college students. Traditional students are undergraduate students who head off to college right after high school, attend classes full time and depend on their parents for support as traditional students, according to the U.S. Department of Education's description. All other students are nontraditional.

Nontraditional students tend to be older. About 39 percent of all college students are over the age of 25.

Tackling college as a grown-up can be a daunting task. You'll need excellent time- and money-management skills and a whole bunch of determination to succeed.

Nontraditional choices

Let's start with the money part. To get the most bang out of your educational dollar, you'll want to choose your school carefully.

Some colleges cater to adult and returning students better than others. The nearest college may not be the best college for you.

For example, does the college offer evening classes? Without evening classes, it's going to be awfully tough to hold down a full-time job and still attend classes.

"Some universities offer very little evening courses," says Vicki Phillips, author of Never Too Late To Learn: The Adult Student's Guide to College. "They're literally forcing you to take a day course, which can make it very difficult."

It's important to keep your options open.

"You don't have to go to the school up the street," says Gabe DeGabriele, executive director of the Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education. "You may find a better institution 30 miles down the road."

Of course, you'll also want to check out the courses available in your planned area of study. If you're not sure of a major, you may want to contact a career counselor. Going to school is an expensive decision that's going to impact your whole family. It's best to have a clear goal in mind when you start classes.

"They need to be very certain about their career direction before they start to take any college courses," says E. Faith Ivery, author of How to Earn a College Degree: When You Think You Are Too Old, Too Busy, Too Broke and Too Scared. "You don't want to be changing your major 10 times as an adult. When you're 35, when you're 42, you haven't got time to play around."

Financial aid for fogeys

Once you settle on a major and a school, you can focus on figuring out how you're going to pay for a college education.

Most adult students end up working full time and attending classes part time. This is an excellent strategy, especially if your employer offers a tuition reimbursement plan.

Many companies will pay for employees to take college courses that are related to their current job duties. But you won't get a tuition check from your employer until after you've completed a course and received a satisfactory grade, often a B or better.

You may have to wait up to six months to receive a tuition reimbursement check, so you'll have to foot the bill on your own for a while.

Be sure to get your course load approved by your employer ahead of time. You could be in for quite a shock when a check arrives and only half of your tuition costs have been reimbursed.

And don't forget about financial aid. At most schools, any student taking six credit hours or more per semester or quarter may apply for financial aid.

"Apply for financial aid early. Apply for scholarships early," DeGabriele says. "Most of the institutional money is available on a first-come, first-serve basis."

Applying for financial aid should be a top priority if you decide to attend classes as a full-time student.

When assessing future aid, colleges look at a family's financial situation at the end of the most recently completed tax year. If your family's financial situation is going to change significantly in the coming year, say you won't be working or you'll be working far fewer hours, the college should know.

Schedule an appointment with a financial-aid counselor to discuss the specifics of your family's financial situation.

Ask the counselor if it would be possible to assess your financial aid based on a projected year income rather than past year income.

Some schools will agree to assess aid based on future income projections and others will not.

If a school does agree, you'll need to provide written proof of your change in income such as a letter from your employer listing your last day of full-time employment.

Check out these articles for more information on financial aid and scholarships.

As tempting as it may be to borrow your way through college, it's best to keep loan amounts as low as possible.

DeGabriele knows of a single mother who learned this lesson the hard way. She borrowed $35,000 to earn a degree in nursing.

"Her student loan payment is more than her mortgage payment," DeGabriele says.

And while going overboard with student loan debt is not a good idea, if it comes down to charging up credit cards or taking out a loan, you'd be better off taking the loan.

Student loan rates are at record lows. On July 1, 2004, the interest rate on federal Stafford loans dropped to 3.37 percent, the lowest rate in the history of the student loan program.

There's another way to help pay that big tuition bill without borrowing like mad.

Ask your college or university about installment plans. An installment plan lets you pay for tuition with several payments over the course of a school year. Many plans allow monthly payments. Others allow up to three payments each semester.

"Most schools have some kind of a flexible payment program so you can pay as you go," DeGabriele says.

Most installment plans are interest-free and come with setup fees of $40 or $50. Some colleges offer their own payment plans. Others use outside agencies. Be sure to ask.

An online calculator on the Academic Management Services Web site called TuitionPlanner can help a family determine how much of an education bill to pay with an installment plan and how much to pay with a loan.


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