Special breaks for adult students

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For the 40 percent of college students nationwide who are over 25, being older and wiser has its perks — like the fact that you probably already know what you want to do with your life. And, you can get into off-campus bars with your real ID.

Financially, going back for your degree can put a real squeeze on your family’s budget, but when it comes to handling money, you still have a leg up on all the 18-year-olds. Here’s how to get the best deal on your degree:

  • Opt for aid. According to the government, you’re officially independent if you’re over 24. That’s a good thing, since your parents’ assets won’t hamper your ability to qualify for grants or loans. Your own assets will matter, however, so if yours are significant, consider using your savings to pay off your credit card balance or your car loan before you fill out your FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Also, if your money situation will change drastically when you go back to school — if you’re leaving your job to pursue your degree full time, for instance — ask your financial aid officer about filing a revision request form for your FAFSA after the semester starts, says Charlene H. Harrison, director of the
    Center for Adult Learner Services at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. You may qualify for more help than you thought you would.
  • Get credit where credit is due. You may not have a degree, but if you’ve spent 15 years as a bank teller, your experience counts for academic credit at most universities. All you have to do to qualify for these “life credits” is prove that what you’ve done in the past meets the requirements for a particular class. It’s a win-win for adult students: You get a headstart on your degree, saving time and tuition, and you aren’t forced to rehash info you already know. But some students don’t take advantage, says Gen Tanabe, co-author of “501 Ways for Adult Students to Pay for College.”

    “Getting as much credit as you can for your life experiences is something that a lot of adult students overlook,” Tenabe says. “I think some adult students think of it as a gimmick, but it’s really not.” Most life-credit systems are informal, so talk to your department chair about your university’s get-out-of-class passes.

  • Learn from a distance. Hundreds of universities offer distance-learning programs — online courses and, sometimes entire online degrees — that can be a good option for returning students. You save the cost and hassle of a commute to campus, knock down expenses like lattes in the student union, and often get to complete your homework on your schedule, which lets you keep pace with your full-time job. Find programs in your field at Petersons.com.
  • Find a cheap babysitter.
    Babies and business marketing courses don’t mix. But financing child care while you study or go to class can be a pricey proposition. Help is available through the government’s
    Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools program, which subsidizes child care for students through campus-based programs. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, parents can apply for a grant of up to $3,550 per semester to cover child care costs. At the University of Oregon in Eugene, the ASUO Women’s Center will reimburse student moms up to $50 for babysitting while they attend university events.
  • Hold down your job. In 2001, 75 percent of employed adult learners got financial help for classes from their workplace. Why are so many businesses so eager to boost your education? It’s a good investment and, according to Al Siebert, co-author of “The Adult Student’s Guide to Survival and Success,” a good way to attract workers. If you’re in the job market, try getting hired by a company like UPS, which Siebert says is known for its generous educational benefits. Or try to convince your current boss to pony up for full or partial tuition and textbook reimbursement. Another way to make school pay: Get your employer to commit to giving you a raise when you earn your degree.
  • Test out. More than 2,900 universities nationwide will give you college credit for passing a test through the
    College-Level Examination Program, or CLEP. The exams are offered in 34 basic college subjects, including composition, French, sociology, business law, marketing and U.S. history. While they cost $55 a pop (often with an additional $15 administration fee), they can save you hundreds of dollars in tuition, books and fees — and time — on classes you won’t have to take if you pass. Bonus: Military personnel can take CLEP exams for free.
  • Find scholarships as a team. “Adult students think of finding scholarships as a solo sport,” says Tanabe. “But students who look for scholarships as a group have more success than if they do it by themselves.” Set up an info-sharing system with other nontraditional students in your department, and leverage your research time by recruiting family members and friends. Ben Kaplan’s CD guide, “Adult and Nontraditional Scholarships That Totally Rock,” is a good starting point, but you’re just as likely to win big bucks through the scholarship your cousin Debbie read about in her office lunchroom, so spread the word.
  • Ditch the loans. Borrowing enough to cover living expenses while you go back to college sounds easy enough, but getting mired in debt will wound your family’s finances for years, warns Maria Izquierdo-Whitaker, the assistant director of financial aid at the Johns Hopkins University School of Professional Studies in Business and Education in Columbia, Md. “We want to help [students] get their degree, but we want them to think about, ‘Do I really need this money now? I’m going to have to repay it,'” she says. Old-fashioned frugality will go a long way toward minimizing your costs and your debts while you’re in school.