Heading off to college as a grown-up

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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 Bankrate.com 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.

Cash in on real-life credits

Another way to cut college expenses and accelerate your degree is to trade your career experience and other skills for college credits.

Someone who has worked as an office manager for five years hardly needs an entry-level management course. So the college awards the student credits for the entry-level course based on the student’s previous work experience. The student is then free to take a higher-level business course instead.

To learn more about life experience and career credits at a particular university, contact the school’s adult degree division, which counsels older, returning students. If there’s no adult degree program, seek out help from the admissions office or an academic adviser.

Most schools will award no more than 30 life-experience credits per student. Life credit fees and requirements vary between schools, so shop carefully.

Some colleges charge fees equal to the cost of attending the course on campus. So if you receive three life credits for a business course at one of these schools, you’ll have to pay for the full cost of a three-credit course anyway.

But most schools will charge you an assessment fee equal to one-third of the cost of the course. So if a class costs $300, you’d be charged an assessment fee of $100 for earning life credits for that class.

To earn life credits, you’ll need more than your resume. A university will ask to see supporting documentation or corporate training transcripts from an employer as well. Requirements vary between schools, so be sure to ask.

You may be able to earn life experience credits based on certain skills. Let’s say you’re an accomplished tennis player or pianist. You could earn credit for a tennis or music course.

“We’ve had people get credit for microwave cooking,” Ivery says. “If it’s in the course catalog you can get credit for it.”

Another way you can scoop up college credits in a flash is by testing out of a course or two.

A satisfactory score on a College Level Examination Program (CLEP) test will earn you anywhere from three to 12 college credits.

Almost every college in America offers CLEP tests. And you can’t beat the price. Each 90-minute, multiple-choice exam costs just $50. Exam subjects range from literature and history to foreign languages to business and math.

Virtual classes offer flexibility

If you thrive on independent study you may want to check out the distance-learning options at a college or university.

Many colleges offer courses via the Internet. Others air courses on local public television channels. Sometimes large lecture classes are videotaped. Students can either attend a live class or pick up a video of the class at a later time.

“It’s given the student many, many more choices in how they do their education,” Phillips says.

Let’s say a class you absolutely need to take conflicts with your job. You may be able to earn the credit you need through a distance-learning course from your school or another regionally accredited institution.

“You can always take it from another accredited institution and transfer it in,” DeGabriele says. “You don’t have to stick to one institution.”

Peterson’s provides a free search of distance learning courses available from various colleges and universities. Business students may want to check out the Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools, a free e-book from GetEducated.com.

Another helpful resource for business and information technology majors is the online adviser at Educational Advisory Services.

The online adviser will help you pinpoint which colleges and universities with business and information technology programs cater to adult students through services such as distance learning, accelerated courses, weekend and evening classes and life experience credits. A $49.95 fee gives you five sessions of searches over a 30-day period.

Don’t overlook courses at a local community college. With low costs, small classes and easy-to-transfer credits, a community college is a great way to earn college credits on the cheap. A community college may be a good first step for an adult student who hasn’t settled on a major.

Time is on your side

Wondering how you’ll ever find the time to be a student when you’re already swamped with work and family obligations? The key is getting organized.

Pull out a calendar and block out time for work, for study and for family. Get the whole family involved. Make 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday a time that everyone in the house sits down and studies. You could also block out times when mom or dad is studying and absolutely can’t be disturbed. Don’t forget to schedule time for family activities as well.

“The crucial thing is once that calendar is drawn up everybody has to respect it,” DeGabriele says.

You can’t put more hours in a day but you can use the time you do have more efficiently. You’d be amazed at the time you can find to study when you absolutely have to.

“Sometimes students record lectures and listen to them again as they’re driving to work,” Ivery says.

Another great way to free up more study time: Turn off the television.

“Your typical adult who works full-time will watch 50 hours of TV a week,” Phillips says.

So click off the TV and crack open a book instead.

If it sounds like heading back to school as an adult is a lot of work, it is.

Often, the hardest part is walking into that very first class. Once inside, adult students tend to excel.

“They’re determined and they don’t have the distractions that younger people have,’ DeGabriele says.

Plus, they’re already grown-ups. Many of their classmates are still growing up.

“Adults want to learn. They’re not there for gimme grades or just getting by,” Ivery says.

“They’re much more responsible. They don’t need a lot of hand-holding. They already have a lot of life responsibility, which an 18-year-old is trying to learn.”