The term “college student” brings a specific demographic to mind – you might imagine people in their late teens or early twenties. But the number of nontraditional students is on the rise. The National Center for Education Statistics defines this population as older than 24. Many of these students entered the military or workforce immediately after their secondary education and returned to school later in adulthood. Aside from the age difference, many nontraditional students may encounter financial barriers to completing a college degree.

Recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show a continued gap in unemployment between workers who have completed only a high school diploma (3.8 percent) and those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher (2.2 percent). Earning a new degree or credential may help you land a better job pivot fields to boost your income or gain a more flexible schedule. If higher education is your goal, you can look into ways to make education more affordable or even free.

How to pay for going back to school

Students returning to school after some time away from the classroom may wonder how to afford a higher education. The reality is that most cobble together financial aid, student loans and tax breaks to manage the expense.

Adult students who are beyond the traditional age of college enrollment may even find there are opportunities specifically for them that can help.

Fill out the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the official application to get government-provided financial assistance for college. This application covers work-study program eligibility, grants and federally-backed student loans. Most schools require you to complete the FAFSA for scholarship eligibility, too.

Though parents often complete the FAFSA for their children, older adults should also fill out a FAFSA for themselves if returning to school. To complete the FAFSA, you must collect recent tax returns, bank statements and other financial documents.

Contact your school’s financial aid office

Your school’s financial aid office might have additional financial opportunities that you can apply for. Reach out to administrators to see whether you qualify for school-based aid.

If paying your tuition and fees in one lump sum is challenging, ask your institution whether it offers a more manageable payment plan.

Apply to scholarships and grants

In addition to submitting the FAFSA, consider independent scholarship and grant options. Many local community organizations and professional groups offer scholarships and grants that do not need to be repaid. Women, people of color and other minority groups may qualify for aid. Though some scholarships are limited by age to traditional students, many are open to anyone enrolled in higher education.

Your current employer may offer support for continuing education, including tuition reimbursement or financial assistance for textbooks and supplies. Even if they don’t contribute financially, your employer may allow you to complete a portion of your schoolwork on company time. This kind of investment in employees can be a win-win, both developing the workforce and helping with talent retention.

Consider student loans

Student loans can fund the gap between tuition costs and other financial aid you’ve received.

Federal student loans don’t require a credit check and offer fixed interest rates. You’ll also have benefits like income-driven repayment plans, loan forgiveness options, extended deferment and forbearance if needed.

Private loans are offered by private banks, credit unions and online lenders and can come with fixed or variable rates. Although they can help if you’re short on funds, this financial aid type requires a hard credit check. Private loans also don’t provide protections you’d get with federal loans, like income-driven repayment plans, and they don’t guarantee generous forbearance programs.

Take advantage of tax breaks for continuing education

If you’re pursuing education as an adult, you might be eligible for education tax breaks through credits and deductions. Two credits that can reduce the amount of tax you owe are:

Each program has its own set of eligibility requirements. You might also be eligible for deductions, like the student loan interest deduction, if you repaid interest on your federal or private loans. With the recent federal student loan repayment pause and 0 percent interest rate, you may not have repaid any interest in recent tax years. With repayments starting again this fall, many borrowers may see their first benefit from this deduction soon.

The IRS has a free interactive tool to assess your eligibility for the interest payment deduction. Generally, your forgiveness eligibility will phase out or be eliminated if your household income exceeds $85,000 (if filing taxes individually) or $175,000 (if filing jointly with a spouse).

Is it worth it to go back to school as an older student?

Whether you graduated with a college degree or not, there are many reasons to go back to school as an adult. These include:

  • Earning your first degree to earn more money. Having a college degree opens up opportunities for higher income. The latest data from the BLS reveals a high school graduate with no college education earns $853 per week on average. By comparison, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn median weekly earnings starting at $1,432.
  • Educational training to progress your career. Some fields require advanced degrees to qualify for employment positions at higher pay. If you’re looking for a specific career opportunity, you may be looking to pursue a master’s degree or higher.
  • Switching career fields. If you have an existing degree that’s in a completely different area of study as a profession you’d like to transition into, you might need to return to college to earn a new degree.

Despite the rising costs of college, your intended career path may warrant the expense.

What type of school should you attend?

The cost of returning to college as an adult depends on a few factors. A big contributor to cost is the type of school you attend.

Community colleges

Community colleges primarily offer associate degrees and certifications, not bachelor’s degree programs, but the tuition can be much cheaper than that of four-year institutions. Students pay an average of $3,860 in annual tuition and fees at community colleges, compared to $10,940 at public in-state four-year colleges.

Attending a community college can be a low-cost educational option if your path toward higher earnings or your career goals don’t require a four-year degree.

Four-year on-campus college

Traditional four-year on-campus environments offer bachelor’s degree programs, which are often required for entry-level roles. They also offer advanced programs, such as master’s or doctoral degrees.

One perk of attending school on campus is developing personal relationships and professional mentorships, which can be useful later in your career. But this in-person experience comes at a high cost. lists the average college cost as $36,436 per year — a number that could be higher or lower depending on whether your school is in-state versus out-of-state, public versus private, and two-year versus four-year. You will want to consider whether your projected starting salary will offset the cost of attendance.

Nontraditional classes

Adult students who can’t commit to attending school on campus or a typical Monday through Friday daytime schedule have additional options:

  • Online school: Many four-year colleges offer four-year degree programs that are entirely online and remote. Choosing an online program offers scheduling flexibility, especially if you still have a full-time job and other responsibilities to manage. Some schools may offer in-state tuition rates for out-of-state learners who choose to attend classes virtually. However, with some programs, tuition and fees could be higher than on-campus rates.
  • Night school: Some returning adults choose to attend school on campus but enroll only in evening courses. Night school offers the benefit of scheduling flexibility and an in-person learning environment. However, classes often run for multiple hours each session — tiring if you work a full-time job during the day. Generally, evening classes cost the same as daytime classes.

Free or low-cost training programs

Some states offer free or low-cost career training programs. The U.S. Department of Labor partners with local agencies to train people with the skills most needed in the labor market. These programs often target specific populations of workers (veterans re-entering the civilian workforce, for example, or those over age 55).

Some programs are offered in tandem with local community colleges or trade schools. Though they do not result in a traditional degree, the credentials may align with your goals.

Whether you are looking to complete your high school equivalency, complete an apprenticeship to learn a trade or obtain licensure for a field like healthcare or cosmetology, these programs can be an affordable option. Try web searching your state plus “free job training” to find programs.

Cost of going back to school as an adult

Tuition and fees are just the start when it comes to college expenses. Costs may include:

  • Tuition: $10,940
  • Textbooks: $460 per year
  • Supplies: $780 per year
  • Housing: $12,310 per year
  • Transportation: $1,250 per year
  • Other expenses (e.g., health care, entertainment, personal care): $2,200 per year

Inflation, staffing shortages in childcare and living costs in your area will also contribute to your costs.

You’ll also have to account for reduced or lost earnings if you cut back on paid work to make time for school. This temporary loss of income can mean hundreds or thousands of dollars lost each month. However, completing your degree or certification will ideally boost earnings later.

The bottom line

No matter why you’re returning to school, there are ways to lower the cost of your education. Fill out and submit the FAFSA as the first step to paying for school as an adult. Then explore scholarships, grant opportunities or student loans to fill higher-education funding gaps.

While it may take some work to pay for school, returning to college as an adult can pay off if it helps you into a more fulfilling and lucrative career.