Returning to college as an adult is expensive, but it could pay off. The pandemic pressed many Americans to reassess their careers, and some have returned to school or vocational training to shift their lines of work.

Recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show a continued gap in unemployment between workers who have completed only a high school diploma (3.7 percent) and those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher (1.8 percent). Earning a new degree or credential may help you to land a better job or pivot fields to boost your income or gain a more flexible schedule.

How to pay for going back to school

Tuition isn’t cheap. But there are ways to make higher education costs more affordable. Below are a few different options to consider.

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.

To complete the FAFSA, you will want to 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 for your tuition and fees in one lump sum is challenging, ask your institution whether it offers a payment plan that’s more manageable.

Apply to scholarships and grants

In addition to submitting the FAFSA, look into 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.

Your current employer may offer support for continuing education, including tuition reimbursement or financial assistance for textbooks and supplies. Even if they aren’t able to 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 access to 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 credit check. Private loans also don’t provide protections that 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:

  • American opportunity tax credit (AOTC): This provides taxpayers with a maximum $2,500 credit per eligible student per year.
  • Lifetime learning credit (LLC): This offers up to a $2,000 credit per tax return.

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. Keep in mind that with the recent federal student loan repayment pause and 0 percent interest rate, you may not have repaid any interest in recent tax years.

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 $80,000 (if filing taxes individually) or $120,000 (if filing jointly with a spouse).

Reasons to go back to school

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 $809 per week on average. By comparison, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn median weekly earnings starting at $1,334.
  • 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. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, students pay an average of $3,800 in annual tuition and fees at community colleges, compared to $10,740 at public in-state four-year colleges.

If your path toward higher earnings or your career goals doesn’t require a four-year degree, attending a community college can be a low-cost educational option.

Four-year on-campus college

Traditional four-year on-campus environments offer bachelor’s degree programs, which are often a requirement 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 $35,551 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 on a typical Monday through Friday daytime schedule have additional options to choose from.

  • 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’re working 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 just the same.

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. Here’s a list of expenses to account for when attending a public four-year in-state institution, according to College Board.

  • Tuition: $10,740
  • Textbooks: $460 per year
  • Supplies: $780 per year
  • Housing: $11,950 per year
  • Transportation: $1,230 per year
  • Other expenses (e.g. health care, entertainment, personal care): $2,170 per year

Keep in mind that inflation costs, staffing shortages in childcare and the cost of living in your area will also contribute to the figures listed above.

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

The bottom line

No matter why you’re going back 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 scholarship and 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.

Learn more: