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Affording college as an adult

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Returning to college as an adult is expensive, but it could pay off. A report by the Congressional Research Service found that pandemic-related unemployment was worse for workers with less education: High school graduates with no college education experienced a peak unemployment rate of 17.3 percent, while workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher fared better at 8.4 percent.

In light of the pandemic, many people are looking for ways to increase their income or pivot to a more lucrative career field by going back to school. Below are some of the costs associated with going back to school as an adult, as well as ways to pay for them.

Reasons to go back to school

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

  • Earning a first degree to earn more money. Having a college degree opens up opportunities for higher income. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the median weekly earnings of a high school graduate with no college education is $792. By comparison, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher earn $1,426.
  • 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.

What type of school should you attend?

When it comes to budgeting for college as a returning adult, how much going back to school will cost 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 $3,770 in annual tuition and fees at community colleges, compared to $10,560 at public in-state four-year colleges. If your path toward higher earnings or your career goals don’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 a plethora of bachelor’s degree programs, which are often a requirement for entry-level roles. They also offer other advanced programs for a master’s or doctorate degree.

One of the main perks of attending school on campus is the benefit of developing personal relationships and professional mentorships, which can be advantageous later in your career. But this in-person experience comes at a high cost. lists the average college cost as $35,720 per year — a number that could be higher or lower depending on whether you choose in-state versus out-of-state, public versus private and two-year versus four-year.

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. Some four-year colleges offer online four-year degree programs that are entirely digital and remote. Choosing an online program offers scheduling flexibility, especially if you still have a full-time job and other responsibilities to manage. However, with some programs, tuition and fees could be higher than on-campus rates. This varies by school.
  • 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 and can lead to fatigue if you’re juggling a full-time job during the day. Generally, evening classes are the same cost as daytime classes.

The costs 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 additional expenses to account for when attending a public four-year in-state institution, according to College Board and the Center for American Progress:

  • Textbooks: $410 per year.
  • Supplies: $830 per year.
  • Housing: $11,620 per year.
  • Transportation: $1,230 per year.
  • Other expenses (e.g. health care, entertainment, personal care): $2,170 per year.
  • Child care: $1,230 per month.

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.

How to pay for going back to school

Although the costs associated with going back to college might make you balk, 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 (FAFSA) is the official application to get government-provided financial assistance for college. By filling out this form, you might be eligible for federal or state scholarships and grants that you won’t need to repay.

The FAFSA also shows you whether you’re eligible for fixed-interest federal student loans and work-study programs.

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 your 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 a FAFSA to explore federal- and state-sponsored scholarships and grants, look into independent scholarship and grant options. You may choose to reach out to your existing employer for financial aid toward continuing education or research scholarships and grants through local community organizations and professional associations.

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 and extended deferment and forbearance, if needed.

As a last resort to affording college as an adult, private student loans can help when you’ve tapped all other financial aid options. These 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 your education as an adult, you might be eligible for education tax breaks through credits and deductions. The two education 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 to claim the credit. You might also be eligible for deductions, like the student loan interest deduction, if you repaid interest on your federal or private loans. To claim this deduction, you must earn below a certain income level and meet other requirements.

The bottom line

Regardless of your reason for 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 fulfilling and lucrative career.

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Written by
Jennifer Calonia
Contributing writer
Jennifer Calonia is an L.A.-based writer and editor. She's covered topics like debt, saving money and credit cards. You can find her work on Business Insider, Forbes and more.
Edited by
Student loans editor