- By Kerry Hannon
As September approaches, I can’t help but wax nostalgic about the start of a new school year.
I remember the butterflies in my stomach just before learning who my college professors would be, the fun of cracking open new books and the joy of buying clothes for the fall semester.
It’s been, gulp, three decades since my undergraduate days and — like many people my age — I’m thinking about heading back to class. If you are too, I have some suggestions on how to save money on tuition, whether you want to get an undergraduate or graduate degree, a certificate or just enroll in a few college courses.
Contemplating a College Certificate
I started gathering information about a certificate program I’m interested in pursuing. I think it was the back-to-school buzz in the air that got me going.
(MORE: When Does It Pay to Go Back to School in Midlife?)
I’ve also been inspired by people like Kate Carmel, now 73, who I interviewed a few years back for an article. Shortly before Carmel retired from auction house Phillips de Pury & Co. in New York City, she enrolled at New York University to get certified by the Appraisers Association of America. That let her work part-time as a certified art appraiser, advising people on claiming tax deductions for their art donations.
The Older Student Boom
This fall, the generational mash-up at colleges is now in full-force with lots of Carmels in the classroom: 50- to 80-year-old students studying alongside those in their teens and 20s on campus and via online courses.
Several of my peers who are taking classes and picking up certifications tell me the hardest thing is carving out time to study. Of course, when pressed, they admit that the real stumbling block is coughing up the cash for tuition.
A master’s degree can set you back more than $40,000 annually. Even online certificate courses can be expensive. For example, the patient advocacy certificate program for older adults from Empowered U.C.L.A. Extension that I wrote about on Next Avenue has a tuition price tag of around $6,000.
Check a College's Return on Investment
So before enrolling anywhere, determine whether the program is worth the money.
“If you’re looking for a degree to embark on your next career, make sure the school you've chosen can back up its claims of greatness with an effective return on investment,” says Brendon McQueen, founder and chief executive of Tuition.io, a site that helps student-loan borrowers manage their debt. He recommends Bloomberg Businessweek’s Best Colleges for Return on Investment as a good starting point for your due diligence.
Whether you’re eyeing a return to campus to prepare for a second act, to refire your current job for a possible promotion or to keep your mind nimble, here are 10 money-saving ways to do it:
1. Look for free or discounted tuition based on your age. As a Huffington Post article on older students noted, a growing number of colleges have juicy tuition deals for students 60 or older.
California’s 23 state universities offer free tuition in their Over 60 Program, for example, and all of Texas’ public colleges and universities have tuition reduction programs for students 55 or older. Check with your state’s department of education to see if there are similar deals near you.
(MORE: Why I Went Back to College)
2. Sign up for a free or nearly-free MOOC. That’s the acronym for the popular Massively Open Online Courses, like Coursera, Udacity, EdX and Lynda. Often offered by top-tier universities, like Stanford and Princeton, MOOCs offer cheap ways to learn from their instructors anytime, anywhere. Next Avenue’s article, “The Cheapest and Easiest Way to Learn Anything,” will give you the scoop.
3. Check with your employer. Under federal law, employers can offer tax-free education assistance of up to $5,250 in 2014. You might not even need to be studying something directly related to your job to take advantage of this benefit.
But you may need to earn a minimum grade or get your manager’s approval for the curriculum to be eligible for this workplace perk, says Mitchell D. Weiss, adjunct professor of finance at the University of Hartford and co-founder of its Center for Personal Financial Responsibility.
Some employers also require you to stay with them for a certain length of time after taking the course or repay the tuition if you leave.
4. Explore community colleges. Their courses usually cost just a few hundred dollars per credit. Especially worth checking out: the American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative at 18 schools across the country, whose curriculum is designed to help students 50 and older train for new jobs.
5. Negotiate for a fast-track degree. Weiss says if you’re aiming for a degree, you may be able to get your tuition lowered by getting the college to waive some required courses because of your “experiential” credit. You might have a strong case that you’ve learned through work and life what the courses teach.
“Don’t be bashful about advocating for yourself,” Weiss says. “It’s worth your time and could save you money.”
(MORE: The Best Way to Pay for College)
6. Get Uncle Sam to share your tuition costs. There are a bunch of education tax breaks. To see whether you’d qualify for any of these credits or deductions, visit the Tax Benefits for Education Information Center on the IRS website and IRS Publication 970: Tax Benefits for Education (that publication is for 2013 returns because the 2014 version isn't up yet, but it'll let you see who can claim the various tax breaks).
7. Save through a 529 plan. This tax-favored program, run by the states, isn’t just for your kid’s college tuition. Anyone of any age can invest money in a 529 plan and use the cash for his or her future education costs.
A 529’s earnings are tax-free when you withdraw the money to pay higher education expenses. Some states even let residents deduct 529 contributions from their state income taxes. And if you wind up not using some or all of the money, you can transfer the funds to another beneficiary, like your child or grandchild.
You can research 529 plans at Savingforcollege.com or the website of the College Savings Plans Network.
8. For an undergraduate degree, check out federal Pell grants. They are interest-free and don’t need to be repaid; the 2014-2015 maximum award is $5,730.
The amount you’ll qualify for depends on such factors as your financial need, tuition costs and whether you’ll be a full-time or part-time student. For more on this type of aid, go to the Pell grant area of the U.S. Department of Education’s website.
9. Try to snag an older-student grant, scholarship or fellowship. Some groups and foundations offer them, though it may take some sleuthing to track down this interest-free financing.
The American Association of University Women, for example, offers fellowships and grants for women going back to school to advance their careers, change careers or re-enter the work force.
For more on grants, scholarships and fellowships, check out the sites FastWeb.com and FinAid.org.
10. If you must borrow, do it at the least possible cost. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau site has excellent college financing advice to help you choose the right loan and pay the least amount of interest.
Try to get a Federal Direct Loan. Rates on these loans are fixed and low (currently 4.66 percent for undergrads; 6.21 percent for grad students).
You may be able to get your monthly student loan payments reduced if, after graduating, you'll work in public safety, public health, education, social work or the nonprofit sector. Learn more about this at the Public Service Loan forgiveness program area of the Department of Education site.