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4 Ways to Take Classes on the Cheap

Adult learning options are better, and more useful, than ever

By Nancy Collamer

Now that it’s September and back-to-school season, you might be thinking about going back to college in midlife yourself. In fact, just yesterday, I received an e-mail from a subscriber to my Mylifestylecareer newsletter asking: “What skills might I need to go back to work and what programs are available to help retirees train to go back into a career?”

Mature students attending class
Credit: Getty Images

Fortunately for you and my reader, the options for continuing education have never been better — or more affordable. Whether your goal is to pivot into a semi-retirement gig, pick-up new technical skills or earn a needed certification for a promotion, there’s a college class to fit your needs.

And while you may need to invest in a degree in some cases, in many others, you can improve your marketability with just a few courses or a short-term certificate program.

4 Alternatives to Conventional Degrees

Which are the best non-degree options for budget-conscious adult learners? Here are four alternatives to consider, as well as a few cost-saving tips should you decide to pursue a more conventional degree program:

1. A MOOC That’s the acronym for Massively Open Online Courses offered to everyone by some of the world’s top colleges and institutions, including Harvard, MIT, The Smithsonian and Google. The number of MOOCs has exploded in recent years. According to, MOOCs have grown from roughly 160,000 learners at one university in 2011 to 35 million at 570 institutions in 2015.

MOOCs give you the opportunity to learn anywhere, anytime. And they’re generally less expensive than comparable in-person, on-campus programs. While some older students miss the camaraderie and networking of a more traditional classroom setting, new technologies make the MOOC experience more interactive than in the past.

In the eight years since MOOCs arrived, there’s been a gradual shift from free to fee-based courses. As a result, the big three MOOC platforms, Coursera, Udacity, and edX, now offer users official recognition for their paid courses, and in some cases, even academic credit. Coursera charges $29 to $99 for most graded courses that are part of its “Specializations.”

That official validation could be a nice benefit if you’re hoping to add some heft to your resumé.

For example, edX now offers two types of verified certificates for some of its courses: a verified certificate that offers proof you’ve completed a course and an XSeries certificate that proves you’ve earned a passing grade in a series of courses. Udacity has Nanodegrees (generally $199 a month), a six- to 12-month curriculum built with leading companies and consisting of a series of classes in a specific topic, like front-end web development.

For now, the fees for these classes are a fraction of what you’d pay for a similar class at a traditional college. For instance, an eight-week Data Analysis Class on edX is free, a verified certificate costs $50 and the Xseries of five classes in Microsoft Share Point 2016 runs $49 per course.

2. Other online platforms You can search among thousands of online classes on a number of other platforms. Two notable choices:, which is now owned by LinkedIn, has nearly 5000 video tutorials on a wide range of business, technology and creative skills topics. You can take individual courses or “learning path” programs — a collection of classes on one topic such as “Become a Music Business Entrepreneur.” Membership starts at $34.95 a month, but some libraries provide access to Lynda’s nearly 5,000 courses for free. is the largest online learning platform for professionals who want to add skills to their resumés or pick up valuable life skills. The site serves over 12 million students and hosts more than 40,000 classes at various price points. For example, a one-hour video, Options to Build Your Retirement Income, is free; the eight-hour Product Creation course will set you back $140.


3. Industry association training and certifications Whether you’re thinking about starting a business or looking to hone your skills for a job shift, check out the educational offerings, publications and conferences sponsored by your industry association.

To find an association in your area of interest, Google “association” and “name of business idea or industry.” For instance, if you Google “association” and “human resources,” you’ll get results for the Society for Human Resource Management’s eLearning Library, with 500+ courses on HR topics, plus a host of other training options.

Associations can be an especially useful way for aspiring business owners to learn the “business of the business.” I recently received an e-mail from a career-related association about an upcoming webinar teaching strategies for packaging resumé, LinkedIn and other writing services, as well as step-by-step tools for moving prospects through “your marketing funnel, communicating your services, and closing more sales.” At just $49, it struck me as a bargain, especially in light of the number of hours it took me to learn this information on my own.

4. Community colleges Hands down, community colleges offer some of the best educational bang for your buck.

Some community colleges offer free tuition for displaced workers, too.

Talk with the financial aid office to find out what’s available in your area.

3 Money-Saving Tips for Traditional Degrees

Finally, three tips on how to save money if you want (or need) to enroll in a traditional degree program:

1. Explore options for a fast-track degree. You may be able to reduce your tuition bill by getting the college to waive some required courses because of your prior academic credit or work experience. Talk with the admissions department to see which parts of your work and life experience might qualifly.

2. Take advantage of federal tax breaks for college tuition, fees and supplies. For details, check out IRS Publication 970, “Tax Benefits for Education.”

3. Get the latest information on grants, scholarships and fellowships. To do this, talk with your school’s financial aid office and consult and

Photograph of Nancy Collamer
Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a semi-retirement coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. You can now download her free workbook called 25 Ways to Help You Identify Your Ideal Second Act on her website at (and you'll also receive her free bi-monthly newsletter). Read More
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