Funding My College Education Essay

Going back to school after 30 can be a tough decision to make. Long gone are the days when anything and everything in the world was possible and your free time seemed endless. Now you likely have a long list of real responsibilities, such as kids, a mortgage, a spouse, and a mountain of bills to pay.

For these reasons and many more, going back to school is a decision that can’t be taken lightly.

In my last post, Is Going Back to School at 30 the Right Decision For You?, I addressed how to decide whether or not you should go back to school and how to decide what you should study.

This post will cover how to pay for college and how to balance your work-life responsibilities as an adult student.

Ask Yourself: How Are You Going to Pay for College?

One of the reasons that going back to school is such a big decision is because it’s an expensive proposition. Unless you’re independently wealthy and going back to school just for the fun of it, you’re going to have to get creative with your funding sources to pay for college.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition and fees for the 2012-2013 school year were as follows:

  • Public Institutions (i.e. state colleges like the University of Colorado or California)
    • $7,500/year, in-state. A four-year degree will cost approximately $30k.
    • $17,000/year, out-of-state. A four-year degree will cost approximately $68k.
  • Private Institutions (i.e. College America or The Art Institute)
    • $15,400/year. A four-year degree will cost approximately $61k.

Also, note that these rates tend to increase year after year.

When you are coming up with tens of thousands of dollars to fund something, you might want to ask:

Is there any way you can minimize your debt?

When considering how to pay for college, it may be tempting to take out your entire tuition in the form of easy-to-get loans. However, there are ways to make the final amount you pay out of pocket smaller—possibly much smaller.

First, look for scholarships.

I’ve heard many adult students complain, “There aren’t a lot of scholarships out there.” The truth is that there is a whole boatload of them—you just have to know where to look.

The obvious choice is to talk to your financial aid office at school about scholarship opportunities. But this isn’t your only resource.

On the Internet, the world of scholarships is at your fingertips.

First, I suggest that you visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s scholarship search tool. This will lead you to some pretty helpful scholarship options. Here’s a screenshot of the tool:

But, if you want to cast your scholarship net even wider, consider joining one of the many free “college decision” websites. I’ve tried a few, but my favorite is Cappex.com. Cappex and similar services like SuperCollege.com and College Niche offer databases of university and scholarship information.

In fact, it was through Cappex that I found the following unusual scholarship opportunities:

Author Linda Lael Miller offers a scholarship worth up to $1,000 to women who are 25 years or older and are seeking to enhance their family’s future through education.

Although the scholarship may not be currently open, I spoke to Linda’s PR person, Nancy Berland, who says, “Linda will run her scholarship competition again—this is something like the 11th or 12th year she has done this. Usually we launch in June. Women need to either join Linda’s reader e-list on www.LindaLaelMiller.com—she sends early notification to that list—or keep an eye on her website. Linda is passionate about helping women looking to better their lot in life through education!”

Another fun scholarship I found was the Ayn Rand Atlas Shruggedcontest, open to undergrad and grad students. Writing 800-1600 words can win you up to $10,000. This is an annually recurring scholarship, and you can apply even while you are in school.

Remember to have your scholarship essay editedbefore you submit it!

There are many more opportunities like this one. For more ideas, check out this post on no-essay scholarships that are easy to apply for.

Scholarships aren’t the only way to minimize your student loan debt.

If your income is low enough, you may also be eligible for grants.

When thinking about how to pay for college, don’t forget the power of grants. Grants are completely free money! No essay, no work—you just have to have a low enough income to qualify. Here is a great tool to help you search for grant assistance on a state-by-state basis.

And if scholarships and grants aren’t enough, as an adult student, you may have a resource that a traditional student won’t have: your employer.

Will your workplace help pay for your tuition?

Your current employer is another great place for you to seek money for your education. Obviously this choice isn’t for everyone, particularly if you are going to school to get out of your current job or because you don’t have a job.

However, if your new skills will benefit the company you currently work for, it may help you pay. Even if you work in a small company that doesn’t have an existing education assistance program, you should still ask your boss if the company could offer education assistance.

One reason your boss may be interested in helping fund your education is that there are income tax benefits to be gained by doing so. Your employer can donate up to $5,250 per year in funds toward your education on a tax-free basis.

And speaking of tax credits, if and when you do go back to school, don’t forget to take advantage of the tax breaks being a student gives you, including the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.

Now the next credit you should consider has nothing to do with taxes, and everything to do with your experiences.

Does your school have a non-traditional credit program?

When you’re trying to figure out how to pay for college, don’t underestimate the power of your experience. One of the benefits of going back to school as an adult is that some institutions will allow you to earn credit for your real-life experience.

For example, if you speak Spanish because you spent a year teaching English in Ecuador, you can test out of language classes, or if you spent a few years in the Army, your military service can equate to credits at some institutions.

By earning credits toward graduation without having to take or payfor some of the classes, you can save hundreds, or thousands, of dollars. Check with your school to see if any of your real-life experiences translate to credit.

Speaking of credit, you should put your credit card away for a while and…

Save up some money.

I know, saving money before spending it seems like a pretty antiquated idea in our credit-friendly economy, but it might do you well to save up some bankroll before signing up for school.

Try working a second job for a year or two and using the extra money you make to cover part of your tuition. The bonus of this pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tactic is that you’ll learn a little bit about the time management you’ll need to master when your second job becomes going to school.

If all of that isn’t enough, apply for a federal student loan.

The first thing you need to do when applying for a federal loan is to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). No matter how old you are, you are always eligible to apply for federal student aid. Filling out the FAFSA also helps you obtain federal grants if you have a low income.

Federal loans are typically a better buy than private loans (like from your bank) because you lock in a fixed interest rate, and with payoff schedules lasting ten or more years, keeping that rate fixed will save you interest in the long run.

This article at Forbes.com has great information about federal vs. private loans.

If you do end up taking out a loan, I definitely recommend you read how to avoid four mistakes when it comes to managing your student loan.

Now that I’ve given you some ideas for funding your education adventure, let’s talk about time management.

Ask Yourself: How Are You Going to Balance School With Your Other Responsibilities?

When you were 20, your biggest responsibility may have been the part-time job at the sandwich shop. But now, you’re all grown up and have a pile of responsibilities bigger than the laundry pile lurking next to your washing machine.

If you have kids, who will care for them while you are studying and in class? Even if your kids are teenagers, the time you spend burying your nose in your math textbook is going to take away from the time you can spend telling them what not to wear to school.

So consider how you’re going to balance this responsibility. Many parents use going back to school as a way to be a better role model. For example, you can do your homework at the same time your child does his. A family that does homework together stays together!

If you are in a committed relationship, talk to your partner about how schooling will affect your availability and make sure that he or she is on board with the idea. You’re going to need your partner’s support and encouragement in the grueling, homework-filled nights ahead.

Will you be able to continue to work full-time? Or will you have to cut back your work hours to make time for studying? Find out if your employer will offer you flexible hours so that you have more time to pursue your studies.

If that’s not an option, you may need to take school a little more slowly and attend part-time. Also, take into consideration that for every three credits hours you’ll have at least three hours of homework per week.

As you are considering how much responsibility to take on, remember that there are only 168 hours in a week and you still need time to sleep, shower, eat, and take care of yourself and your loved ones!

Here’s a fun calculation for you:

168 hours in a week
-49 hours for sleep (7 hours/night—but wouldn’t you prefer 8?)
-40 hours full-time work
-10 hours commuting (assuming a half hour each way/5 days per week)
-9 hours class time (3 classes per week as a part-time, but ambitious, student)
-9 hours of homework (at minimum! Plan for more on testing weeks.)
51 hours per week remaining to take care of yourself, your home, partner, friends, family, and pets

This may seem like a lot of time, but consider that before you started school, you had 69 hours to work with, and you already felt like you could hardly keep up.

Now imagine if you upped that to a full-time schedule of 15 hours of class time (and 15 corresponding hours of homework)—it would only leave you with 39 hours per week to take care of your life outside of work and school.

For more great tips, read Amy Hoak’s article about balancing school with work and family.

How are you going to get all that homework done?

Once you get into school, you’ll rediscover the harsh reality of homework. You’re certainly going to be burning the midnight oil (or is it the midnight laptop glare?) to stay on top of your studies.

Try to plan ahead to tackle any learning issues that you know may be lurking in your background. For example, if you have never been a great writer, consider the value of hiring an editor to help you polish your papers before you turn them in. Now is not the time to lose points on your GPA because of difficulties with grammar.

Or, if you have never been great at math, but find that you have to take a math class to earn the right credits toward your degree, consider the value of hiring a tutor to assist you. If you’re not sure where to look, there are lots of online tutor directories like this one.

The other thing you should consider is joining a study group at school to help capitalize on other students’ assets and contribute your own strengths. Sometimes having a study buddy makes a big difference in motivation levels.

Finally, I had a chance to chat with two students over 30 to find out how they manage to balance their work and family lives with school and homework. Here’s what they had to say.

Interview #1: Meet Holly

Holly is a recent 40+ grad. Here’s her story.

Me: Hi Holly, thanks for chatting with me today!

Holly: No problem! Thanks for having me.

Me: First of all, how old are you? Yes, your real age.

Holly: I’m 41.

Me: And where did you attend school?

Holly: I just received my Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services Management from the University of Phoenix.

Me: Phoenix, Arizona?

Holly: (Laughing) Everyone says that! No, it’s actually a private college in Colorado.

Me: Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that place! Aside from school, what other responsibilities did you have to juggle?

Holly: I am a single parent of one, and I have three cats, five hermit crabs, and tons of housework.

Me: I’m sure those hermit crabs kept you really busy.

Holly: Ha! Yeah, busier than you might think, actually!

Me: So between the cats, the crustaceans, and your daughter, how did you manage to get any schoolwork done?

Holly: I actually am very good at time management and it was common for me to ask for help from both my daughter and friends.

Me: Is that your secret to success? Asking for help?

Holly: That’s part of it. Also, I studied when I knew I would be home alone and I only did homework when I was free of distraction. Studying or working on a project any other time was a waste of my time.

Me: You do sound like a time management expert! Why did you decide to go back to school anyway?

Holly: I went back to school because I knew it would play a role in my daughter’s educational goals and desire to be a success.

Me: So you did it to be a good role model?

Holly: Yes, and I wanted to be educated so that I could work with high-risk teens, educating the public about addiction and the effects of addiction. My education provided a foundation for me to pursue this dream.

Me: Any stellar advice for someone considering going back to school after age 30?

Holly: My advice is to get an education! The reward of achieving goals is substantial.

Interview # 2: Meet Antonia

Antonia just started her journey toward earning a degree as a 37-year-old single mom of twin girls. Here’s her story.

Me: Hi Antonia, thanks for taking the time out of your crazy busy schedule to chat today.

Antonia: Not a problem! This is a nice distraction.

Me: So, where are you attending school?

Antonia: I’m going to Front Range Community College for an Associate degree in Applied Science of Holistic Health.

Me: That sounds like an interesting program! What do you plan to do with that degree?

Antonia: As in career goals? Huh, I haven’t really settled on one specific thing yet. I know I love herbal science, so maybe being a master herbalist. But, what if I love psychology more and I end up changing my degree to focus more on that? I’ve left the options open. I want to move forward in my studies and see which subject really speaks to me. I think that’ll help really finalize my decision in the end.

Me: Describe your family and home situation; what’s on your plate?

Antonia: I’m a single mama of beautiful and expressive 11-year-old twin girls. For the past four years, I’ve been self-employed cleaning homes. The furry love of my life is an old Shiba Inu that I rescued over a year ago. She has diabetes and is hypo-thyroid. She needs insulin injections and thyroid pills twice a day. She’s my four-legged, crotchety old lady that I love so much.

Me: You do sound busy! Twin girls and an old lady doggy? How do you manage all that and school?

Antonia: Well, I started out with only 6 credits so that I wouldn’t overwhelm myself. I have one class every morning, I work after class and am finished by the time school gets out. My girls are also very helpful around the house. We have our daily chores so that I’m not bogged down with all of the work, all the while teaching the girls responsibility.

Me: So how are you staying organized and making sure to get all your school work done on time?

Antonia: Since I have only two classes right now, it’s easy to alternate the work. I have one class M, W, F and the other class on T and TH. I study or do the work that’s due the following day even though it’s not the class I attended that morning. It’s working out very well thus far.

Me: That sounds pretty smart! So you’re doing only as much as you can sanely handle.

Antonia: I don’t know about sanely… (laughs)

Me: Why did you decide to go to school? It sounds like you are a pretty successful business owner.

Antonia: I’m going back to school because I am sick of cleaning other people’s homes. I’m grateful I have a job in this economy for sure but, frankly, I’m just not very proud of what I do. I know I’m helping people out by cleaning for them. But, I want to help people in different ways. I want to use my brain. The most important reason, however, is I want a better future for my girls and me. I’m hoping my girls will look back and realize that I didn’t settle for the easy way out. I can only hope that by witnessing me work hard to improve our lives, it will motivate them to work just as hard on their education and make better choices when it comes to their future.

Me: I’m sure you’re an amazing role model for those girls! Do you have any parting thoughts for anyone considering going back to school after 30?

Antonia: I say go for it. As long as you’re motivated, you have a strong support system of family and friends and the desire to change your life for the better, do it. Knowledge is power!

So now that you’ve asked yourself the tough questions, I challenge you to take the next step toward pursuing your dream, whether that’s going back to school or doing something else entirely.

Share your experience with us—did you go back to school after 30? If so, what advice can you offer to others who may be considering going down this road?

Good luck!

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Financing Your College Education

by Julie Bogart

Get help navigating the ins and outs of financial aid.

These days, there’s no getting around the fact that college is expensive. According to the College Board’s most recent Trends in College Pricing report, the average yearly cost of just tuition and fees at a four-year college or university can range from $13,500 (for in-state students at public schools) to $32,300 (for students at private institutions). Add on books, room, board and other expenses and you could be in the $50,000-per-year range.

But before you let cost discourage you from applying to the school of your dreams, you should know that there is more than $130 billion in federal aid available to students, in the form of grants, federal loans, work-study funds, and education tax credits and deductions. With help from the federal government, as well as aid from state governments, private sources and merit scholarships, it is possible to afford the college of your choice. But how? Where do you even begin?

Mark Rogers, a representative from CitiBank’s Student Loan Corporation, says, “There are many different options to consider — from scholarships and grants to loans for students and parents, each of which [has its] own criteria and timing.”

The Basics

There are two different types of financial aid — merit-based and need-based.

  • Merit-Based Aid: Merit-based financial aid is what many people refer to as scholarships awarded to a student by either an individual college or outside organization without regard for financial need. Students typically receive merit-based scholarships for academic achievements though some can be awarded for special talents leadership skills or other personal characteristics; athletic scholarships also fall under this category. At many colleges every admitted student is automatically considered for the merit scholarships at that school. At other colleges students must complete a separate application.
  • Need-Based Aid: Need-based financial aid is awarded to a student on the basis of financial need. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is generally used for determining federal state and institutional need-based aid eligibility. At private institutions a supplemental application may be necessary.

Use Your Merit

Before you delve into the world of need-based aid find out what merit can do for you.

According to Rogers students “should always start with ‘free’ money such as grants and scholarships.”

Merit-based scholarships usually require very high qualifications with regard to grades and test scores as well as excellent recommendations and extracurricular/community activities.

It pays (literally) to start searching for scholarship opportunities early. Colleges often list numerous merit scholarships available for incoming freshmen on their websites and in their catalogs. Tina Bennett, director of financial aid at Marymount Manhattan College says that high-school students should start researching the scholarship qualifications at the colleges they’re interested in during their junior year (although if you think you know where you might want to apply you can certainly start looking during your sophomore year).

Ask your guidance counselor for a list of local scholarships — you have a better chance of receiving a local less competitive scholarship award than a larger national one. Investigate the merit scholarships offered by your community or state as well as those from local organizations such as clubs businesses churches synagogues and other associations. Perhaps there’s a PTA scholarship for example or a town-sponsored scholarship essay contest.


Then move your search to the Web. Many websites such as FastWeb’s “Find Scholarships” option and Scholarships.com’s “Search Scholarships” option can help you locate the types of scholarships you qualify for. While some scholarship requirements are super specific like you must live on a farm in the South others like AXA Achievement Scholarships are open to students “who’ve accomplished something exceptional in a job sport or extracurricular activity” according to Jan Goldstein, the Director of AXA Foundation one of the nation’s leading scholarship providers.

A word of caution: As you search the Web beware of scholarship scams. If a scholarship requires an application fee for instance don’t apply. Also make sure the scholarship information you find online is up-to-date and apply to as many scholarships as you qualify for — it can’t hurt and every little bit helps.

Chuck Knepfle, Assistant Provost and Director of Student Financial Assistance at Miami University of Ohio says that because the aid process varies by state and by school the best source for any student is a college’s financial-aid office.

“You don’t have to be a student at that college to get information,” Val Meyers, Associate Director of Financial Aid at Michigan State University says. “Financial aid staff members are always happy to help.”

Some colleges’ academic departments offer merit scholarships according to Meyers. So even if you don’t qualify for a scholarship as an incoming freshman you may still be able to apply for and receive a scholarship as a college sophomore junior or senior.

When you apply for a merit scholarship make sure you’re using any separate application that may be required. Include all requested information such as essays and activities. Some applications may also ask for personal recommendations. When in doubt include them. And of course read and follow the directions carefully.

Loans Grants and Work-Study

While scholarships are awarded on the basis of merit loans grants and work-study are typically awarded on the basis of financial need. Here’s what these types of aid are all about:

  • Grants: Grants are awarded on the basis of financial need and do not require repayment.
  • Loans: Loans are financial-aid awards that require repayment. They offer the opportunity to defer the cost of your educational expenses by borrowing now and repaying later (after you graduate). Some loan programs are based on financial need like federal loans which offer low-interest rates — your best option. Other loan programs are available to all students regardless of income like private loans which usually have higher interest rates. Many students use federal loans to cover tuition costs and private loans to cover other expenses like food housing and books.Some of the more popular federal loans include Stafford Loans for students and PLUS Loans for parents of students.
  • Work-Study: Based on financial need the Federal Work-Study program provides part-time employment to students to help with college expenses. Non-federal Work-study on the other hand is not based on financial need. So if you don’t qualify for Federal Work-Study you should inquire about non-federal student employment opportunities at your school.

How do you know if you qualify for this kind of aid? Simple. You fill out the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid required by all U.S. colleges to apply and qualify for financial aid. Completing the FAFSA means that you’ll be considered for aid from the U.S. government such as the Stafford Loan PLUS Loan Pell Grant Perkins Loan and Federal Work-Study program. State governments and individual colleges also use the FAFSA to assess whether or not you need more financial help than the federal government can give.

If you’re planning to attend college in the fall you should fill out the FAFSA in January. (It won’t be accepted before January 1 but get it in as soon as you can after the first.) Because colleges only have a certain amount of money in their financial-aid budgets the earlier you apply for aid the better your chances of receiving it.

Unfortunately the FAFSA may reveal that you don’t qualify for as much federal financial aid as you actually need. Don’t despair! Private loans although not as ideal can help cover your expenses. Financial-aid offices at each school will provide information about their private loan providers as well as their terms and conditions.

No matter what you do Knepfle stresses that it’s important to understand completely all aspects of each loan you choose to accept as the terms and conditions of loans vary considerably. And remember that there are always alternative options. “One excellent way to finance [your education],” Knepfle says, “is to work with the school on a combination of loans and monthly payment plans. For example a student who owes a school $5,000 could pay $250 a month for 10 months and then only have to take out a $2,500 loan.”

Will I Drown in Debt?

While using loans to pay for college may be necessary it can also be a little scary. How will you possibly pay it all back?

Relax. While you obviously have to consider how much you and your family are comfortable borrowing Bennett says that you should also look at college loans as an investment. The investment in yourself will pay off in the long-run — a college education will help you secure a better paying job as well as provide you with the continued potential to increase your salary.

“The trick is to borrow only what is needed,” Meyers says, “and to live economically while in school thus minimizing the student’s loan debt so that it will be manageable.” Keep in mind that repayment usually doesn’t start until after you’ve graduated and that you can pay off your student loans over a fairly long period of time. The standard repayment period is 10 years though you may be able to consolidate your loans and extend the term of your repayment if you need to lower your monthly payments.

According to Brent Tener, Associate Director of Student Financial Aid at Vanderbilt University when applying to colleges be sure to look at schools that vary in terms of cost. “You normally will not know the net cost (the cost of attending a given school minus financial aid) until after you have applied for admission been accepted applied for financial aid and been given a notice of your eligibility,” he says. “Once you know the net cost of attending each school you can then evaluate which school would be the best option with all factors (not just financial) considered.”

No matter which financial path you find yourself on remember that paying for college — even the priciest of colleges — is doable. Start early research your options know what you’re getting yourself into and choose what’s best for you and your family.

More on Merit Scholarships

While most merit scholarships are offered by or through colleges themselves some scholarship sources aren’t dependent upon your attendance at a particular school. Check out these nationwide scholarships open to most college-bound seniors:

AXA Achievement Scholarship
The AXA Achievement Scholarship awards $10,000 to 52 students — one from each state the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. From this pool of state winners 10 are selected to earn an additional one-time scholarship of $15,000.

Essay Contests
A number of organizations offer scholarships based on essays. For example, the Atlas Shrugged Essay Contest offers as much as $10,000 for a winning essay based on a selected topic related to the novel by Ayn Rand. The annual John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest offers up to $8,500 to high-school students who submit an original essay about an elected official who has demonstrated political courage (www.jfkcontest.org). And, the Green Scholarship awards $500 to students who submit a brief essay describing how they are finding ways to conserve energy and preserve the environment.

Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation
Each year the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation awards 50 four-year $20,000 scholarships and 200 four-year $10,000 scholarships for use at accredited colleges and universities in the United States. These scholarships reward leadership and excellence as exemplified through academic achievement and extracurricular activities, including commitment to community service.

Davidson Fellows Scholarship
The Davidson Fellows Scholarship disburses $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 scholarships to extraordinary young people under the age of 18 who have completed a significant piece of work. Application categories are mathematics, science, literature, music, technology, philosophy and “outside the box”.

Siemens Competition
Win scholarship money — from $10,000 to $100,000 — by participating in the Siemens Competition. The Siemens Competition seeks to promote excellence by encouraging students to undertake individual or team research projects in mathematics, engineering, the biological and physical sciences, or a combination of these disciplines. You must be a high-school senior to compete as an individual, while the team competition consists of two to three members from any high-school grade level.

Julie Bogart is the editor of My College Guide.

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