Don’t go broke to go back to school
Help is available if you know where to look
CHICAGO — When it comes to retraining, updating skills, or finally finishing an abandoned degree, working adults can feel stuck in the search for extra education.
It can be hard to figure out how to get time away from work and personal obligations, even for online or evening classes. Most difficult of all, school can be expensive.
Americans are always interested in extra education — from single courses to advanced degrees — but even more so when the economy goes south, says Timothy Sloate, director of research at the University Continuing Education Association.
“During times of economic recession, enrollments tends to go up,’’ Sloate says. “That’s fueled by people who lost their jobs and are trying to gain more skills to get a new job (and by) people who still have their jobs and are looking to improve their skills.’’
Here are some tips on making the quest less intimidating and more affordable.
1. Boss buy-in: Before you even fill out an application form, develop a clear plan and schedule a meeting with your boss to talk it through.
Explain what you hope to accomplish. Emphasize how the classes will make you a better contributor to the team.
”Employers will always respond positively when there’s a clear benefit for the company,” says Jennifer Grasz, a spokeswoman for CareerBuilder.com.
Keeping surprises to a minimum will help: Be clear about when and how often you would need to shift your work hours or be allowed to leave promptly.
2. Money for nothing: Even community college classes can be costly if your budget is tight. But there’s free money to be had — if you know where to look.
First, check whether your employer offers tuition assistance. Some major corporations cover the full cost of classes. Others will reimburse you if you make a specific grade, or they’ll let you use pretax dollars.
Next, fill out the Free Application for Student Aid. Many schools and many groups that offer scholarships require it. Even if you plan to take a light load, you may be eligible for aid. And if you have kids in college, mention them because that can improve your position.
“Maximize all the free money you can get, and use your own resources,’’ says Patricia Nash Christel, spokeswoman for student lending company Sallie Mae.
Most federally supported loan programs require students to carry at least half the credits of a full-time student so you likely will narrow your options by taking just one class at a time. And outright grants from the federal government are limited to the very poorest students.
But Sallie Mae’s searchable database lists $16 billion in private scholarships, some available to students taking a single class. About one-fourth are for students returning to school after a hiatus. And many private scholarships support students with certain backgrounds or goals.
3. Paying your way: Once you have tracked down all possible scholarships and assessed how much you can afford to pay, schedule a meeting with your school’s financial aid office. Some colleges allow you to pay in installments, interest free. And most participate in private loan programs. Sallie Mae’s version offers interest rates of 4.25 percent to 12.5 percent, depending on your creditworthiness and requires interest-only payments while you’re in school so you just have the principal to repay once you’re out.
Also consider changing the beneficiary on your family’s 529 college savings plan — to yourself.
“If you have many, many years before your child goes to college, you can decide to fund your own educational program while you build up the savings,’’ says Sallie Mae’s Nash Christel.
4. Tax benefit: If your classes are required to maintain or improve your skills, or are mandated by law or regulators, you will be able to deduct that expense on your taxes. But most aren’t, accountants say.
Instead, you can deduct up to 20 percent of out-of-pocket tuition and fees if you file solo and have adjusted gross income under $60,000, or if you file jointly with income under $120,000, says Mark Luscombe, an analyst at CCH, which publishes tax information.