The working professional’s guide to paying for college
There’s one question at the forefront of most students’ minds as they prepare to attend college: “How am I going to pay for this?” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 85 percent of undergraduate students who attended a four-year college or university during the 2015-16 academic year paid for some portion of it through financial aid.
While that statistic is true for all full-time students seeking a degree for the first time, if you’ve already done a bit of research, you’ve likely noticed that much of the advice about paying for college caters to students who are fresh out of high school. This means that it probably includes considerations related to the on-campus college experience that aren’t relevant to students like you.
While the exact process of paying for college may not differ drastically for adult students, there are a handful of considerations you should keep in mind as you map out your own plans. We spoke with financial aid experts to hear their take on the working professional’s approach to paying for college.
A guide to paying for college as an adult student
While students ages 18 through 24 represent the majority of college students in America, adults who are 25 and older make up nearly 40 percent of today’s student population. Adult students have different lifestyle needs, so our education experts offered some advice specific to working professionals seeking ways to pay for college. Their suggestions align with three different payment options:
Grants and loans
According to Judi Scheinberg Sveen, director of operations for online campus enrollment and student affairs at University of Massachusetts Global, the financial aid process is the same for every student, regardless of their age. She highlights the following as musts for everyone:
- Complete a FAFSA
- Attend entrance counseling
- Submit a Master Promissory note
- Provide any supporting documents requested to obtain loans
When it comes to applying for loans, there are some specific things to keep in mind. Beth Dumbauld, director of content for StraighterLine—an organization that partners with colleges like University of Massachusetts Global to provide general education courses that can be recognized as college credit—reminds us that interest rates are typically lower for federal student loan programs than privately financed education loans. She also recommends initially concentrating on Pell grants.
Scott Saltman, director of One Stop Student Services at University of Massachusetts Global, says there are even more funding options than you might realize.
“A lot of people don’t understand that there may be counties or cities out there that also offer grants to students,” he says. “My first recommendation is to go to your local civic center or city hall. Find out if they offer any benefits to people in their community looking to go to college.” Just make note of whether there are any restrictions on which institution you attend.
“If your city doesn’t offer anything like that, go to your city council meeting and propose something,” Saltman offers. “As a working adult, you’re a taxpayer in that city, and you have the right to ask for investment back into the community.”
All of our experts encourage adult students to schedule time amidst their bevy of commitments to thoroughly research and apply for loans and grants.
“It is time to say, ‘I want to take responsibility for financing my education. I want to be empowered. I want to be a role model. I want to graduate,’” Sveen says.
When it comes to scholarship opportunities, be mindful of the fact that you’re not limited to what your school of choice offers. Sveen says there are scholarships out there for just about everything—and everyone.
“Did you know there is a scholarship for you if you have diabetes, or if you have one green eye and one blue eye? Students need to self-reflect and ask themselves, ‘What are all the things that make me unique?’” Sveen offers.
Working professionals, for example, may seek out scholarship opportunities specifically intended for adult learners or other nontraditional students. There may also be offerings related to the industry in which you’ve gained experience. You can even find scholarships related to your marital status, whether you have children, your civic connections and more.
When seeking scholarships that are not funded by an academic institution, Saltman encourages students to sift through them with a fine-toothed comb, as their level of vetting may depend on where you’ve found them.
“Think about where your information is ending up,” he warns. “Be cautious of sites or search tools that charge you for their service. No one should be charging you to fill out a FAFSA or to look for a scholarship.” You don’t want to accumulate unnecessary debt.
Finally, Saltman urges students to reverse their thinking when it comes to the monetary values in scholarships. “It’s tempting to want to apply for that $10,000 or $20,000 scholarship. But exponentially, the more value in the scholarship, the steeper the competition,” he says.
Most students don’t even think of the scholarships worth smaller amounts, such as $100 or $500. Many small scholarships, Saltman notes, expire without people even applying—and those smaller dollar amounts can add up.
One avenue of college funding is uniquely available to working professionals. Believe it or not, your employer may offer financial assistance or may partner with a university that offers a discount to employees.
“Students should ask their supervisor or HR personnel to explain their company’s tuition assistance programs and policies,” Dumbauld says. “If they line up with your educational goals, you could have your employer pay for a significant amount of your college degree.”
However, not all employers offer this benefit. It also tends to vary based on the job market.
“When unemployment rates spike, people go back to school to enhance their skill sets,” Saltman explains. “When the rate is low, that’s when companies take the additional step to attract promising recruits. This includes upping their benefits by possibly looking into tuition assistance or helping people who already have their degrees pay down their student loan debt.”
If your employer doesn’t offer education benefits, it could be worth approaching the appropriate parties to propose such policies. Some schools, such as University of Massachusetts Global, offer services to help students navigate these discussions.
Make your college dreams a reality
As you journey toward earning your college degree as an adult student, heed the advice of our financial aid experts. After all, paying for college doesn’t need to burden you with debt. And, at the same time, consider some of the other ways you can set yourself up for success as an adult learner.
“The traditional college environment has set schedules that aren’t very flexible,” Saltman offers. This clearly matters for adult students who will have to balance school and work—and understand the value of their time. “If you look at an organization like UMass Global, we offer fully online programs to fit a range of lifestyles and commitments.”
Wondering what online learning is like? Find out by digging deeper with our article "How do online classes work? What to expect from a virtual classroom."
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