31 October 2008

Boomer Ed: Paying for School

Part 3 in a 6-part series on Boomers going back to school during the economic downturn [second half will be posted next week]

College costs. That's not news. But adult learners are good at spotting bargains and the good news is that there are some out there. Many college web sites post "sample" tuition estimates. If you cannot spot that quickly, call or email the Admissions Office or the Bursar's Office. One of them may have a dedicated web page on the subject.

Look for sales. Yes, I said sales. At least in past years, community colleges have sometimes put mini-mesters or summer school "on sale" for as little as $39 per course. (Books and supplies are not included; don't expect to find a science lab on sale.) In the current economic hard times, you may not find quite that good a bargain, but if you need lower division (first-year and sophomore) courses you will probably find the best prices at community colleges.

Mix and match. Upper division (junior and senior) and graduate courses are going to be more expensive because they are available only at four-year and graduate institutions. But you can explore taking a few classes at lower-costing schools (such as state colleges) and transferring the credits to higher-costing schools (such as private colleges). Mixing and matching can save a lot of dollars but you must protect your degree plan. Make certain that your degree-granting institution will accept the credits from another school. This is easier at the undergraduate level than the graduate level, but many schools restrict how many hours you can transfer in the final one or two years of the degree. (While young college students often resist mixing and matching, older students rarely have the same reluctance.)

Scholarships and grants. Non-traditional students (adults 25 and older) qualify for "free" money just as often as younger students. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid—but they may require your attention on IRS forms. (Read carefully.) Securing these supports is not always easy. Review committees may work 6-12 months ahead, so application deadlines may be a year ahead of the intended semester or academic year for support.

Most scholarships require considerable paperwork, including letters of reference. Locate several good souls who are willing to be "on call" for additional letters. (You may have to resort to some generic reference letters that you can use several times; that way, you only bother your contacts once for signature on several letters.) Some of your references will appreciate your writing a draft letter for them to polish.

Adult students sometimes bristle at the amount of paperwork required for a $250 one-time scholarship, but keep in mind that every award helps to establish your "worth" as a recipient, so the small grant may lead to a larger one. (And a handful of small ones just might buy books for the year.)

Obscure scholarships are out there but you have to do some digging. There are scholarships for returning adults, for students with a particular last name, for students of particular religious faith, and, more commonly, for students in certain majors.

Student loans. The single best resource for information about loans is the campus Financial Aid office. Contact them early, as soon as you are admitted to a program even if you are not enrolling immediately. Visit when they are least busy (i.e., not in the weeks right before start of semester). Prepare for your visit by pulling your tax returns and financial records, as well as your admissions letter. Don't be shy about sharing your financial details. Good financial aid officers are a lot like doctors: they've heard every imaginable story and you cannot shock them.

While it is tempting to discuss financial aid with an adviser in the academic department or with the receptionist in a campus office, these are not sound sources of guidance. You'll find a lot of opinion and misinformation that sounds credible. Rely only on a financial aid officer for advice.

Student loans have been in the news for the past couple of years because abuses were discovered. Colleges and universities are on the alert for any inappropriate practices, so you'll find today's financial aid offices to be well informed and scrupulously ethical.

On a personal note: I went back to school in middle age, so for a brief time I was paying graduate tuition while also paying college tuition for our son. My son attended a private school in Pennsylvania that cost, well, a lot. At the time, tuition was still very reasonable at the state institution I attended in Texas. Here's the contrast: my entire doctorate tuition equaled one semester of Ethan's undergraduate degree. I know that sounds unreal. But it is so.

© 2008 Mary Bold, PhD, CFLE. The content of this blog or related web sites created by Mary Bold (http://www.marybold.com/, http://www.boldproductions.com/, College Intern Blog) is not under any circumstances to be regarded as professional, legal, financial, or medical advice. Or education advice. Or marital advice. Or even a tip.

1 comment:

Pam said...

I am a student at the U of New Mexico and just found your blog. Am studying older students continuing with higher education. Am looking forward to reading your other blogs.