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Set Your Sights on Higher Education

Don't let finances block the way for you, your children or your grandchildren

En español | Saida Luciano-Ross, 49, just started her first year at business school. That's headline news for her Puerto Rican parents. Luciano-Ross's mother left school in second grade to help raise her brothers and sisters. Her dad made it to high school, but then he dropped out, emigrating to New York City to work in the Garment District. In contrast, Luciano-Ross earned her bachelor's degree in business administration last May. That same week, her daughter, Veronica, who is 21, received her bachelor's degree in political science. Saida is now working toward her MBA (master of business administration). Veronica is pursuing her second bachelor's degree, this one in criminal justice, which she hopes will pave the way to law school and a career in international law. And Luciano-Ross's son, Roberto, who is 19, is just finishing his second year studying graphic design at a local community college.

See also: Higher learning.

Financing higher education for your children, grandchildren and yourself. Graduation cap with money in it.

Fredrik Broden

The upward generational trend toward higher education among Hispanics extends far beyond this family. Despite the soaring cost of college, Latinos, along with Asians and Pacific Islanders, have the fastest rate of increase in enrollment of all ethnic groups over the past three decades, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That's not surprising.

As our economy grows more complex, schooling becomes more valuable. "Jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience," said President Barack Obama recently. And once you have that diploma, you'll earn more. "A person with a college degree," says Deborah Santiago of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit organization that aims to accelerate Latino student success in higher education, "will earn over $1 million more in a lifetime than someone without a college education."

That's a key message for Hispanics. Despite the upward trend, just 19 percent of Latinos 25 and older — versus 35 percent of the general population — have an associate degree or higher. A Pew Hispanic Center study found that nearly three-quarters of Latinos who cut their education short during or right after high school said they did so to help support their family. But you can overcome the financial challenges.

Next: Mine the Resources. >>

Mine the Resources

Don't be frightened by what you read about the skyrocketing price of college tuition, says Santiago.

"Although some students pay full freight," she says, "many don't." Financial aid, especially for families of modest means, is often available through employers, schools and the government.

Saida Luciano-Ross's associate degree was funded by a grant from her previous employer, an aerospace company, part of a severance package when she was laid off in 2007 from her job in quality assurance. A federal Pell Grant helped finance her bachelor's degree. Veronica's BS was funded in part by a $20,000-a-year need-based scholarship from her university. Roberto also received a $3,000-a-year federal Pell Grant.

"Especially with my mother and brother in school at the same time, money was a big issue for us," says Veronica. "The scholarship allowed me to pursue my degree without too much financial stress on the family."

The paperwork to apply for scholarships and loans may be daunting, and competition may be stiff. But awards can range from a low-interest loan paying for a portion of the tuition to a full ride that includes room and board.

Most large companies offer some kind of tuition assistance. Some programs require coursework to be relevant to a student's current job or employer; others don't have that restriction. Or classes may fit under a professional development plan.

If you work for a university or college, the education perk is probably even better. Many will cover nearly all tuition at the institution for employees and dependent children. Luciano-Ross landed a new job as evaluation and matriculation coordinator at Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut, her recent alma mater. She loves her work, and plans to continue working while earning her MBA, also at Post. As a full-time employee, 90 percent of her tuition is covered. Veronica is also attending Post and taking advantage of her mother's employer's generous employee tuition program; 95 percent of her tuition is covered.

For other private and government scholarships and loans, let the not-for-profit College Board, which offers an online search of nearly 2,500 sources of college funding, do the research for you. Find scholarships that are specifically for Latinos by going to the "Scholarship Search" link and under "Additional Information" clicking "Hispanic." Pell Grants now worth up to $5,500 a year for undergraduate students who have not yet earned a bachelor's or a professional degree are awarded based largely on financial need. And the U.S. Department of Education website offers a wider range of options.

Next: Find a Cheaper Route. >>

Find a Cheaper Route

Attending a local college and living at home could save thousands of dollars a year.

Luciano-Ross and her two adult children attend schools close to home and still live under the same Waterbury roof (along with husband, Johnny, and youngest daughter, Katherine, 8), thus sparing the family the fat bills that would normally have come with dorm housing and a college meal plan.

Having three members of the family in three colleges at the same time often seems like a TV sitcom, says Saida. "There were times we'd all be studying in some corner of the house, one of us in the library, the other in the basement," she says. "I would sometimes do my reading in the car in the garage."

Two-year community colleges, like the one Roberto attends, offer another budget-conscious option. They typically cost much less than four-year colleges, and you can attend from home.

Choose a Hot Career Path

If you're going back to school to boost your income, consider aiming for a career path that offers the most opportunity. Some fast-growing careers that require a four-year or advanced degree include elementary- and secondary-school teachers, accountants, lawyers, doctors and computer analysts. Several professions — such as nurses, computer support specialists, preschool teachers, and insurance and real estate agents — require only a two-year associate degree. The online Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook — which covers growth in the field, potential income and nature of the work — is a great place to explore career fields. It is available in English and Spanish.

Whatever the choice, Veronica remembers her maternal grandmother's words: "She used to say to me, 'Education is always the number one priority!' " says Veronica. "I still hear her words in every classroom, during every test and during any obstacle that life throws my way."