Illustration by Dan Page
En español | Are you thinking of returning to school to pick up new money-making skills? Before you do, investigate the likely pay (and availability) of the jobs you're aiming for. Your education will be worth its cost only if you'll earn more, after tax, than you paid for the course—including the interest due on any student loans.
When you borrow, there are two rules of thumb, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com, a college scholarship search site. The total amount of your loan, for all school years, should not exceed the first-year salary you expect from your new job. And you should be able to repay that loan, in full, within 10 years. "Don't go into retirement carrying a student loan," Kantrowitz says. "If you think you'll probably work for fewer than 10 years, borrow less."
Here are seven cost-cutting tips:
1. Think about how much more education you actually need. Four-year degree programs are expensive and might not pay off for people starting in late middle age. Perhaps you can fulfill your ambitions in two years with an associate degree.
2. Your best choice might be a public community college. These schools offer a wide variety of vocational programs at modest cost.
3. Beware the expensive for-profit schools that advertise aggressively, promise you jobs and encourage you to borrow. Often they're just diploma mills, providing inferior or inappropriate training. Search online for complaints about any school you're considering.
4. When making a budget, consider all the costs—not just tuition but also commuting, books, laptops and expensive supplies that might be needed in class. One AARP member told me that he had to drop out of a graphic design course (at a for-profit school); his "adviser" failed to mention that he needed to own some digital equipment that he couldn't afford to buy.
5. Look for free money. There might be education grants available for people pursuing certain fields. Put the words "grants for [your special field]" into a search engine and see what turns up. If you're currently working, your employer might offer tuition money to help improve your skills. Fill in a FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, available at fafsa.ed.gov) to see if you're eligible for aid based on financial need. People who never got a bachelor's degree might get a federal Pell Grant, which is only for undergraduates. Some states provide tuition waivers for older students or people who are unemployed.
6. Borrow for higher education through the federal government's Direct Loan program. If the FAFSA shows you have financial need, the government will pay the interest while you are in school. If not, you can get an unsubsidized loan at a fixed interest rate (currently 4.29 percent for undergraduates). You can also turn to private lenders, but remember to borrow no more than you expect to earn in your first year.
7. Consider earning a degree online. Many reputable state schools offer distance education by internet or cable TV. By staying in state, you get more favorable tuition rates.
Whatever you choose, be sure you have the time and motivation to do the classwork. You'll need to complete the program to compete for your dream job and pay off your loans.
Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of How to Make Your Money Last: The Indispensable Retirement Guide and Making the Most of Your Money NOW.