Important money tips for older adults going back to college

Tips For Adults Going Back To School

Returning to college, or going for the first time, can be harder than the course work itself, as Cliff Robertson, Jr., of Tyler, Texas, is discovering, in large part because he refuses to go into debt to pay for school.

"It's requiring every penny I can scrape up, applying for every program even remotely available. Then there are the bills of life that simply do not stop," says the 49-year-old, who attends the University of Texas–Tyler.

This is his second go-around with the university. Robertson graduated in 1991 with a communications and media degree. But he returned to his alma mater this summer to work toward a masters in clinical mental health counseling, while juggling a job in administration and sales for a local manufacturer and work as a part-time youth pastor.

"It's tough to balance," Robertson says, of all his commitments. He lost his first wife and little girl in a car accident 15 years ago, but has a 24-year-old son and now a grandson. Robertson also has an 8-year-old son from a second marriage that ended in divorce. "Going to see him while trying to stay on top of a 19-hour course load while working is tough. But I'm somehow managing ... most of the time."

It isn't surprising that adults like Robertson are interested in going back to college, no matter the sacrifice or stress. After all, the more you learn, the more you earn. Plus, life is short, and you may really feel like you're missing out by not pursuing higher education.

"I chose this path because I am committed to helping people. It's my calling," Robertson says.

But returning to college is fraught with financial danger. It isn't only the expense; you have so many more responsibilities to juggle, much more than when you were young and naive and unappreciative of your freedom and flexibility. Toying with the idea of going back to school? Want the experience to go well? Study up on the following.

Understand that college degrees don't always mean big bucks. Yes, an advanced degree should help you earn more, but don't forget: Your success may depend on what you're studying. For instance, a 2012 census report concluded that engineering majors had the highest earnings of any bachelor's degree field, bringing in $92,000 a year in 2011. But if you were going to major in, say, education, psychology or communications, your median annual earnings would be $55,000 – or less.

Or you could have bad luck and not find a great job. This isn't to discourage anyone – there's a lot to be said for getting an education for the sake of an education – but if you're going to take this on, you want to do it right, especially if you are going to be steeped in the world of student loans.

"Older students should be more cautious about borrowing to pay for college," says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at, an informational website about college costs. He has also authored college-cost books, including, "Filing the FAFSA."

Research student debt. The rule of thumb, Kantrowitz says, is that "total student debt at graduation should be less than your expected annual starting salary."

If that's the case, he says, you should be able to repay your student loans in 10 years or less.

Kantrowitz also mentions that if you're 24 or older, as of December 31 of the academic year, you're automatically considered independent for federal student aid purposes.

"This may qualify them for more financial aid, since parent information is not required on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid," or FAFSA, he says.

He also advises older and nontraditional students to apply for financial aid just as dependent students would.

"Use a free scholarship matching service, such as or, to search for scholarships," Kantrowitz says.

Also consider going to a private college or university, says Alejandra Mojica, a 31-year-old public relations intern in San Francisco who is completing her Bachelor of Arts at the University of San Francisco.

"Although the tuition is higher, they often have better financial aid packages, and other tuition assistance can be much easier to access than with public universities," says Mojica.

Assume you'll be trimming your budget. Mojica had gone to community college in 2002 and then went off and on over the years. But mostly, she was off the college grid. Having a daughter made going to school tough, though Mojica admits, "I also wasn't that interested in going to school for a while."

She earned a living by working for nonprofit organizations in her community and eventually rethought her decision not to get a college degree. So four years ago, she started college again, and, unsurprisingly, had to make some adjustments to her budget. She ended up quitting her job, enrolling in school full time and moving in with her family.

Not that you necessarily need to be drastic when you scale back your budget, and maybe you shouldn't be too quick to cut everything. Mojica regrets not holding onto her apartment.

"With the rent in the Bay Area right now, I can't get anything close to what I had before for the price I had," she says.

Lindy Spurgeon, a development manager for a marketing firm in St. Louis, who is recently divorced and, at age 31, recently started at Webster University, majoring in international relations, also sliced her budget dramatically.

Government loans, grants and scholarships are covering much of her college education, but Spurgeon is on the hook for $3,000 of each semester's tuition. So she applied for a credit card with no interest for 12 months and managed to find $500 in her budget to cut – mostly by cutting back on restaurant meals and monthly subscriptions like the gym. She put the $3,000 fall semester tuition on her credit card, which she'll pay down every month in sums of $500. In another semester, with the $3,000 paid off, she'll do it all again.

It has been tricky.

"I had to completely rework my budget that didn't really have a lot of wiggle room to begin with," Spurgeon says.

But it's working for her, and Spurgeon is excited about her future. "I'm very passionate about human rights and the plight of refugees," she says. "My hope is to work with immigrants and refugees by helping them get accustomed to the cultures where they are moving."

Mojica is excited, too. "The experience has been incredible," she says. "When you go back to school as an adult it can be hard to adjust but you learn in such a different way. You are more focused, you have more life experience to apply to what you are learning, and you likely have more direction with what you want to do with your degree after graduation."

But, again, that's assuming it all goes to plan, and the older you get, arguably the harder it gets.

"The dedication needed is overwhelming," Robertson says. "The inclination to quit is huge. All the things pulling you in different directions seem like they are out to tear you apart."

Which is why you really, really want to be committed, if you're going to attempt this.

"After money problems, conflicts between school, work and home are the number one reason why students drop out of college," Kantrowitz says.

Which means you still don't have a college degree – just a lot of student debt.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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Important money tips for older adults going back to college


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