How do you go back to school... with bills to pay?
January 1, 2013 7:05 AM   Subscribe

How do you go back to school as a 'mature' student - with bills to pay?

Hello (and Happy New Year),

If one is a "mature" student, with bills, a mortgage, etc. is going back to school feasible? How do you do this?

I think I could use an educational upgrade in 2013. The only problem is, with home & family bills to pay, I'm having trouble understanding how to do this. I'm wondering if anyone has any advice?

AFAIK I can think of a few options:

1. go part time and keep working

or if full time (or mainly full time),

2. save up money in advance to cover expenses

3. dip into savings

4. get a loan

Has anyone successfully navigated education & grown up responsibilities and expenses? How did you do it? Is there any guidance or strategies you can offer?

thanks much
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey to Education (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it's certainly feasible. I mean, other people have successfully done it, so it's not like it's a situation unique to you.

I think what determines whether it's feasible is whether you have another source of income to make up the income you would lose by going back to school.

That source of income could be from a spouse, from part time work, from capital gains on investments, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 7:15 AM on January 1, 2013

I did it by going part time - 3 years and 1 quarter to get my MBA at night school.
posted by COD at 7:21 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am 47 and returned to school in September, in a post-baccalaureate program that will prepare me for a grad program in Speech Language Pathology.Here are a couple of things that helped me:

Looking into on-line options. A prof at the local Big 10 university turned me on to a program in Utah, of all places.The tuition is significantly lower than any of the schools in commuter distance for me, and working on-line is also saving me money in gas and child-care expenses--and time spent in classes, as well. I did do my best to look into whether this program was well-regarded enough to get me into master's programs, which are very competitive; in the years since I was last a student on-line education has exploded. At least 3 of my target schools have admitted students who went through this program, so it seemed safe enough to me. If you choose an on-line option, look into it very carefully.

I am going part-time. This is a hard choice for me as I'll most likely be 52 when I start working. But the field I'm going into has great employment prospects--every one of the 5 local-area schools I might attend has a 100% in-field placement rate for grads. I wouldn't have done this at my age in any program that didn't have a very good chance of paying for itself through lucrative employment.

I haven't worked for money the past few years, but I homeschool two kids and have one in public school, so I'm very busy. I've definitely compromised what I can do--homeschooling looked mellower this fall, and I simply had to drop a lot of my personal hobbies off the list for awhile.

I did take out a modest student loan this year. This let me get started easily. I expect to pay next year's tuition out of family income, and am planning for that. I am beginning repayment on this year's loan while in school, so as not to drag it out into my golden years. I expect that I will borrow for tuition in my master's program, unless I get scholarships, which I understand are rare. My total tuition for the two-year program will probably be a little more than 50% of a starting salary for a speech language pathologist, so this feels pretty safe for me despite my age.

I am renting my textbooks. This term, I have a textbook that costs $250 or more new, which I have been able to rent a used copy of for $40. Textbook rentals are also a new thing since last time I was a student, and I love it.

My choices may not apply to you. Our family income is primarily my partner's salary as a software developmer in any case. I didn't have to give up income to go to school. But the cost-saving choices I've made I think would apply
posted by not that girl at 7:28 AM on January 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

I am going full-time, but I still had money in a college fund to help pay tuition. Other than that, I've worked part-time most of the time. This is tough to do with a full-time course load. This semester, I saved up so I don't have to work and I'm taking an over-full load (which I need to do to graduate on time).

Re textbooks: Try borrowing from your school's library. Many schools have book sharing with other universities, so they might be able to get it for you even if they don't have a lendable copy. The other option is to get international editions -- same content, 10% of the cost.

Also, tax benefits -- I don't know what the limits are on this, but if you qualify for the education credit, you may be able to get a couple thousand $ back on your taxes.

Look for scholarships.

Look at tuition costs when you're looking at programs. I found one at an Ivy that has a program for adult students with reduced tuition.

Also I see a lot of this, since most of my classes are with other adults. There are a lot of people who take 2 classes at night in addition to a full-time job.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:41 AM on January 1, 2013

I did this at the age of 35 by saving up in advance. I worked extra hours at my job, sold my vacation time back to the company, and cut my expenses to the bone. Then when I was a student I got into selling books on Amazon that I bought really cheaply from thrift stores. This was about five years ago before ebooks hit and made selling used books online much less viable. At the time though I was able to pay all my living expenses without even needing to use my savings. I took the bus everywhere, didn't buy new clothes, ate supermarket brands of food, etc. it may sound miserable but it was great and I'm so glad I did it as I love my new career. So yes, it's doable, but you have to really want it. Good luck.
posted by hazyjane at 7:43 AM on January 1, 2013

#1 is how most students and me at my university did it. I worked 30 hours/week to cover rent and get healthcare, took out minimal loans to pay for tuition, and lived as hazyjane described in terms of food, transit, clothes, for the 3.5 years it took me to do a 2 year master's. I am still in debt but am paying it off- halfway done after 5 years, but my job rocks.

Look for programs for "nontraditional" or "returning" students as these are the buzzwords to describe programs more flexible in terms of taking one or two classes/term, and weekend/evening classes amenable to working adults (if you are in Michigan, Ohio, or Ontario, check out Wayne state university in Detroit for undergrad and grad programs geared to nontrads). I am sure there are other 3rd tier programs in your area too- Wayne is not known for intellectualism, but it got me the diploma I needed to get me the job I wanted. Programs described as "cohort" programs tend to assume you'll take a fixed number and order of classes (4/term, during daytime hours).

I will not pretend it does not suck to have class every Saturday from 9-2, or twice a week from 6-10, or to have a group homework meeting after an 8 hour day of work. But it is for a limited time, and the payoff is so worth it! You can do it! Good luck!
posted by holyrood at 8:05 AM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here are some ways I've gone over many years of being an adult student:

1. Many years ago I used a Pell Grant to pay for a 1 year vocational program which I attended full time. Eligibility depends on income, among other factors, but it's worth looking into if your income isn't especially high. I worked part time during that year while depending on my then-husband's income to cover the bulk of our expenses.

2. Took out a Stafford Loan and spent a few months attending school full time while relying on my husband's income (much higher than previous husband's income, so we could get by for awhile without me working.)

3. Worked full time and paid for classes out of pocket. Was able to handle one class per semester doing this, as I rarely had the time or money to handle more.

4. This past semester I took a class related to my new job, and my company paid for it. Many companies offer a fairly generous tuition reimbursement for classes that are related to your job, or business classes in general. Mine pays up to $2000 a year, which covers 2-3 classes plus books at my school.

I am fortunate in that I live in the district of a very good community college whose tuition is very reasonable so it has not been too difficult to pay for a lot of my expenses out of pocket.

They also offer a lot of their classes online, and I took as many of my classes online as I could because going to class is a huge time suck. I'd rather spend the time studying on my own in the comfort of my own apartment than drive to campus twice a week, deal with the parking situation, spend 3 hours listening to a lecture with half my brain while trying to take notes with the other half, and then still having to put in hours at home studying and doing assignments.

Online classes are not for everyone, but I learn more by reading and doing assignments than I do through lectures, and I work well to deadlines. I also have a very smart and patient husband who doesn't mind tutoring me when I get stuck on something. Online classes are great time and aggravation saver if you can manage them, though.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:08 AM on January 1, 2013

First, don't worry about the time angle - Colleges virtually all cater to returning, "mature" students, and you can take entire degree programs at night or in some cases, online (though personally I do not like online courses).

Second, the cost - Though tuitions have far outpaced inflation, you most likely make far, far more than you did as a 20YO your first time through college. Unless you plan to go for something big-name like a Harvard MBA, you can get into quite a few part-time (usually two courses at a time) evening graduate programs for under $2500 per semester. Additionally, look into whether or not your employer offers some form of tuition reimbursement - Many do, as long as you take something you can vaguely justify as either related to your current job or preparing you for the next rank above you.

Finally, don't worry too much about whether or not you can still cut it in college (you didn't mention that, but it seems a common enough concern that you probably at least wonder about it) - Whatever "edge" you've lost from your youth, you'll find your years of wisdom more than compensate for.

/ I write all of the above from the experience of having recently gone back to school myself. It surprised me how easy the whole process went, and how much I still enjoy the university environment.
// Oh, and something we didn't have back in my, and probably your, undergrad days - Buy your books on Amazon! You'll literally pay half as much up front, and they buy them back for far more than you remember the uni bookstore paying (up to 70% of the "new" value)
posted by pla at 9:03 AM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you know you want to go to a specific school, you might consider trying to get a job there. Many colleges offer a very significant tuition discount to employees, and sometimes schools have reciprocity agreements with affiliated schools as well.

I worked for the college I went to grad school at, and got something like a 75% discount on tuition at my school. I could also have taken classes at any Oregon University System college for a reduced fee. Since I was a benefits-eligible employee, I still had health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation, etc-- and paid about $300 a quarter for full-time grad school. If it won't seriously degrade your resume or future employment prospects, it's really worth considering.
posted by Kpele at 9:37 AM on January 1, 2013

How much backup do you have in your life? Are you married? Are you female or male (I hate to bring it up, but usually it's the woman who's doing the work of taking care of everybody, and if you're female, uh....well, it's probably harder)? How old are your kids? Do they mostly take care of themselves or do you need to work out babysitting arrangements n order to have study time? How much ease you have doing this will depend on how your family life is going. Some situations are more helpful to a part time adult student than others.

Most people do work and take one or two classes every semester and just do the best they can--I don't think it's super practical to save up and quit your job and do full time for most folks, and I wouldn't really recommend draining the savings or getting a loan any more if you can avoid doing either. Junior/2-year colleges are especially designed to deal with situations like yours. However, in these days of budget cuts from hell, I will warn you that it's surprisingly difficult to get into classes even at a JC these days. So keep that in mind.

Online classes are also an option. They really have never worked out for me because well, I tend to forget the class exists when I can just "go whenever" rather than having it set into my schedule, but they work for some folks.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:39 AM on January 1, 2013

I have been a "mature" student for pretty much all of my academic career. I finished undergrad while married with a toddler and working full-time. I managed this by entering a program targeted at working adults - classes were primarily offered on weekends, so I spent all Saturday and Sunday every other weekend in class, plus homework and reading during the week. I also took a few classes online.

I'm currently in a professional master's program targeted to working people with on-campus meetings at the beginning of each semester and synchronous online classes during the semester. I still work full-time, as do most of my classmates.

Both degrees were funded with a combination of employer benefits, out of pocket payments and loans.

My recommendations:

Look for quality programs targeted to working adults. Quality means no for-profit schools (U of Phoenix, Capella, etc.). Lots of traditional universities offer programs for working adults. My undergrad was at a well-regarded regional Jesuit college and my master's is at a top-rated state school.

If you are looking at a program that is primarily online, try to find one that offers synchronous classes (i.e., you have to be in class at a certain time for lecture and interaction with other students) rather than asynchronous (i.e, posting to a bulletin board as interaction). I've done both, and the latter is OK, but the former is much richer. Having some IRL interaction with your teachers is very beneficial.
posted by jeoc at 10:04 AM on January 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it's really important to think through the lifestyle that you want to have as a student. Some keep their jobs and attend classes during evenings and weekends. Others, like myself, bit the bullet and took out ungodly sums of loans in order to go during the day. This worked for me because I was/am a single mother and wanted to be home when they were. You have to sort out what will work best for you. Is financial stability more important than time with your family? These are the sorts of compromises you'll have to make.

If you do opt for an evening program, be sure that the final degree program listed on the degree is of the same pedigree as the day programs. Often those programs, while still at a reputable institution, can have a reputation for being less rigorous.

If you plan on pursuing your career in the town you currently live, it would be worth talking to professionals and asking them about which programs are considered industry standard.

Finally, if you do go back to school, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Most universities will offer reasonable health insurance if you attend full-time.
2. Most adult learners are seen as a breath of fresh air to professors. You'll ask better questions, be able to think more deeply, and just generally be more awesome.
3. Do consider commute times and how they will affect the time with your family. Typically parking at a university is very expensive, so consider how long public transit will take or the additional cost of parking on campus.

Good luck!
posted by frizz at 10:22 AM on January 1, 2013

I went part-time and kept working. My MS in computer science took about four years. I would not have been able to do it with kids to care for (way too much time), but I had no problem paying the bills, and I paid cash for the part of the degree not covered by my employers, so I am debt-free for the degree.

Make sure your degree will be from "Awesome State University" rather than some cop-out like "Awesome State University Professional Night School Program", if you go this route.
posted by town of cats at 11:18 AM on January 1, 2013

You might want to look into local community colleges to see if they have some or all of the classes you will need. The tuition is much cheaper and they really cater to returning students--evening and weekend classes, online classes, etc. I'm 48 and back in school studying Accounting; I already have a BA, so I wasn't eligible for Pell Grants, but I took out a loan and am living off that (I live with my partner, who covers the mortgage and utility bills, while I cover food and do the housework and cooking). The folks in my classes range in age from 18 to 50-something and my impression is that most have jobs and kids, so it can be done.

As an aside, I have mixed feelings about the online classes (I've now completed 4 in Accounting and Business). If you are someone who likes discussion and has lots of questions, they can be frustrating; if you are someone who learns best through hearing something explained or through discussion, they will be a lot of work. At least at my school, they are structured with weekly assignments and/or quizzes and online or in-class exams. This all takes a lot of time, and I'm not sure you save any time not going to class (though you don't have the travel time). I also had the problem of feeling isolated, so having a job would have been a plus for me. And if you have online exams, they may be provided by the textbook publisher; if so, they will be TOUGH. There's a big difference between exams and assignments written by the instructor, I have found. I get seasonal depression, so this quarter, I'm taking 2 out of 3 classes on-site in order to get myself out and about.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:32 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to add to my comment above: community colleges will have an advising office that can help you to meet some requirements there, then transfer to a 4-year university. Their students do this all the time, so they know all about it. When I talked to them, they gave me good advice on how to do it, and also suggested I talk to the advising office at the university as well to make sure it would work.

Correction to next to last sentence of my other comment: There's a big difference between exams and assignments written by the instructor and those written by the textbook publisher, I have found.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 1:39 PM on January 1, 2013

I went back to school in my late 20s when my wife and I had 4 children and we both had full time jobs. I took 9 hours/semester, except for one semester when I took 12 hours which was too much. School was cheaper then, but I got some help from my employer too. Community college is the way to start IMO, because it's cheaper, the classes are usually smaller, and the instructors often have real world experience. Once I got far enough along, I got a loan (and a small scholarship), quit work, went full time, and finished up the last 2 semesters (18 hours). I graduated when I was 35. I delegated a lot to my wife who worked at least as hard as I did. Mainly you just have to decide it's what you want, decide it's what you're going to do, and then do it. I'm nothing special, so if I did it, I'm confident you can too. Good luck!
posted by Daddy-O at 4:27 PM on January 1, 2013

I went back to school at 40, am still in, and have a fulltime job. I knew I needed to keep my job, could not go fulltime, and could not move. That made my feasible list of options much simpler and clearer. I investigated the 4 somewhat viable programs within commuting distance, and chose the one best suited to my goals. IT's been great.

My program is a professional Master's but is run through the extension program of a major university. Check out these adult learning/extension programs - they used to be solely for "enrichment" but are now serious about the market of return-to-school professional degree earners, and offer "products" from the MBA to IT to Information Science to liberal arts degrees. My faculty has been top notch and my experience quite good. As with anything as an adult, you need to sort of work the system to make the offerings deliver value to your own particular life and career. You have to get in the driver's seat and insist on putting together the program that will do what you need it to do. But the resources of a university are amazing when you avail yourself of them in a serious way.

I pay my own way, with the assistance of a work program that supports about 1/4 of my annual tuition cost. It's a lot of money, BUT: most of it is tax deductible. I never claimed anything other than the standard deduction before I returned to school; now I claim all my expenses and get a far larger refund than I ever did before. In addition to the direct cost of tuition you can claim mileage or public transport to and from classes and other school activities, meals taken while traveling to and from class if you're away at mealtime, textbooks and school supplies, even software and equipment you need for school. In the end this works out pretty well for me.

Many people take more than one class at a time; I wish I could but can't, my job is too crazy. It's important to know how much you can realistically handle. The more credits you get out of the way, the faster you'll get through; but if it's a matter of piling on stuff until you break, you are not doing yourself any favors. I would rather maintain a good record and do quality work at school and at work than try to do too much and fail at something. Judge carefully.

Basically I have one two-hour class a week. For that class I probably spend 6-8 hours a week on average in reading, note taking, and preparing assignments. Big papers require more time, so some finals weeks have been pretty much chock full of just work. Also allow time to visit the library - you can do a bunch more research online than you could when I got my BA 20 years ago, but it's still not enough (in many fields) to mean that you can skip visiting the stacks. Especially in the humanities, where much scholarship is in book form, you won't find everything digitized. Over time I am figuring out that I need to designate a couple nights a week - "class night" and "Study night" and then put in additional time on the weekend.

I need my partner's support and if you have a partner, this is important. On "class night" my SO manages cooking and deals with things like laundry and putting out recycling. When assignments are due, they find extra things to do outside the home to allow me more unbroken writing time. It's weird but having someone around can be a distraction - your usual routine/slacking is always there waiting for you as long as they are there. It helps if they can remove themselves as a temptation.

What pla said about life wisdom is SO true. I work hard, but learning feels fun and sort of easy compared with how everything felt in college. I know why I'm there, I'm invested, and I know how to manage projects and get things done to a standard. You will be surprised that this is all much easier, even though graduate expectations are higher.

Go for it - good luck.
posted by Miko at 9:18 PM on January 1, 2013

My husband went back to college to start on a bachelor's degree this year. He works full time at a major corporation and takes between 6 and 9 credit hours per term. Here is how we are doing it, because it is a major family undertaking. (In my opinion, if you have a spouse/partner and children, everyone needs to be in agreement on your goals, timeline, etc. for this to be a success.)

- He's enrolled at our local state university. The cost is about $2k per term. We are able to pay monthly through a automatic payment program I set up with the school, about $400 per month (like a car payment).

- He meets with his advisor/mentor at least once a term. He was able to transfer some credits earned 20 years ago with his associate's degree, and was able to challenge some other denials with the help of his advisor.

- His classes meet once a week for about three hours at a time. He usually takes two during the week, and one on a Saturday. During the summer term, he goes four days a week for about three hours a day (in the evening).

- We had to work out how we would handle the family life and goings-on. We have a 4-year-old who is in pre-k/daycare while we both work. So, he leaves for work at 6 AM, and gets out around 3, and picks her up, makes dinner, etc. so he can leave by 5:30 PM for class. He is tired, yes, but it's not unmanageable.

We were talking about this recently and I was telling him how proud I was of him for accomplishing this (he has a 4.0 GPA so far). I can tell he is far less scared of college than he was before. Even though he's always the oldest student in his class, and many times older than the professors, he has kept an open mind and always learned something. He's started to believe what I have been telling him all along--that the profs are not out to get you, they're there to help him learn. Yes, it will take him another 4-5 years of this to complete his B.B.A., and yes, the sacrifices are hard on me and our daughter--but it is completely worth it. (He's already talking about a master's degree!) His direct boss is very supportive and this is actually part of his professional development plan, although he is not taking his company's tuition reimbursement plan.

Another tip: if your state has a 529 plan that has any tax advantages for you, look into investing some money in it to pay for your education. In my state, you can deduct up to $2000 in contributions from your state taxes, and then use the 529 capital and earnings for education expenses, tax-free.

My sister is also in a Ph.D. program. She sought out a job at the university where her program is so she can take advantage of their free tuition for employees program. She has to wait until like the week before the term starts to enroll, but since they're doctoral classes, she has no problem getting what she needs.
posted by FergieBelle at 6:20 AM on January 2, 2013

I got my MBA in a cluster program at my job. I didn't pay a dime.

It was an executive program in that we did 4 hours on Friday and 8 hours on Saturday, on alternate weeks.

It was pretty easy, and mostly interesting. We students all stayed together and the teachers would alternate.

So one session we'd have Organization Managment and Finance. We'd do 5 weeks, then we'd move onto Economics and Accounting.

Most jobs at corporations have Tutition Aid Programs that will pay $5,650 per year towards tution. They'll let you know what they'll pay for. (Usually a bachelor's in anything and a Master's in something that applies to the business.)

Work full time, go to school part time. That's what I did.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:29 AM on January 2, 2013

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