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Financial management tips for returning to college

Financial management tips for returning to college

The ever-rising price tag of college education has been in the news for years, with the average cost hovering just less than $20,000 a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number, however, speaks to first-timers enrolled full-time in a four-year or two-year college. What about adult learners – professionals either looking to continue their education and earn another degree, or those who are returning to school to finish an incomplete degree?

“Many adult learners already in the workforce juggle a number of expenses besides tuition and text books,” says Tracy Lorenz, president of Western International University (West). “They’re paying mortgages or rents, childcare costs, utility bills, car payments and more. Earning a degree can put a strain on their finances.”

Cost was the biggest barrier to continuing education cited by 1,000 women in an online survey conducted by West. Respondents, who had indicated an interest in returning to college, said cost trumped an institution’s prestige in influencing their choice of learning institution.

If you’re considering returning to school as an adult learner, it’s essential to find effective ways to control education costs and manage your overall finances. Here are five steps that can help you control costs while earning a degree:

1. Comparison shop for the best tuition and costs.

While more than one institution may offer the degree program you want, costs will vary from school to school. Many adult learners find that online degree programs offer the best value in terms of cost and quality of education. Not only is tuition typically less, online programs offer adult learners greater schedule flexibility – so they can continue earning a living wage and arrange their schedules to minimize costs like childcare and transportation. Some schools, like West, offer online tuition comparison guides that help students compare costs among select institutions.

2. Prior learning assessment credits may lower costs.

First-time students have a lot to learn, and the costs of a full-time education at a four-year college reflect that. Adult learners, however, already have professional and life experience under their belts, and many institutions have created programs that take this into account. Credit you earned at other colleges or universities may transfer to the institution where you’ve chosen to continue your education. You may hold professional certifications, licenses or corporate training that could also qualify as college-level credit toward a degree. To learn more about prior learning assessment credits, visit the Earned & Learned Credit page on West’s website,

3. Find ways to lower textbook costs.

After tuition, textbooks are a significant expense – for both adult learners and first-time students enrolled in a full-time degree program. Many schools sell used textbooks at a lower cost than new. You may also be able to buy or rent textbooks through a variety of independent online websites. Many online degree programs also include digital copies of text book and course materials with no extra charge.

4. Explore financing options.

Paying for college is a complex endeavor, regardless of whether you’re an adult-learner or a first-time student. It’s important to explore all financing options – from loans and grants to other forms of financial aid. Many employers offer tuition reimbursement programs, while other students may qualify for additional assistance for their service in the military. To determine if you are eligible for federal financial aid, visit

5. Practice basic financial planning.

Smart money management habits are always valuable – especially when you’re paying for a college degree. If you haven’t already done so, create a personal budget or a household budget that will allow you to closely track monthly expenses and income. Curtail discretionary spending, but don’t eliminate important long-term financial goals such as saving toward retirement or to buy a home.

“Improved earning potential is one of the many benefits of returning to school,” Lorenz notes. “With research and planning, adult learners can protect their financial wellbeing while earning their degree.”