Back to School: Money Tips for Adults

Online degrees, flexible work schedules, and creative funding plans can make grad school more affordable.

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For a kid fresh out of high school, going to college represents freedom, a chance to shake off old responsibilities. For an adult headed back to college, however, it joins family, work, home maintenance and the ever-elusive personal time as one of many, many responsibilities. Struggling with the pressures of being a non-traditional student? In the words of Steve Winwood, here’s a short list of strategies to roll with it, baby.

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Online degree programs

Online degree programs can be the most convenient method for someone juggling all the other responsibilities of adult life, since you can complete your requirements on your own time. Be careful, though: a number of online degree programs have come under fire for awarding fake degrees. As far back as 2003, education industry experts estimated that more than 400 “diploma mills” and 300 counterfeit diploma websites were making more than $500 million off of these scams annually.

Don’t be fooled by websites depicting happy students on picturesque college campuses. Instead, avoid any university that offers a diploma for “life experience” or one that guarantees your degree. These will take your tuition money in return for a useless degree. Quickly awarded degrees, or ones that have addresses outside of the U.S., should also raise red flags. Remember: if it looks too good to be true, chances are it is.

To find a reputable online degree program, try to stick with programs being offered by schools in your own backyard, or at least domestic universities that you’ve heard of. You should also make sure that any school you’re interested in can be found in the Department of Education’s database of accredited institutions and programs.

Flexible work schedule

The key is to earn a degree without unnecessarily disrupting the rest of your life, never mind the last-minute research assignments, exam prep, and lab work. Hey, no pressure, right? Whether you’re supplementing your spouse’s income, or somehow need to pull numerous financial rabbits out of a hat each month by yourself, a flexible work schedule is going to be necessary for your survival. Employment listings such as Flex Jobs and Virtual Vocations offer at-home, temporary work including web design work and at-home call agent shifts. Even if you have a rigid schedule, or are otherwise unable to take a job with flexible hours, try to find ways to study and work: audio tapes while you’re commuting or cracking a book when work is slow.

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Funding plan

Eventually, the tuition bill arrives, and you’ll need to have a plan for paying for school. One way is with grants. There are far too many to mention in one article alone, but among the more well-known is the federal Pell grant program, which provides college funding for students in financial need. Many veterans, military personnel, and in some cases their family members have access to college scholarships through the government’s GI Bill program. Word to the wise: there are a couple of variations within the program and they each have different funding parameters.

For example, the Post-9/11 GI Bill offers tuition and housing assistance to servicemembers who have logged at least 90 days after September 11, 2001. A number of other federal, state-level and non-governmental scholarships exist based on merit, need, region or ethnicity; check to see which ones you qualify for. Once you’ve found as many sources of pre-paid funding as you can, some universities offer payment plans. Alternatively, you can think about taking out a line of credit with a low APR.

Earning a degree is within reach, no matter where you are in life. It just takes some planning, and perhaps a bit of lifestyle adjustment. Find a plan that works, stick to it, and get that diploma.

Tim Chen is founder of NerdWallet.com, a financial resource for those wanting to learn everything about credit, from saving money with balance transfers, to choosing the best credit card for rewards on gas.