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Going Back to College as an Adult: Potential Benefits, Costs & Saving Strategies

Personal Finance
Adult man taking notes on a tablet after going back to college

It's never too late to become a student again. Whether you're getting your bachelor's degree for the first time or taking individual courses to further your education, there are many potential benefits to going back to school. But before you enroll, you may want to do your homework on how to pay for it so that you can plan ahead and save up.

If you're thinking of going back to college as an adult, here are some financial considerations, plus some options for paying for higher education.

Why Go Back to School as an Adult?

Older students may be more common than you think. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 19.9 million students will attend a college or university in fall 2019. Of those, it's estimated that 7.4 million college students will be age 25 or older.

If you're considering furthering your education, there are a number of reasons why it may be a good idea. Here are just a handful:

  • Pursuing a new career: If you'd like to make a transition into a new field of work, pursuing higher education could help you pivot toward your new professional path.
  • Career advancement: Going back to college to obtain additional degrees could potentially open new opportunities within your current field. Depending on your line of work and the degree you'd like to obtain, it could help you boost your earning potential.
  • Personal fulfillment: Perhaps you've wanted to go to college, and want to satiate your curiosities about an academic field. If you find yourself in early retirement or taking a work sabbatical, you might have extra time to go back to school as an adult.
  • Finishing what you started: If you started obtaining your college degree earlier in life and had to stop, you might want to return to school to complete the requisite coursework and graduate.

What Are the Costs of Going Back to School?

The costs of pursuing a college education can be steep and continue to climb. According to The College Board, the average cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year out-of-state institution was $38,330 for 2019-2020.

That doesn't include other costs such as books, supplies, equipment and travel. Books and supplies alone cost an average $11,510 at four-year public colleges in the 2019-2020 school year, according to The College Board.

Besides tuition and related expenses, consider examining all the costs involved in going to college as an adult. If you'll be taking time from working then you'll likely earn less money or have less paid time off for your other interests. Plus, you might miss out on advancing professionally and furthering your current career.

You also may not be able to save as much for retirement, or be able to pay off existing debt as aggressively as you'd like. If possible, try to avoid allocating money away from your other financial goals and priorities. Of course, how you pay for college will depend on your unique situation — if you plan and save well enough in advance, you may be able to avoid having to make a difficult decision.

How to Save & Pay for School

While the costs of attending college can be high, there are a number of options to save for a college education.

529 College Savings Plan: If you don't anticipate going back to school for a few more years, you might consider saving separately and more aggressively to go back to college. You could even open a 529 college savings plan, which offers tax-deferred growth of your investment. It's important to remember, though, that no investment type can guarantee growth, and may instead lose value over time. When it's time to take money out of a 529 account, purchases you make on qualified educational expenses may be tax-free.

Financial aid & scholarships: You may want to consider applying for financial assistance. In particular, see what existing scholarships might be available for adults going back to college. You might be surprised at what scholarships exist for older adults, or those returning to school to expand their opportunities.

Consider less expensive options: Instead of going back to school full-time, you might explore degree tracks for working professionals or online education. These routes may be more affordable. Plus, it might be easier to continue working while pursuing your degree. If you're a retired senior, you may want to consider looking into discounted, or even free, courses that help you continue your education.

Knowing the costs of going back to college as an adult may help you determine whether it's the right choice for you. Understanding its benefits can also help you see how pursuing higher education plays into your bigger life plans.

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