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Financial Education

Going Back to School as an Adult

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The back-to-school season continues to welcome students of all ages. More and more Americans are taking the plunge to continue their education beyond the usual graduating age of 22.

In 2015, over 8.1 million Americans ages 25 and older enrolled in some type of higher education degree program. By 2026, that number is expected to jump to 8.8 million.

Interested in going back to school? We’ve got reasons to go back, financial aid resources, tips on how to fit school in with your current responsibilities, and, for seniors: “alternative” back-to-school options.

Why Adults are Going Back to School

There are a number of reasons why you may want to return to school as an adult, whether practical or personal. Perhaps you’ve been dreaming of a career change and finally have the means to make it happen, whether due to increased financial resources or even just more time.

If you got sidetracked from obtaining your degree years ago, you may also find it’s a good time to finish what you started, no matter how long ago. Or perhaps you’re passionate about your current career path and simply want to broaden the path for advancing. Once you’ve honed in on why you want to go back to school, you can then start to focus on how.

When to Consider Continuing Your Education

Before you set foot in the registrar’s office, make sure you’ve taken a good look at your finances. This is important at all stages of life, whether you’re raising kids or nearing retirement.

Start off by running the numbers and finding your break-even point. How much will you spend on tuition (or forego earning, if you’ll be taking a break from the workforce) and how long will it take you to earn that lost income back? Also, research the job prospects in your area if you’re moving into an entirely new field.

Financial Aid for Adult Education

The good news: Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you can’t utilize some of the same resources as younger students.

Be sure to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is open to any type of student pursuing higher education, regardless of age, and checks your eligibility for federal grants, loans, and work-study programs. The Pell Grant is also for undergraduate students of any age, and does not need to be repaid. There are also databases offering information on scholarships and grants, many of which apply to older adults.

Additionally, look for tuition assistance programs from your existing employer. (Consult your Human Resources department.)

Also consider using a 529 savings plan, a tax-advantaged savings fund designed specifically for educational expenses. Although contributions are taxed, you can make withdrawals for education expenses tax-free, even on the earnings. While these are usually used for dependents, you can also create your own account. And if you have set up an account for your child, and find yourself with leftover funds, you can assign yourself as the new beneficiary so that the money doesn’t go to waste. Some states offer tax deductions for your 529 contributions. For more information on 529s, click here.

As an adult, you can also take advantage of the federal Lifetime Learning Credit. If you qualify, you could earn up to a $2,000 credit each year you’re in school.

Consult your tax advisor.

Tips for Going Back to School Later in Life

Once you’re enrolled, there are a few ways to help you rocket to success in your new educational journey.

  • Plan ahead. Don’t just enroll in classes without a strategy. Map out your degree based on the workload you can handle and your desired timeline for completion.
  • Create a routine. Whether it’s waking up an hour early or setting aside a weekend to catch up on coursework, give yourself a set time for all of your responsibilities each week and stick to it.
  • Invest in tools for success. Don’t overspend when going back to school; focus your investment only on the tools you need to succeed. For instance, depending on your area of study you may need a specific type of computer or an organized desk space for virtual meetings.
  • Accept help. Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. Whether you need help with childcare or getting things done around the house, tap into your community for support. When you have more free time again, you can pay it forward.

Back to School for Seniors

Going back to school for retirees doesn’t simply mean enrolling in a class. There are plenty of fun ways to keep learning so that you’re involved in your local community and continually discovering new things. Some ideas:

  • Take a class at a community college in something you’ve always wanted to learn, like coding or French.
  • Check out your library or senior center for book club discussions, yoga classes, and game nights.
  • Attend lectures at a local university, museum, or park.
  • Travel with an organized group to keep your own planning to a minimum.
  • Volunteer at a nearby school. You may be the one providing tutoring or library help, but you could end up learning a thing or two from the next generation.

Whether you’re returning to school for a career change or personal aspirations, there are plenty of ways to make it happen. By planning ahead and getting creative, there’s almost always a way to meet your goals. 

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CUNA 2023 diamond award trophy icon

CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

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