by Daisy Chan First, figure out what you want to study. Then take these steps:
Step 1: Look beyond private colleges.
Getting a degree from your community college or some online schools is often the most affordable option, costing on average $5,426 for a two-year degree, according to The College Board (as opposed to $54,586 for a two-year degree at a private college if it offers an associate's degree). Don't worry about not going to the most prestigious school out there. "Companies we've seen who need workers with two-year degrees aren't differentiating between a two-year degree from an online or community college and a two-year degree from a traditional school," says Anne Edmunds, Chicago metro regional director for the international recruiting firm Manpower.
The Department of Education's College Navigator ( NCES.ed.gov/CollegeNavigator) is a good place to start searching for schools that offer the courses you need. You can also check a school's accreditation and find out whether it meets the criteria for a quality education at OPE.ed.gov/Accreditation/Index.aspx.
Step 2: Apply for financial aid.
Just because you're not fresh out of high school doesn't mean you have no hope of getting aid. You'll definitely want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at FAFSA.ED.gov. Many financial factors are taken into account, and you may be surprised at who qualifies. "People can earn six-figure salaries and still qualify for financial aid if, say, they have multiple children in school at the same time," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of financial aid resource FinAid.org and scholarship site FastWeb.com.
As part of your aid package, you may qualify for Stafford Loans (loan amounts vary with your year in school, starting at $9,500 for the first year) and Pell Grants (up to $5,550 a year that you do not need to pay back, as long as you do not already have a bachelor's degree). A word about Stafford Loans: If you receive the unsubsidized kind, your interest (6.8% for 2011-12) starts accruing as soon as you take out the loan, and it's best to pay that while you're in school. Otherwise, the interest gets tacked on to your loan balance when you graduate, and you'll end up paying interest on your interest-increasing your debt by about 20% for a bachelor's degree. Subsidized Stafford Loans (3.4% for undergrads, 6.8% for grad students) do not have this double whammy. Your award letter will detail the type and how much financial aid you will receive. Contact your school's financial aid office if you have any questions-it can be confusing.
Pitfall Alert! Don't risk missing financial aid deadlines. Fill out your FAFSA as soon as possible after January 1 of the year you plan to attend school, since state aid deadlines are early in the year. (You can estimate your tax data, so the form is started before the deadline, then go back and update your numbers after you do your tax return.) And search for scholarships both in the fall before and the spring of the year you start school.
Step 3: Look to other sources.
The easiest way to find scholarships is to visit FastWeb.com, which details about 300 grant and scholarship programs for women over the age of 25. (One of these is the Soroptimist Women's Opportunity Awards, which grants nearly $1.5 million a year to head-of-household women who are seeking to make their lives better through education or training.)
Many scholarship applications include an essay. "Organizations usually want you to write about your significant experiences and achievements, influences on your life, maybe mistakes you've made and what you've learned from them," says Kantrowitz. Make your essay stand out by being as detailed and interesting as possible.
Beyond scholarships, check with your company's HR department to see if they offer a tuition assistance benefit. And hit up your alma mater. Your school may offer tuition rewards for alumni who are making a midlife change. For example, once a year, Vassar's Time-Out Grant offers one alumnus who is 40 years old or older $45,000 to pursue a career change or other endeavor.
Step 4: Take advantage of tax breaks.
If you live in one of 34 states that allow state income tax deductions for 529 College Savings Plan contributions (check FinAid.org to see if you do), open a 529 for yourself and park your tuition in there. That way you can save the 3% to 10% you would pay in state taxes on your tuition money. In most states, you just need to keep money in the account for a year. There are also three education tax breaks that you may be able to use: the Lifetime Learning tax credit, the student loan interest deduction and the American Opportunity Credit.
To learn more, search for "Tax Benefits for Education" (Publication 970) at www.IRS.gov. Photo: Shutterstock
Article originally appeared on WomansDay.com.
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