How to Pay for College as an Adult Learner

How to Pay for College as an Adult Learner
How do you pay for college as an adult learner? Learn more about scholarships, grants, work-study, employer tuition benefits, and paying out of pocket.

We hear it time and again: “I want to continue my education, but how do I pay for tuition and fees?” For so many adult learners who want to finish their college degrees, finances are a significant barrier. And figuring out how to piece together a financial plan that covers tuition and fees can get confusing. Here are some options and opportunities to consider so you can move forward with your educational goals with confidence.

Fill out the FAFSA®

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA®, is the federal government’s financial aid form. For many of the options below, such as federal loans, grants, work-study, and certain scholarships, you’ll be required to fill out this form as a first step. 

How to Pay for College Tip 1: Check your school’s deadline for filing the FAFSA® so you don’t miss out, but try to submit it as early as possible to take advantage of more financial aid opportunities.

It takes approximately 45 minutes to complete after you’ve gathered the information you’ll need. And that may seem like a lot of time when you have little energy left after the work week or as you hard-stare at that ever-growing pile of laundry. But it’s still the go-to tool for determining which aid you’ll qualify for from various sources. So set aside some time to give it a go!

The FAFSA® is available online and as a mobile app.

ReUp Tip 2: Save your username and password somewhere because you’ll need to resubmit the FAFSA® annually.

Apply for scholarships and grants 

Some scholarships and grants (aka free money!) are available to students who demonstrate financial need. The Federal Pell Grant, for example, is available to college students who need the most assistance in paying for school. Certain awards aim to improve access to education, benefiting learners who have served in the military, are single parents, or are first in their family to attend college. Others recognize high achievement in academics, athletics, the arts, or community service. 

How to Pay for College Tip 3: Try the US Department of Labor’s Scholarship Finder tool, which you can search by keyword and location. You should also talk with your college’s financial aid staff to learn about institution-specific opportunities.

Unfortunately, landing a single full-ride scholarship—meaning an award that covers the entire cost of college—is unlikely for even the most accomplished students. But these awards are available from numerous sources, including your university, church, professional organizations, local businesses, and federal agencies. Check websites, and ask around! You may be surprised at what’s available.

ReUp Tip 4: Use the US Department of Education’s map to find the government agency in your state that administers grant programs. You’ll then need to search your state agency’s website for grant deadlines, eligibility, and application instructions.

Get work experience and pay for school

Working while in school requires a careful balancing act. But it’s one that can give you valuable career-development skills while paying tuition and other bills.

You have several options when it comes to combining work with school. The first is Federal Work-Study, a part-time job program for students with financial need. Filling out the FAFSA® will determine whether you qualify. You’ll need to contact your college to find out which jobs are available. 

Another possibility is to work part-time off campus. However, you’ll need to consider how many work hours per week you can take on without compromising your studies and whether your employer offers scheduling flexibility (e.g., will you be able to change shifts to accommodate finals?).

How to Pay for College Tip 5: Working during college can affect your eligibility for financial aid, so talk with your college’s financial aid office to determine whether employment is the right option!

Paid internships may be an option through your university (check with your career center) or through local businesses and organizations (check their websites). Internships are a wonderful way to hone professional skills, such as research or project management. But landing a position is not guaranteed, so you’ll need to plan carefully around these opportunities.

Finally, if you already have a full-time job when you enroll in school, you may be eligible for tuition reimbursement or other assistance from your employer! Your friendly human resources department can help you discover what’s available.


Pay out of pocket

Paying for college by digging into your savings is inevitable for many families. Before you return to school, what changes could you make in your budget to save for future enrollment? What amount could you reasonably pay each year given your current finances? Is support from family or community members a possibility? Your education is certainly an investment, and paying for college may require some contribution—and therefore thoughtful planning—on your part.

ReUp Tip 6: Use your college’s net price calculator to estimate your financial aid and determine what you would likely need to cover out of pocket. Find it by doing an Internet search for your school’s name and “net price calculator.”

Transfer to a program that better fits your budget

Many students complete their general-education requirements at more affordable community colleges before transferring to a four-year university, which can save thousands of dollars per year. You might also consider whether a trade school, bootcamp, or microcredential is a more affordable alternative that will still align with your goals. 

As you think through your options, remember that any school or program’s sticker price isn’t necessarily the price you’ll pay. You’ll also want to factor in your return on investment (i.e., the financial and other rewards you’ll reap from earning a degree or other credential).

ReUp Tip 7: If transferring isn’t an option and you’re a current student who’s struggling to keep up with tuition, consult your financial aid office to see whether emergency funds are available (yes, they exist!) or whether your financial aid package can be adjusted.

The last resort

Tread as lightly as possible when you enter the arena of money that must be repaid. For example, if you must take federal student loans, borrow less than the salary you expect to make one year out of college. That means if you expect to make $40,000 the year after you finish your degree, you should borrow less than $40,000 for your entire college experience. That way, you’ll be in a better position to pay off your debt (including the interest) in a timely way.

And if you must consider private student loans, please research the lender. Make sure you understand the terms of the loans you’re offered. Look for low interest rates and clear repayment directions so you can maintain good credit now and in the future.

Help is here!

Every individual’s situation is different, and ReUp Success Coaches can provide the personalized support you need in terms of brainstorming ways to pay for your education. Available by phone, text, or email, our expert coaches can help you create a realistic plan that fits your goals and budget. Ready to get started?