Today’s question is from Dorothy:
I am a married, 27-year-old who works full-time and has no kids.
I have decided that the time is right for me to go back to school and finally complete my bachelor’s degree online. I will be continuing to work full-time, as will my husband, so all of our typical expenses (rent, bills, groceries, etc.) will still be covered. However, I am worried about the cost of returning to school (tuition, books, supplies, etc.).
Do you or any of your readers have any ideas on how to keep my costs low so I will need as few student loans as possible? -Dorothy
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I work at an online college, so here is my advice:
1. Get free software like Microsoft Office through your college. Do not pay for software if you can help it. Most of the things you need, you can get for free or a significant discount through your college. You can also even get discounts on computers (see #2).
2. Check for discounts. Many online colleges offer discount services you would not even expect, like with major retailers. There are thousands of other students attending online colleges, and with some of the bigger schools this equates to real buying power which they pass on to their students through online marketplaces. This can lead to deep discounts on computers and other things that you might expect, but also on things like clothing, restaurants, gym memberships, movie theaters, etc.
3. You didn’t mention it, but many online colleges offer great deals, scholarships, and support (special tutoring and other services) for military students or spouses. Check to see if you qualify for those, as well as for scholarships related to your life experiences so far. Try to test out of as many courses as you can.
4. Many people will tell you to consider a local college; however, with online college you can save gas money, clothing money/laundry money, as well as the most important commodity: time. Consider how much your time is worth before you decide to go with something other than an online program. Online colleges work hard to stay accessible to you; local colleges do their best but it is a different scenario. Most of my students say that they come out better financially paying a bit more in tuition versus having to hassle with local colleges they have tried.
5. Make use of all the resources the school offers. Most online colleges offer not only free online tutoring but also essay feedback, confidential counseling services and free referral to a therapist near you (sometimes with a couple of free-to-you sessions with that therapist), and many more services. Check out what the services are that you get with your tuition, and make use of those services instead of paying for them out-of-pocket. Consider also that online colleges often also have on-ground campuses where you can make use of free computer labs, in-person tutoring, as well as administrators and academic counselors if you need a face-to-face experience. Many also offer on-ground classes if you would like to mix it up a bit without having to transfer to a different school just to get an in-classroom experience.
6. Although the book advice people are giving is good, it is usually not relevant to online colleges that really are all-online and have their stuff together. Those colleges buy the books in bulk and pass along big discounts to students on the textbooks. In fact, at many online colleges include the cost of your books/materials in the tuition and fees or just throw them in for free, and often the materials are also available online in full-text searchable documents you can download which are sometimes even accessible through multiple means like on apps (for both iPhone or Android) as well as through your regular computer. Do not buy books or rent them until you learn what the situation is with your school.
7. My best advice: manage your time well, and do not skip assignments. Do not fail your classes. If you fail a class, you have to take it over again, and that is a big waste of money AND time. Online college takes a lot of self-management. Buy a calendar and USE IT. You have to stay organized. But you will find that it is a great experience if you are a self-starter who likes to learn and accomplish things on your own time schedule. Just remember that your own time schedule means there are still deadlines so although you do not have to be at class at a certain time, you do have to meet deadlines, so stay on top of those!
Online college is a great choice. I like teaching online students because they are serious people who are working hard and juggling a lot of things, like it sounds like you are. They know why they are in school and they are highly motivated. You will love online college, and you will find that you really can get to know your classmates and professors well in that environment while getting the education you desire. ENJOY! and WELCOME!
Valerie Lewis says
I am on online learning designer and my advice is to make sure you research online learning programs at local and state colleges. I got my Master’s through Virginia Tech and the program was completely online. Many regional colleges and community colleges offer complete degree programs online as well and far cheaper than the likes of places like Phoenix and SNHU. Any college that pressures you into signing up or makes ‘sales’ calls to you should throw up a red flag. The widely marketed online schools are not the only ones that offer online degrees.
You can buy used books on Amazon for much cheaper than the school bookstore, and sell them on Amazon for more than the bookstore will buy them back. Take good care of your books and you won’t lose much if any money.
Make sure you buy early because some may take a few weeks to arrive in the mail.
Yes…. I have taught at our lical college for over 13 yrs…. We also have two large universities within 10 miles of our school. We have an agreement with them both that all prereq credits and associates degrees transfer towards your bachelor’s degree there. Our college costs 25% less than those so ck out your lical community colleges and try to see what you can take there and transfer.
Also apply for all financial aid, work study programs and grabts.
Finally yes….. Rent your books once you get correct isbns off your classlists.
Jen Morris says
I haven’t read it all, so I apologize if I am repetitive. I work for a major online university, and I currently work in operations. Prior to that I did Academic Counseling. Here’s what I told students:
CLEP, tuition reimbursement, a job (you have that), and scholarships.
Go to http://www.scholarships.com and be selective. Yes, there are ads there as colleges do use that site to recruit. However, you can create your own personalize scholarship service that will send you every potential scholarship out on the web you can apply for. Many of these are just lotteries and are worth putting your name in. Most people do not apply for difficult scholarships (longer essay or video), so if you can put the effort in you have a much greater shot since fewer apply.
I would also talk to your finance advisor or enrollment advisor. They can assist you in finding options that are available specifically to you, and they generally have databases and can see if you can receive benefits based on your place of employment, location, etc.
Lastly, do your research and make sure the school is the best fit. Make sure the cost, program, and modality ratio fit with your expectations.
I would suggest starting your degree at a junior or community college in your area. The tuition is a lot lower that a university. Also, get used or rental text books when possible. Finally check for academic scholarships you may be eligible for. Even a couple hundred dollars will help.
Another thing: make sure that whatever school you are going to graduate from is a REGIONALLY ACCREDITED school. Otherwise, you’re paying for a pretty piece of paper that will do nothing.
There are lots of schools out there, especially online schools, that have national accreditation, but are not regionally accredited. As confusing as it sounds, they are not considered “acceptable” schools. Many employers who say that they give promotions or raises for the receipt of a degree will not consider a non-regionally accredited school. This happened to my co-worker: The school was nationally accredited, but not regionally accredited. She took her transcripts to HR and they turned her down flat. She had no idea that the school did not have the right accreditation as they proclaimed “We are accredited!” Now she’s having to redo her entire BA degree. I just did a transcript evaluation for a student yesterday and had to call her and tell her that none of her classes would transfer because the college was not regionally accredited.
Be very careful and don’t waste your money on the wrong school.
I don’t know what degree you are working on, but I would definitely recommend that you check with the department staff for the major that you will be studying.
For example, I work at a community college, in the Early Childhood department, and we have two grants that are available to students who are working in the Early Childhood field, ie child care center, and are pursuing an Early Childhood degree. The grants are different, but basically pay all of the tuition and some or all of the books.
When I went to college, I worked as full-time staff at the university, so was able to take a part-time load for free. Yes, it took longer, but I graduated with no debt. Depending on what your career path is, see if you can get hired on at the institution.
Look into opening a 529 account for yourself for qualifying college expenses.
Some states allow you to contribute to the 529 plan and claim this as a tax deduction on your state taxes. They also might allow you withdraw the funds the same year they are contributed. This can save you money on your tax return. If you were going to use some cash flow to pay for your college tuition, deposit it into the 529. Then a couple weeks later, withdraw it and use it to pay your qualified expenses. You will need to leave some in the 529 to keep the account open. Colorado residents can use the Colorado 529 plan to do this. Other states do too.
Hi Dorothy! I don’t know what state you live in, but if it’s Illinois, then you definitely should go to http://www.isac.org.
A great book price comparison website is http://www.finderscheapers.com. Type in the ISBN and it will show you what’s it’s being sold for at all the different websites people are mentioning.
Go for scholarships! Speak with your financial aid office about institutional scholarships that are available and make profiles on respectable scholarship sites like whatsnextillinois.org, petersons.com, and cappex.com. While these sites are generally aimed at high schoolers, the resources are still valuable for 20-somethings. Also see if you or your husband’s places of employment or local businesses offer scholarships.
As Nikki above said, file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid at FAFSA.gov as soon as possible after (or on) January 1st. Colleges use the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for financial aid. By filing the FAFSA you can find out whether or not you qualify for state or federal grants–and even if you don’t, you’ll be offered loans which may have a lower interest rate than private lenders or even be subsidized, which is a spectacular way to save on interest.
You can learn more about financial aid and scholarships at StudentAid.ed.gov. You can also use this site to track federal loans, learn about repayment options and review information on federal financial aid you received in the past.
Ann lang says
Many have referred to scholarships but WHERE? When we looked into them for my daughter, they all ask for a lot of personal information and all we ended up with is an inbox full of spam and unwanted phone calls for loan offers. Now my son is going out of state (FL) How do you discern the legit scholarships??
Check with the financial aid office of the college they are going to for scholarship information. Also, if the high school has a good college counselor they can help as well.
I’m a scholarship counselor at a large public university, and in my opinion, the most legit scholarships (and typically the largest amount of money) come directly from the college/university. Whether they’re institutional scholarships or departmental scholarships, the best ones typically come directly from the school itself. Outside scholarships from other organizations usually are more supplemental in nature (i.e. Rotary Club, Lions Club, etc.) and not worth as much as the ones coming directly from the college or university.
Look for textbooks at amazon.com then, when your all done sell them on there also! That’s what I did!
Jennifer H says
Depending on your major, some states will pay for your tuition if you agree to work in the state for a certain number of years. For instance, Kentucky will pay up to $2500 per semester if you agree to teach in KY. I googled “tuition reimbursement kentucky teacher” to find this because I knew it was out there, and found what I was looking for. So you could do your state and career or major instead to see if there is something available.
Sherry W. says
Good for you, Dorothy!
Tip 1: I get a monthly email from scholarshippaths.com that lists all of the new scholarships available. I attended one of her in-person seminars and she is a real person who became an expert at researching scholarship opportunities for her children. It’s free and you might get some good leads.
Tip 2: Go to YouTube and watch the 5 paragraph essay video and start working on an essay that you can use to apply for the scholarships you find at scholarship paths.
It sounds like you may already have completed some college, so be sure to ask schools you are interested in if the credits you already have will transfer. Further, if you took AP classes in high school, you may also qualify for additional credits. Some schools also offer credit for life experience so it doesn’t hurt to ask about this too!
I would strongly suggest trying an online program through your local state or community college, as these programs are affordable, reputable, and credits completed are more likely to transfer to other schools if necessary. These schools also offer a big alumni network and won’t randomly disappear on you!
Start slow when taking classes so you can be successful, you definitely don’t want to pay for something you didn’t pass. Online classes are almost always more challenging than in person classes so make take some getting use to.
As for reducing costs, try for instate programs as you will qualify for resident rates which is are always less than out of state. Definitely check with your employer about reimbursement or scholarships, the same with any civic or faith organizations you may belong to. It is worth completing a FAFSA to find out if you are eligible for any federal gift aid or subsidized loans. You should never have to pay for the FAFSA.
Should you need to borrow you may want to considered subsidized loans first, then other federal loans before private loans. Private loans often do not have the same protections as federal loans. Fully research and understand your loan obligations before you borrow.
To further reduce costs, find out if you can waive the mandatory health insurance if you have comparable insurance through the waiver process. Same thing with living expenses, echoing previous ideas to save on food, books, and living expenses. You can also check with your school to find out if there are any fees you can waive by completing a form or providing other information.
Sorry for such a long post, hopefully some of this is useful to you!
Dee Wolters says
Congrats on deciding to finish your degree! And for trying to do it without debt! I suggest that you try to find scholarships and grants. Check with the financial aid office at the school- they will have detailed instructions which will include the FAFSA- this is on line and not too hard. Check with your department and ask about department scholarships. Then spend some time searching the internet. Be as specific as possible and just look. For example, my daughter is an animal science, pre-vet major. So I search for: Agriculture scholarships, Animal Science Scholarships, pre-vet scholarships, etc. You can also search for non-traditional student scholarships, as that is your classification.
Also, check with community groups and organizations: bank, Rotary, Lions club, etc. there may be a community foundation or other groups.
Continue to check with your financial aid office every month or so, as new scholarships come up all the time.
sign up for fafsa but i’m not sure if the cut off is over; however the fafsa helps give your income information to the school you are going to in order to see if you qualify for reduction on classes. I do this for my daughter since I am the one paying for her college and it helps a lot. Good luck on your degree
I agree with all of the above. Also remember that you will be working and going to school full time so not much spare time. Try not to eat out to much though this may be hard. Try to bring a water bottle that you can refill at the water fountains. Pack your supper and snacks. You can always freeze pb&j sandwiches and you can buy fruit and yogurt. I think that was one of my main problems when going back to school. I bought fast food and snacks way to much. If only I had found monysavingmom back then:)
Suzanne H says
1. Apply for every grant, scholarship, etc. you can – even if you think you don’t have a shot! If you meet the general qualifications, try. 2. Don’t buy textbooks from the book store. Always shop around. 3. If you take out loans, do whatever it takes to at least pay the interest (you will receive bills asking if you want to pay now or defer). You will pay interest on interest if you defer. 4. If you take out loans, try to figure out a good estimate on how much you will end up borrowing. Look at current interest rates and figure out roughly what your payment will be. Start saving as close to that amount as you can per month (and look into if you can start paying now to avoid interest accrual). That way, you will have a few payments saved up and will be learning to live on what you make less your payments when the payments actually come due. All things I wish someone had told me when I was in college!!! Good luck and remember, the best investment is an investment in yourself!
For textbooks get the ISBN# as soon as possible and use that when shopping around. Also check with your professor if you could use the previous edition many times the only thing that changed is the front cover.
Also if any of the books you need to read are not a true textbook check with your local library. I saved probably about $50-$100 each semester doing this and I was a business major.
Finally any supplies like notebooks, pens, etc you think you might need get them for the year when School supplies go on sale.
If you are a first time students (neither parent has a degree), or have a disability you could qualify for Student support services. They usually have grants for your first two years. My DH got $500 per semester. They also have free tutors for math and English. It is a first come first serve program so see if your college has it.
Jennifer H says
It may not just be math and English, and it not just be first-generation or disability. I was a tutor for my university’s program (math and Spanish – it just depends on the tutors they hire and what they can do) and it also included non-traditional students (older and/or married), so you would definitely qualify there.
Lea Stormhammer says
Many universities have on-site free tutors for many subjects – even math and science! – and you just have to come in and go to where they are! No cost to you!
Lea Stormhammer says
As a college professor, this is one of the biggest concerns I hear!
Here’s where I would start:
Why are you going to college?
What do you expect to get out of it?
What are you willing to spend for that?
Then start calling around to find the program that meets your needs. Tell them your budget and ask what they can do to help you get your needs met on a that budget. Many places now have programs that allow you test out of certain classes or receive life-experience credit. There are also MANY scholarships out there that go unclaimed. Most are small ($100-$500 per semester) but they go all the way up to full tuition! Take any and all scholarships you qualify for as long as you are able to meet the requirements. Remember that all those little bits can add up to a lot!
Keep in mind that your budget needs to be realistic. Many people wonder why credits cost as much as they do – they pay for facilities, materials, the faculty member’s salary and the salaries of any support staff (custodians, administration, etc.), tech resources, and a whole bunch of other things. At state universities, the state and federal government pay for some of this so they tend to be cheaper in price for the student. Average price per credit for a four-year degree in the US is now somewhere between $300 and $400 for public schools (more than double for private). You will have to pay some type of fees as well so make sure you count those in as well. If you’re taking classes on line, fees and tuition may be lower or different so double check on that. Some employers reimburse or will pay for your tuition as well and that might be worth checking into.
Also think about how much time you are willing to put in and how much time you have. Many students think they can carry a full course load (12+ credits) and work full time as well but this really depends on the classes you are taking, whether you have to work long hours or bring work home, and how willing you are to sacrifice sleep, free time and time with friends and family. Pick a realistic schedule. For example: if you have a demanding high time requirement job, one or two classes a semester may be all you can handle at any given time (4-5 is usually considered a full load).
Look into the full cost of the class – lab fees, special materials, etc. before you sign up. If you can rent equipment or borrow it, what seems like a “more expensive” class may be your best bet. For example: For an arts general requirement, someone with a terrific camera may find a photography class cheaper than a painting class.
Buy your school supplies somewhere other than the school bookstore unless something specific is required and always check with your professors about books before buying an older edition or renting.
Double check and triple check your requirements. Also see if things count double. A literature course may count for history as well (or vice versa) but check with your school on this (some schools don’t allow that). Our department offers courses that count toward another degree (in place of classes in their department) but enable students to get a double major easily giving them more options after graduation – a super easy way to get bigger bang for your buck. I have seen way too many students having to take more credits than are necessary for graduation because they missed something along the way!
Congratulations on making such a big decision,
Angi @ SchneiderPeeps says
We currently have 3 children in college so I understand your concerns. Here are some things we do…
1. Shop around for books – renting is wonderful.
2. Apply for scholarships and grants
3. Talk to the college and find out what CLEP tests they accept and take (and pass) as many as you can. The tests are about $80 and you get full credit for the class if you pass.
4. Make a commitment to pay as you go and not borrow money. You will probably need to adjust your family budget in order to do so.
5. Don’t take classes you don’t need to take. Make sure you know what classes you need for your degree and focus on those. Also know when those classes are offered. Some classes are only offered in the fall or spring so plan accordingly.
Also remember that the sooner you start the sooner you will finish. If you can only take one class then take the one class. Don’t keep delaying going back to school until everything is perfect.
Allison Huss says
Many employers offer some sort of tuition reimbursement, especially if the degree you are working on would advance you in the company. My old employer would reimburse you up to $2000 a semester as long as you maintained a “B” average! Check to make sure that you are taking advantage of any programs like this!
Congrats on going back to school! Here are my suggestions:
1. Check and see if your employer as a tuition reimbursement program. If not maybe they have a scholaorship program, or would be willing to cover supplies, textbooks, etc.
2. Shop around for textbooks. Get used books when you can and check out specialty websites (a Google search will yield quite a few) and take advantage of student discounts like free shipping on Amazon. Also, borrow textbooks when you can, and opt for a less expensive electronic copy if its offered.
3. Try looking into federal grants before student loans. Since you are going back for your bachelor’s degree the Pell Grant may be an option depending upon your income.
4. Talk to teachers/professors/TA’s and see if they are offering any paid/stipend work such as tutoring, editing course work, etc. Of course with a FT job this may not be possible but a little extra cash is always helpful.
5. Talk to the financial aid department at your school. A simple phone call to them and I got an $800 scholarship per semester. Sometimes just asking and telling them your situation (working FT, married, family, etc) reveals compression and generosity.
6. Consider government programs for other areas in your life. I know this is controversial but if you qualify for food stamps considering using this program and deferring grocery money into a school budget. Also, just FYI, there are programs that offer free child care to full time students and other such government assistance, should something like this be needed in the future.
7. One final bit of advice, when registering for classes be sure it counts towards your major. It would be a shame to pay for a class that doesn’t help you graduate 😉
Best of luck!!
Jamie Rohrbaugh says
Just a couple of ideas:
1) Some community colleges offer 4-year degree programs through partnership with universities. I believe these can be more affordable than some 4-year universities. My local community college does this.
2) Also, if you fill out your FAFSA and apply for financial aid as early as possible, you may qualify for grants from your state that don’t have to be paid back. Depending on your major, even on smallish grant ($400 or so) could pay for your books for one semester.
3) Some states have scholarship programs specifically for adult students. Might be something to research.
For the books always shop around! There are so many websites now that specialize in textbooks and you can get them at a better price, than the school bookstore. Also consider renting your textbooks if you don’t plan on keeping them for future use. Websites like chegg now offer a rental option. If you use one of the book websites always google for a promo/coupon code. As it gets closer to beginning to the semester they tend to offer some deals like 10-20% off!
I would ask if your employer has any school benefits or even your husbands employer. If you are just starting out, take classes at a community college or an online program and get your AA. Many 4 year colleges love transfer students and give good scholarships to these students. Our local colleges will give 1/2 tuition to those who transfer with an AA and are members of the honor society at the junior colleges.
Buy books online used or rent them. Make sure the book is needed first by asking around to other students.
If you choose a 4 year school, private schools tend to give more scholarships to students. If you are still short even after getting scholarships, ask the dean if there are any more that you may have missed.
Don’t forget to list any volunteer work you may have done. My daughter received more money just because she had volunteered and continued to volunteer. I hope this helps.
I lived at home through college, but paid all of my tuition, fees, books, etc by working full time. I ended college with no debt and my Master’s Degree. Wahoo!
My first tip would be consider the tuition of local schools that might be cheaper than an online college and also offer online classes for most required ones. Community college is a great money saver for the basics/through an Associates Degree.
Speak to individuals in the Academics Affairs area. There might be organizations you can join virtually that offer scholarships/grants of some sort.
Consider renting your textbooks instead of buying them. You can even rent PDF versions for a semester. It may also be cheaper to order the international version of a textbook on ebay or amazon (or similar). These can’t be resold in the US, but are usually much cheaper than paying for a book outright. They are usually paperback copies and might have different outer covers, but the inside of the book is the same, with minimal differences in page numbers (if any).
Does your employer offer any tuition assistance? That may also be a great resource. It is also worth completing the FAFSA forms to see if you quality for interest free loans or government grants. This usually depends on your income.
Elizabeth @ Wonder Woman I'm Not says
The very first thing you should check out is whether your company offers tuition reimbursement. I’m going to school right now and my employer pays up to $5,000 annually.
The second thing you need to do is ask about CLEP tests. These are tests that you can take to prove that you have the skills being taught. I tested out of accounting, finance and some humanities. Your school should be able to give you a list of them and a website that you can practice on.
Consider augmenting with a cheaper school. The school that I’m attending is $400 per credit. Since I have met my residency requirements (minimum number of credits earned from that school) I’m augmenting with the local technical college for my electives. Make sure you talk to your counselor, but my school will accept almost any credit from the tech as an elective. Credits at the local tech are about $150 per credit.
Consider renting your books from Amazon and above all take your time so you don’t have to take out loans. It feels like I’ve been going to school forever but I’m doing it without any students loans and that feels pretty amazing!
Good luck, it’s hard stuff working full time while going to school but you will get through it!
These are all wonderful suggestions. I used to work in an Adult Learning Dept. at a local college. Tuition reimbursement from your employer, CLEP, and community colleges are all very good options.
Credit for Prior Learning is much like CLEP credit, but allows you to present a binder of information detailing your experiences in a field to earn credit at a reduced rate.
I would also suggest that you seek employment at the college you are attending. When my husband and I were first married, I worked at the college he was attending, so he qualified for a 100% tuition waiver. The college also offered a tuition exchange program with other colleges/universities, so I completed a master’s degree as well. In all, my husband only had to pay for books and fees for the courses he took at that college, and I paid a total of $75 for my master’s degree (graduation fee)! It’s definitely an option worth exploring!! 🙂
Ashley P says
Something I did in college:
Find a friend with the same major as you. Odds are, although you’ll wind up taking the same classes, you’ll take them at different times. Simply buy one set of books, and swap.
Example: My freshman year, I met a fellow Communications major. While we were taking some of our classes concurrently (Speech and Finite Math) He was taking classes that I would need later (Persuasion and Fitness) , and I was taking classes that he would need later (Mass Media and Composition). At the end of the semester, we simply traded books. It saved us having to buy the same sets of books again.
Jessi Fearon (@TheBudgetMama) says
Dorothy, as a girl that worked full time and went to school full time, I know your pain! Try to not purchase any textbooks if you can. Rent them from either your school, Chegg.com, half.com, textbooks.com, or borrow from a former classmate. Apply for as many scholarships or grants as possible and if you do take out loans, do not take out more than you need. See if you can do an internship or co-op with your employer to count for school credit hours (saved me 3 classes!). That way you can cut down on your school load but without sacrificing pay. Hope this helps! 🙂