Continuing education

Going back to college as an adult can be a great opportunity to advance in a current career or kick-start a new one.

While working adults face some additional challenges when juggling school and work, taking the plunge to head back to college — and paying for it — as an adult has never been easier, according to Kathy Kelly, director of student administrative services at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

“Many adults don’t realize the myriad of financial aid options available to them when going back to school,” she says. “From employer tuition reimbursement programs, to financial aid just for adults going back to school, to payment deferment and other creative financing programs offered through the colleges themselves, adults have so many options.”

Smart Business spoke with Kelly about financial aid opportunities available to adults going back to college and the best ways for adults to research their options.

Where can adults find out about financial aid offered to part-time students?
The best place to start is the college or university they plan to attend. While telephone calls and personal visits are certainly acceptable, a lot of the legwork can be done online. Conducting the research online is an easy way to compare several programs and their financial aid process side-by-side. Also, if a college is working specifically with a bank or lending institution, there will usually be a link to that information right on the school’s Web site.

What are some options that adults have for financing their education?
Adults have a lot of the same options as traditional students, including grants, loans, federal and state money, and institutional dollars. In fact, many schools are actively recruiting adult and part-time students by offering scholarship money specifically for adult students.

Adult students should be sure to explore employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement programs as well as deferred payment plans offered through the college. Those programs allow students to spread out the costs of their education. Alternative loans offered through commercial lending institutions also mimic the terms and benefits of a government loan, including deferred or minimum payments.

How can adult students tell if the college is attuned to their needs, and what services should adults expect from a college’s financial aid office?
At a minimum, colleges should offer convenient services like extended hours and well-designed Web sites allowing students to register, pay their tuition, check their grades, and do more online. Another factor to consider is the availability to connect one-on-one with someone in the financial aid or admissions office, whether it’s in person, by phone or by e-mail.

The college should be responsive every step of the way, making the process easier for students. Of course, if an adult plans to continue working while going back to school, it’s also important to make sure the school offers a convenient class schedule, including weekend or evening classes.

How can employees best maximize their employer’s tuition-reimbursement program?
While benefits vary from company to company, a lot of companies do offer some type of tuition reimbursement. Employees should review the fine print of their company’s program and familiarize themselves with the various limits and cap. It’s also important to find out if there is any type of grade requirement for reimbursement.

Adults should also fully understand the payment schedule, as many employers reimburse the student after the course is completed so the student may need to cover the costs up front.

How can adults take advantage of financial aid options and special services to finance their education?
Many schools, including Mount St. Joseph, provide tuition deferment plans for a nominal fee, allowing students to pay a small percentage of their tuition and deferring the final payment until after the course has been completed. This allows students who are taking advantage of an employer tuition-reimbursement program to receive payment before paying their bill.

Adult students should be sure to explore whether the school they’re considering offers scholarships specifically for adults or those going back to school after an extended absence. Adults should also inquire whether the college offers a guaranteed tuition package that guarantees the price of obtaining the degree within a specific time period, protecting the student from tuition increases along the way.

KATHY KELLY is the director of student administrative services at the College of Mount St. Joseph. Reach her at (513) 244-4418 or [email protected].