Admit This

Nontraditional Students Go Back to College

My post today is aimed more at parents rather than at high schoolers. Adults who go to college comprise what is generally known as the "nontraditional" college student demographic. Over the years, I've toyed with the idea of returning to college for a number of reasons. Although many returning adults these days are doing so to gain advanced employment skills, my motivations are more in the area of increased knowledge.

I regret that I goofed off in some of my undergraduate courses, such as religious studies, anthropology, German, and a few other so-called "distribution requirements," in which I had little interest at that time. Now, however, at this advanced age, I have the benefit of hindsight and I know that I missed out on a lot of enlightening information back then, when I was just trying to squeak through while putting most of my effort into my major. Hindsight, as they say, can often be 20-20.

Anyway, if you're an adult like me (some people question the degree of my my adulthood, though) and you may be pondering a return to higher education, you may also be wondering how a nontraditional college student can afford the high costs of college these days. Well, Kate Forgach sent me some very helpful information along these lines. She is a Baby Boomer consumer specialist for Kinoli Inc. She has written about senior issues for 11 years as a Cooperative Extension specialist and for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines. She has been featured in USA Today, Detroit News, New Orleans Times-Picayune, New Yorker magazine, "ABC World News," NBC's "TODAY" show and many other media outlets.

Even though you may not be as old as some of us Boomers, you may be thinking about furthering (or beginning) your higher education career. Take a look at what Kate has to say.

While campus life hasn't changed all that much since the heyday of the flower generation, Baby Boomers returning to college are noticing major differences on the educational side. More classes are taught by adjunct professors; what once was a C+ is now often graded as a B+; and, most strikingly, tuition rates have soared like pterodactyls in a prehistoric sky.

According to, public four-year institutions presently charge in-state students an average of $8,244 in tuition and fees each year. That's a daunting investment. Yet in 2007, U.S. News and World Report found the previous decade saw the total number of college students aged 40 to 64 increase nearly 20 percent, to almost two million.

So how can Baby Boomers afford higher education? While going into debt is always an option -- albeit an ugly one -- there are readily available tricks to financing that first, second or third degree. Here are 10 such tips.

1. Comparison Shop

You'd compare prices when buying a computer or appliance, so it only makes sense to compare the costs of a college education. Happily, the U.S. Department of Education has a user-friendly website dedicated to the pursuit of this information.

2. Reduce Your Overhead

Begin paying down outstanding debts before you start paying for school or you'll just have another monkey on your back. Learn the basic rules of frugal living and implement them into your daily life. A couple ways to start are by using coupons for everyday purchases, or buying necessities (like gas and food) with discount gift cards purchased from for up to 35-percent off the face value. There's lots of advice in this area, so just Google your way to a cheaper lifestyle.

3. Depend on the Kindness of Strangers

Applying for financial aid seems self evident, but it's easy to assume grants and fellowships are only for the young. In actuality, many such programs are now targeted specifically to non-traditional-age students (NTAs). For example, AARP annually awards a scholarship for women over 50.

Because the process is incredibly labyrinthine, you might consider going through a financial aid professional. You'll need to start by filling out forms at the FAFSA website (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Scholarship Monkey is another useful site as it allows you to create a custom financial aid search.

4. Depend on the Kindness of Your Employer

You don't have to work for a major employer like IBM to receive continuing-education support. Ask your employers if they'll provide some financial aid as you update your skills, making you even more useful on the job.

5. Apply for Federal Work Study

Campus employers are often attracted by the work ethic of NTA students, so you have a better chance of securing one of these primo positions than your younger competitors. The Federal Work Study program offers the opportunity to gain valuable career experience while working on campus. As an added advantage, work study wages don't count against your financial aid.

6. Attend a Community College First

It may not be glamorous, but starting at a community college can save you a boatload of money. These two-year schools account for approximately 40 percent of all enrollments in American higher education, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. That's not surprising, considering a community college can cut your costs for the first two years of school to an average of around $6,000. If you decide to go this route in preparation for a four-year institution, meet with an advisor each term to make sure the classes you take will transfer for full credit.

7. Consider a For-profit School

A study released in 2010 by the Parthenon Group revealed for-profit students see an income boost of 54 percent when they leave school. That compares to 36 percent for community college students. In addition, for-profit colleges receive an average of $26,700 in funding for each student who transfers or successfully completes their program.

8. Study Abroad

Combine travel and lower tuition rates by attending school in another country. Canada is an excellent option you might overlook; learn more at MacLean's magazine site. You'll find a list of the most-respected institutions in the world at Times Higher Education.

9. Look Into Internships

You're never too old to start at the bottom. Many employers now hire only after they've seen the quality of the employee, so an internship is your opportunity to show off your mature skills. Check for college and department websites that offer detailed listings. If you're really lucky, you could end up with a paid internship and, possibly, a full-time job after graduation.

10. Don't Fork Over a Fortune for Textbooks

The textbook racket has changed appreciably. Campus bookstores are no longer the only game in town as rental, swap and discount websites now make it easier and cheaper. Even major merchants, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, offer great deals. Other online options include where you can rent textbooks, buy them at a significantly reduced price, and even upload available books to your e-reader.


Good advice, no? Now, get out that application and your checkbook. Prepare to explore, as I hardly did, the glories of Anthropology 8: "History and Archeology of South Central America"! You never know when you might need a good Mayan-ruins joke at a cocktail party.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.