Going back to school? How to afford the bills

They're hard to miss: ads in e-mail boxes, signs on subways, and pamphlets in the mail. All of them carry the same promise: Get a degree and launch your career. And adults have been streaming back to school - in increasing numbers - to better their future.

There's just one problem: Adult education doesn't come cheap.

Fortunately, a combination of grants, expanding company reimbursement programs, and low interest rates are making the move back to school easier.

"Even if loans are the only option offered, this is a great time to borrow for education," says Chris Perry, director of financial aid at Suffolk University in Boston. "Interest rates have not been this low for a very long time, so borrowing now for education is a good investment."

The statistics are compelling. For example: 60 percent of jobs created over the next decade will require some degree of postsecondary training and education, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even if workers can find jobs without a bachelor's degree, they might not want to go that route. Over the average lifetime, the gap in earnings between those with a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree or higher exceeds $1 million, says a recent report from the College Board, a nonprofit group in New York best known for administering the SAT.

No wonder that more than half of the students in higher education are adults, says Alan Knox, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who specializes in adult and continuing education.

For people who work at firms with 50 or more employees, employer aid can play a big part in keeping costs to a minimum, says Mr. Knox.

A quick trip to your employer's human resources department to discuss reimbursement options may be all it takes. "Contacting somebody in that office is the first step. Often, first-line supervisors are dimly aware of the options available," Knox says.

Employers may be willing to reimburse all or part of tuition, fees, as well as the cost of books and other materials. How much of the tab an employer picks up varies, but the odds of receiving some tuition reimbursement are in an employee's favor, says a recent survey by the University of Phoenix Online (UOP). More than half of companies with more than 1,000 employees offering tuition reimbursement programs report that their programs have either stayed the same or increased in size over the past three years.

In addition, many employers extend financial assistance for online courses. Some 78 percent of the human-resources managers surveyed in the UOP survey said that their companies provide full or partial tuition reimbursement for online professional development.

Adults at firms that don't offer education benefits can look to other programs, regardless of their age. The Stafford Loan and Federal Pell Grant programs are two of the first places to look. After determining the amount students are eligible to borrow, the Stafford Loan provides additional money to full-time independent students over age 24. Adults in their freshman and sophomore years can receive up to $4,000 annually on top of the base loan. For juniors and seniors, it's $5,000 each year. Graduate students can also receive up to an extra $10,000 per year, according to Scott Prince, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority.

Part-time students may have more to think about when applying for loans and grants, however.

"Generally speaking, if a student goes to school part time, they may still qualify for federal Pell grant or a state grant," says Mr. Prince. "However, these are based on income, and working full time may have an impact on the ability to get grant funding."

Besides grants and loans, tax credits can also help reduce costs. The Hope Credit, for example, provides $1,500 for tuition and related expenses for the first two years of a student's postsecondary education. The Lifetime Learning Credit allows students to claim up to $1,000 per year for expenses for any year of postsecondary education or any courses taken to improve job skills.

Finally, after researching the financing options, one should form a timeline, says Anika Sandy, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students. Standardized tests, application processes, and an understanding of requirements for classes should be considered about a year ahead of the anticipated return to school, she adds.

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