downloadHeading back to college can be a savvy financial decision for older workers, whether they’re beefing up technical skills, earning professional certificates or enjoying their golden years with an “encore career.”

But taking on too much student debt is a risk at any age.

Of households headed by someone aged 65 or older, about 3 percent, or more than 700,000, carry student debt, according to an analysis from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. While they make up a tiny percentage of borrowers overall, the percentage of households headed by someone aged 65 to 74 carrying student loan debt quadrupled between 2004 and 2010.


The good news is that older students have lots of resources, many of which are tailored just to them, to tamp down costs and help them make smart back-to-school decisions.

Here’s what to know about avoiding student debt as an older student.

1. Don’t skimp on research. They might be older and wiser, but mature students still succumb to the temptation to enroll without doing enough research, says Phyllis Snyder, senior adviser at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

“Often when older people get into debt, they have been floundering and taking classes they don’t need,” says Snyder.

She recommends finding a career adviser through a local college or nonprofit organization to discuss which credentials you might need to reach your goals before signing up for any classes.

The American Association of Community Colleges’ Plus 50 Initiative – which aims to create or expand campus programs for students aged 50 and older, with an emphasis on workforce training – provides along list of steps for preparation, from visiting a class to speaking with students.

And don’t forget to apply for federal financial aid, say experts. Nontraditional students are still eligible for many of the same grants and federal loans as traditional students, depending on their financial backgrounds and enrollment statuses.

2. Take one class at a time. Another way to ensure that you’re not getting in over your head, both academically and financially, is to attend school part time.

“One course at a time, or even two, is much more palatable than going full time,” says Ray Lucas, senior vice president of Integrated Financial Partners, a financial services firm.

Part-time students may be able to avoid debt by paying as they go, says Lucas, using extra cash to cover tuition or withdrawing from a tax-advantaged 529 savings plan in their own name.

Betsy Werley was able to pay for her stint at New York University out of pocket when she took a couple of classes in nonprofit fundraising and technology in her late 40s. She aimed to shift from her job at JPMorgan Chase & Co. to the nonprofit sector.

“I wanted to get in, rub elbows and connect with the professors who had their own connections,” she says. “It seemed like a good investment.”

And it paid off: She now works for, a nonprofit that helps people transition to nonprofit and public sector jobs.

Attending on a part-time basis may also give a working student the added financial benefit of having tuition covered by an employer, says Kerry Hannon, career expert and author of “Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills.”

3. Stay within the community. Community colleges are a go-to resource for older students since most people live within driving distance of one, says Mary Sue Vickers, who directs the Plus 50 Initiative. And they have a history of catering to nontraditional students, she says.

Another benefit: They’re affordable.

The tuition and fees at community colleges averaged $3,264 during the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the College Board. That’s a fraction of the in-state public four-year school bill of $8,893. It’s also less than the average of $15,130 charged by for-profit universities and $30,094 by private colleges.

4. Find free classes. “Look for free or discounted tuition based on your age,” says Hannon. “There are a growing number of colleges that cut tuition for students over 60.”

Non-degree-seeking students may be able to audit classes at a local college or take massive open online courses at no cost. The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute allows students aged 50 and older who aren’t seeking to earn credit to attend classes at more than 100 universities.

Plus, a number of states offer tuition waiver or audit programs for older students, including Virginia andGeorgia. Some programs, such as Pennsylvania State University’s Go-60 Program, allow eligible students to earn credits. Students typically need to cover books and other expenses.

And attending these programs doesn’t just benefit the mature students. “Older students bring a lifetime of experience to the classroom,” says Vickers, of Plus 50. “They also do the homework, talk in class and are a good influence on the younger students.”


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