Learn before you quit. If possible, keep your current job while you add the education you need for your new pursuit. Many employers offer tax-free tuition assistance programs — up to $5,250, not counted as taxable income — and the contribution doesn’t have to be tagged to a full-degree program.
Be careful, however, because employers can levy restrictions such as taking courses that relate to the employee’s duties, taking courses as part of a degree program, and requiring you to work a certain length of time after taking the course — or requiring repayment of tuition if you leave early.
Seek financial aid. You don’t need to be college age to get a subsidized loan — there’s no age limit and you’re eligible as a part-time student, too. The federal aid formulas don’t take into account your home equity or retirement accounts, and because you are an adult, a certain amount of your savings is protected.
Take advantage of educational tax breaks. Depending on your income, you might qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, worth up to $2,000 each year. The credit can cover up to 20 percent of tuition and expenses for college and graduate courses, or for any class you take to obtain or increase job skills. (The benefit phases out completely for married couples earning $131,000 and singles earning $65,000.)
If you make too much, the income ceiling is higher for claiming a deduction associated with tuition and fees, up to $4,000. There’s also a maximum student loan interest deduction of $2,500. For details, see the IRS website (irs.gov) or the tax-benefits guide from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (nasfaa.org).
If you’re studying more than half time at participating schools, you can also take out a federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan (studentaid.ed.gov). Go to Edvisors.com, Fastweb.org, and FinAid.org for information on scholarships and grants for older students. Some state schools offer free or discounted tuition for older students.
Consider applying for a Stafford loan. Although it might be tempting to borrow from your home equity, you’re better off with a low-interest Stafford loan (staffordloan.com). If you meet a financial needs test, the government will pay the interest as long as you’re enrolled in school. Rates are fixed for the life of the loan, but the rate for new loans will change annually. Many private lenders also offer loans, though rates will be higher.
Community college courses are typically a few hundred dollars per credit, and certificate programs are mostly cheaper and more focused on the professional skills you want to add now than a degree program. Online webinars and workshops offered by industry associations are other avenues.
Tap into online courses. Some resources that can help: AARP Learn @50+ (aarptek.aarp.org), Coursera (coursera.org), CreativeLive (creativelive.com), Khan Academy (khanacademy.org), Lynda.com and Udemy (udemy.com).
Be practical. Get a grip on the precise degrees or certifications required for your new endeavor. Certain fields — such as health care, counseling and technology — often require advanced training for certain jobs. If you’d like to go to graduate school, perhaps start by taking a night course. And beware of spending big bucks on advanced degrees, when a couple of courses or a certificate program will do.
Do your due diligence. You can earn a certificate in art appraisal, bookkeeping, eco-landscaping, fitness training, financial planning, fundraising, home modification, and restaurant operations, to name a few. And employers and clients are increasingly accepting professional certifications as proof of someone’s understanding of a subject area. That said, talk to employers about the value of the programs. Track down a few certificate holders, if possible, and find out how the credential has helped them in their job search and new career path.
Research scholarships and grants. These, too, are available for older students, usually offered by associations, colleges, religious groups, and foundations. Try sites such as Fastweb.com to find what’s available.
Take an educational trip. Typically a week or two long, these intense training sessions with professionals allow you to accumulate experience while you are still working at your current job. They can be pricey, but far less than you might spend if you enrolled in a full-time degree program at a local college.
Serious cooks, for instance, might want to thumb through the Guide to Culinary Arts Programs & Career Cooking Schools published by ShawGuides (shawguides.com). The comprehensive ShawGuide has more learning vacations. Not-for-profit Road Scholar (roadscholar.org) is another source. Given the demand for software engineers, CodingNomads (codingnomads.co) teaches coding boot camps around the world.
Look into Encore fellowships. If you’re looking for a career with a social purpose, consider applying for an Encore fellowship at Encore.org/fellowships. These are one-year paid fellowships at nonprofits to help mature workers reenter the job market. Check out websites such as irelaunch.com and onrampfellowship.com.
Do some sleuthing. A growing number of employers — Michelin North America, the National Institutes of Health, and Stanley Consultants, among others — have programs designed to attract and keep workers past age 50. Companies with internship programs for older workers include Harvard Business School, McKinsey, MetLife, PwC, and Regeneron.
Take on a part-time job in the field of your dreams. Get a part-time job or moonlight in the field that interests you. Even if you have to do the job for free, it’s probably still worth your time so you can make sure this is what you really want.
Get started as a volunteer at a nonprofit. This unpaid work can help you build the skills you need. Search for prospects through sites like AARP’s Giving Back, Create the Good, HandsOnNetwork, VolunteerMatch.org, Executive Service Corps, Taproot Foundation and Idealist.
Gain experience through contract gigs. Consider taking a contract job that can lead to a full-time post or that gives you the ability to weave together a patchwork of jobs in the Me Inc. mode.
Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is the author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills, Getting the Job You Want After 50 for Dummies, Love Your Job, and What’s Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties, and Beyond. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.