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Starting college is stressful enough when you’re 18 years old. But when you add another 20 years to your age, plus a full-time job, a spouse and a couple of kids, starting college (or going back) can be a major challenge.
According to The Atlantic, 25% of the 17.6 million undergrads in America are over the age of 30. That number is only expected to increase over the next few decades.
I’ve never been in that situation, but I’ve talked with many non-traditional students who shared their stories about success and difficulties in going back to school.
So if you’re considering making that jump, what questions do you need to ask? And how can you make sure you don’t go in debt to get your degree?
1. How much extra money can I put toward my tuition?
Start with this question, because if you can’t afford to go back to school without debt, then you need to wait until you can. You have all kinds of options, like employer reimbursements, scholarships and grants for non-traditional students, and even an extra job that fits into your lifestyle. Take every small amount of extra money you earn and put it toward your tuition.
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2. What’s the closest, most affordable school in my area?
You’re not out to get an Ivy League degree here. You just want something that’s affordable and nearby because you may have a job or a family—or both! Look for a state school you can commute to every day. And, remember, no loans! You don’t want to be part of the $1 trillion student loan crisis in America right now.
3. What do I have to give up in order to go back to school?
Let’s face it: Your time is limited. If you want to head back to campus, you’ll have to prioritize other areas of your life. A hobby or two might have to go. Your spouse might have to do some extra cooking and cleaning. You might not make it to all your kids’ soccer practices. That might sound sad, but remember, this is just a short season in your life. The short-term sacrifice will be worth it.
4. Does this match my long-term money goals?
For example, what’s more important—going back to school or eventually paying off your mortgage? What are some other money goals you might need to delay in order to make this happen?
5. Can I balance my job or family as well as my schooling?
Whether you have a full-time job as an accountant or you are a stay-at-home mom, going back to school will be a huge adjustment in your life. Some classes are only offered during the day, so make sure you research and know about those beforehand. And there’s nothing wrong with taking just one or two classes at a time. You have to learn to walk before you can run!
6. Does a degree even make sense for my situation?
If you’ve been out of school a while, your experience might be the equivalent (or more) of a college degree. You might learn just as much and have just as many future opportunities by simply taking a couple of classes in the subject that interests you, or even getting an entry level position in your field, if that’s an option. Keep that in mind as you do your research.
Anyone who is willing to go back to college later in life deserves a lot of respect. It’s not always easy.
But if it makes sense for your situation, and you can go back without student loans, then go out and make it happen. It’s never too late to try something new!
Rachel Cruze is a seasoned communicator and presenter, helping Americans learn the proper ways to handle money and stay out of debt. Her new book Smart Money Smart Kids, co-authored by her dad Dave Ramsey, released April 2014 and debuted at #1 on the New York Times best-sellers list. You can follow Rachel on Twitter at @RachelCruze, online at rachelcruze.com, or at facebook.com/rachelramseycruze.