Can You Afford to Go Back to School?

You might think going back to school is too expensive, but consider these options to lessen the cost (Hint: free money).
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  • Creating a budget can help students assess whether they have the funds to attend school.
  • Completing the FAFSA each year provides access to federal grants, loans, and work-study.
  • Several scholarships exist specifically for students returning to school after some time away.

Finding the time and money to go back to school can be challenging. With college costs rising each year, you need to use strategies to reduce costs and find free money to go back to school. Learn about assessing your finances, taking advantage of financial aid that doesn't require repayment, and creating savings plans to help ease costs.

How to Determine Whether You Can Afford Going Back to School

Prospective students trying to figure out if they have the money to go back to school can take these steps:

Create a Budget

Creating a budget can help you understand what you spend on needs like housing, utilities, transportation, insurance, groceries, and other essentials. You should also track your spending on entertainment, clothing, travel, eating out, and other non-essentials. By taking the step to see what percentage of their income goes toward must-have expenses, students can get a better sense of whether or not they can afford college.

You can create a budget through an app or a spreadsheet with customized categories. It's important to go through at least one quarter's worth (three months) of spending to get a sense of normal monthly living costs. Then, you can find ways to cut costs and save for college.

Fill Out the FAFSA

The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the form that all students fill out to take advantage of government-provided grants, student loans, work-study funds, and other types of financial aid. Filling out the FAFSA can reduce the cost of college dramatically.

Students must fill out the FAFSA every year of enrollment to remain eligible. Many schools also use the information provided on the FAFSA when awarding institutional and programmatic scholarships and fellowships, making it a critical step in the process.

See Whether Your Employer Pays for School

Some employers may provide tuition coverage or reimbursement benefits to help offset college costs. In exchange for participating in these types of programs, employees typically agree to stay at the company for a set amount of time after graduating.

4 Ways You Can Afford to Go Back to School

In addition to the considerations outlined above, students should research different funding avenues to assess how they can help make school affordable.

1. Apply for Scholarships for Going Back to School

Ford ReStart Program

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Oregon or Siskiyou County, California, residents 25 or older qualify for this scholarship to go back to school in their state of residence. You must fill out the FAFSA to apply.

Apply for Scholarship

Deadline: March 1 Amount: Up to $25,000 per year Learn More

Imagine America ASEP Scholarship

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Students aged 19 and older can apply for this scholarship by creating a free member profile through the Imagine America Foundation. They must also complete a student success assessment.

Apply for Scholarship

Deadline: Varies Amount: Up to $1,000 Learn More

Return2College Scholarship

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This scholarship supports students looking to return to college after some time away. Applicants must be full-time or part-time learners and meet essay requirements.

Apply for Scholarship

Deadline: September 30 Amount: $1,000 Learn More

ATHENA Scholarship

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Nashville Cable provides this award to nontraditional female students looking to continue their education. They must have completed high school at least three years prior to applying for the scholarship and live in approved Tennessee counties.

Apply for Scholarship

Deadline: March 1 Amount: Varies Learn More

2. Apply for Grants for Going Back to School

In addition to scholarships, grants can help students who want to return to school pay for their degrees.

  • Pell Grant: The Pell Grant is awarded to eligible students who complete the FAFSA. Students who meet financial need, enrollment status, and degree type requirements may receive nearly $7,000 per year (award amounts change yearly). Students must qualify for this grant yearly by completing the FAFSA.
  • FSEOG: Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants provide support to undergraduate students who can demonstrate "exceptional" financial need, according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Eligible students can receive between $100 and $4,000 per year, depending on their need.
  • TEACH Grant: TEACH Grants are for students who plan to become teachers in schools that serve low-income students or teach in high-need fields. They must also work in these settings for at least four years within eight years of graduating. In exchange, students can receive up to $4,000 per year.
  • Military Grant: In addition to awards such as the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program provided by the Veterans Association, the ED also provides the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants for students whose parents or guardians died after September 11, 2001. Applicants must be 24 years old or younger to qualify.

3. Get Student Loans for Going Back to School

Student loans can help bridge the gap between savings, grants, and scholarships and the actual cost of college. Student loans come with both pros and cons, so learners should consider the implications before choosing this option.

Students should carefully consider the differences between public and private loans, including that private loans are not backed by the federal government. They should also understand what student loan funds can and cannot be used to cover.

4. Attend Community College

According to the College Board, attending a public two-year college cost an average of $3,800 during the 2021-2022 academic year, as compared to $10,740 per year for public four-year schools and $27,560 annually for private four-year institutions. Students who have not already completed their first two years of an undergraduate degree can save thousands of dollars by attending a community college before transferring to a university.

Students can find scholarships and grants to help reduce the cost of higher education at a two-year college, just as they can at a four-year university. Students should make sure any credits they earn transfer to a four-year college.

How to Save to Go Back to School

Students who want to plan for the extra costs associated with going back to college can start saving beforehand using the following college plans and funds.

  • 529 Savings Plan: Using a 529 savings plan allows you to save for future educational costs in a tax-advantaged way. Also known as a qualified tuition plan, this option allows you to either prepay for credits at participating colleges at the current rate or create a savings plan and deposit money that can be used to cover college tax-free in the future.
  • Mutual Funds: Mutual funds allow for investment control, meaning owners can choose from a variety of funds to invest in according to their timeline and risk tolerance levels. While mutual funds are subject to capital gains and appreciation taxes, they do not incur penalties if funds are used for expenses outside of education.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute professional financial advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should contact a professional advisor before making decisions about financial issues. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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