• Exhaust all other possible sources of funding before considering loans.
  • Almost all degrees at accredited institutions qualify for federal aid, but certificates may not.
  • Part-time and online learning allows you to continue working while you study.
  • Many schools offer payment plans that make costs more manageable and help reduce reliance on loans.

Education is as important as ever in the competitive labor market. As such, professionals continue to return to school in growing numbers. Many seek continuing education that builds on their existing education and helps them qualify for jobs with better pay and more potential to advance.

Continuing education can take many forms, including short certificate and full degree pathways. However, one issue can affect all forms of continuing education: an uncertainty as to how to pay for these learning opportunities.

This guide explains the various options that can help you finance your continuing education and professional development activities.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will funds awarded based on my Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) pay for continuing education classes?

If you take continuing education classes to meet prerequisite requirements prior to pursuing a degree, you may qualify for limited forms of federal government assistance. Some professional development and certificate programs are eligible for federal financial aid, but many do not qualify.

Do Pell Grants cover continuing education?

The federal government administers Pell Grants through a need-based program and mainly reserves funding for undergraduate students pursuing degrees. However, private and philanthropic agencies, state education departments, and educational institutions typically offer continuing education grants and grants for certificate programs.

Will financial aid pay for certificate programs?

Some certificate programs are included on the U.S. Department of Education's (ED) list of approved programs. However, students face limitations when seeking federal aid for non-degree programs that do not hold ED approval. As such, students in need of financing often turn to private student loans for certificate programs.

What financial aid is available for adults returning to school?

If you plan to pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree, you may have full access to federally administered student aid programs. Federal student loans are available to borrowers of all ages and backgrounds.

However, if you plan to enroll in certain non-degree professional development or certificate programs, you may need to expand your search to include private loans.

What is the maximum income an individual can make and still qualify for financial aid?

To qualify for federal financial aid, you must display "demonstrated need." Demonstrated need — not annual income — functions as the primary driver of aid decisions.

If you experience a deficit between what an eligible program costs and what you can afford to cover yourself, you will likely qualify for federal aid, as long as you remain below your lifetime funding limit.

Understanding the Costs of Continuing Education

To truly understand how continuing education will impact you financially, you must consider two key factors: the type of program you want to enroll in and the expected return on your educational investment.

Types of Programs

Institutions configure their continuing education programs in many different ways, with the most common examples including professional programs, certificate programs, and courses that award continuing education units (CEUs).

Features of professional programs include the following:

  • These programs provide advanced and focused educational content oriented toward a specific profession.
  • They are usually intended for college graduates.
  • They usually culminate in a certificate or non-degree credential.

In a certificate program, you can expect to encounter the following elements:

  • They provide focused educational content that develops a specific practical or vocational skill set.
  • They use inclusive eligibility policies that often require no more than a high school diploma.
  • They award a recognized non-degree credential accepted by employers in the field.

CEUs include the following features:

  • Members of a regulated profession, including teaching and nursing, must regularly complete CEUs to maintain licensure eligibility.
  • Professionals must complete a specified number of CEUs per licensing cycle.
  • Learners take CEUs at accredited or partner educational institutions.

Accredited training and continuing education centers, community colleges, junior colleges, and public colleges tend to offer the most affordable continuing education tuition rates.

Consider tuition fees in the context of how much education you will get for your money. You can also research specific program costs using the ED's college navigator tool.

Return on Investment

Tuition costs are only part of the story. Prospective students should also consider the quantitative and qualitative return on investment they expect to receive by completing continuing education.

To calculate potential quantitative returns, consider your current salary and advancement potential. Compare those factors against your potential salary and the level of advancement you could reach by upgrading your education. Remember to extend your calculations out to cover not only the immediate future, but also the remainder of your working life.

Qualitative returns overlap with quantitative considerations to some degree, but qualitative considerations more often function on a personal, individual level.

Will a program move you toward your personal and professional goals? Will it help you market yourself to employers more effectively? If you plan to divert or change your current career path, will your new path make you happier and more fulfilled?

Sometimes, numbers alone do not provide clear answers. In such cases, qualitative factors take on increased importance.

"Speak with a student financial advisor to review all available options," says financial literacy professional Amanda Black. "[Students] should feel confident in the education and financial decisions they make."

Ways to Finance Continuing Education

Paying for continuing education can pose challenges. As such, you should develop a sound financing plan that considers all possible sources of assistance.

Move your search beyond loans to consider avenues such as tax credits, employer-based assistance programs, and scholarships. You can also consider emerging educational alternatives like massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other free learning opportunities.

Evaluate Personal Finances

Begin by assessing your personal finances. If you have savings that you can use to fund your continuing education, it usually makes more long-term financial sense to dip into them than it does to take out a federal or private loan.

If you have a personal financial advisor, set up a meeting to discuss your plan. Your advisor may know about additional financing alternatives.

“The best budgets are made before they are needed.”

— Amanda Black

If you envision yourself returning to school in the next 5-10 years, you can also open a 529 educational savings account. These accounts offer tax benefits that carry over to all forms of postsecondary learning, including degree, certificate, and professional programs, as well as CEUs.

If you already opened a 529 account for another beneficiary, you can change the beneficiary to yourself and use the funds to pay for your schooling without penalty.

Brush up on your budgeting skills and consider enrolling part time or online. Attending evening, weekend, and online classes can allow you to keep your current job while you study, which can ease the financial strains of higher education.

Ask About Employer Tuition Assistance

In 2017, the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans conducted a survey of employer-based educational assistance benefits. The study found that 83% of respondents featured some type of financial support for employees considering a return to school to upgrade their skills or academic credentials.

Many employer tuition programs offer full or partial reimbursements for your tuition fees. Under U.S. laws, you can receive up to $5,250 in tax-free education benefits from your employer each year. However, some programs require that you remain employed by the company for a minimum period of time after completing your education.

Exact details vary among employers, so check with your human resources department for specifics. Even if no formally instituted program exists, you can always ask your manager or a human resources representative to see if your company might chip in anyway.

If the company views you as a valuable worker and a good investment, they may decide to help you if you make a strong case. Emphasize the benefits they will receive from your education and the value of the new skills you will learn.


Look Into Free Online Courses

Free online courses come in two main forms: MOOCs and open courseware. MOOCs offer self-contained learning programs designed for large numbers of students, while open courseware typically offers shorter learning modules focused on a niche topic.

Compared to paid programs, MOOCs and open courseware offer significant benefits. You do not have to pay tuition fees, and most feature relatively light reading and assignment requirements that facilitate lower-stress, part-time study.

However, they also come with drawbacks. In most cases, they only offer an introductory, generalized, or high-level treatment of the subject matter under consideration, which can limit their professional utility. As such, they mainly appeal to learners seeking relatively casual engagement with a subject. Other alternatives include auditing classes and enrolling in free micro-credential courses.

"Both options allow one to see if they like a particular career or education path before taking the full plunge into a degree or certificate program," Black explains.

Most free courses do not offer any formal credentials upon completion, although some provide informal endorsements. In some cases, certificates of completion are available to learners if they pay a small fee.

You can learn more about MOOCs and open courseware by reading this free online course guide.

Explore Tax Credits

Tax credits offer another effective way to ease the financial burden of continuing education. The lifetime learning credit (LLC) is one popular option.

Learners can apply the LLC toward any eligible undergraduate, graduate, or professional degree or any coursework related to the acquisition or expansion of marketable job skills. You can claim up to $2,000 per year in tax credits for an unlimited number of years.

LLC benefits extend to all qualified courses at approved institutions. You can claim the credit by obtaining a Form 1098-T statement from your school. Claimants must have a modified adjusted gross income (pre-tax income) of $67,999 or less if they file their taxes individually or $135,999 if they file jointly with a spouse or partner.

To learn more, visit the Internal Revenue Service's LLC page.


Apply for Financial Aid

Does financial aid cover certificate programs? Can you get federal loans to finance continuing education? Submitting the FAFSA offers a fast, easy, risk-free way to find out which federal financial aid programs you can access.

By turning in your FAFSA, the ED's office of Federal Student Aid automatically assesses your eligibility for all available forms of government financial assistance, including grants and federal student loans for certificates and degrees. Grants offer immense value, as recipients do not need to repay them.

“[A]pply for scholarships and grants early as possible since these funds may be limited.”

— Amanda Black

"Another strategy is to apply for scholarships and grants early as possible, as these funds may be limited," Black notes.

Continuing education students typically qualify for federal aid if they pursue degrees at accredited institutions. Some professional and certificate programs also qualify, but they must have formal approval from the ED.

You can learn more about the FAFSA by reading this free financial planning resource.

Set up Payment Plans

To accommodate students in need of financial flexibility, many postsecondary institutions offer payment plans that make it less difficult for learners to manage the costs of attendance. The best payment plans reduce reliance on student loans by making it easier to meet financial obligations.

Every payment plan works differently. At some institutions, you can only participate in structured payment plans that require you to pay your fees in regular, predetermined monthly instalments. Others offer more flexibility, where learners specify their budgets and work with advisors to calculate customized plans that work within those limitations.

Schools also maintain their own eligibility criteria. To learn more, contact the financial aid office at your prospective school and find out if they offer a payment plan.


Apply to Scholarships

Scholarships for certificate programs, degrees, and other forms of continuing education are an excellent financial aid option. Federal, state, and local governments offer scholarships, as do companies, professional organizations, and private charities and philanthropists. Many schools also administer scholarship programs internally.

In all cases, applicants must meet specific eligibility criteria to qualify. Most scholarships use formal applications, which may require information about your educational background, academic achievement, and extracurricular activities. You may also need to demonstrate financial need and submit letters of recommendation.

Begin your hunt for scholarships by looking at institutional awards and then widen it with the help of online search engines.

Some scholarships are exclusively available to adult learners and other nontraditional students. You can learn more about those scholarships here.

Consider Personal and Private Loans

"Students should not even consider borrowing loans until they fully understand how loan interest accrues and compounds and what loan repayment plans are available," Black says. You should only consider student loans once you have exhausted all other financing options.

Student loans come in two main forms: federal and state government loans and private loans.

Government-issued loans typically offer many advantages compared to private loans, including lower interest rates and flexible repayment policies. Many loans also provide a grace period before payments come due. Additionally, government loans offer deferment options and forbearance protections.

“Students should not even consider borrowing loans until they fully understand how loan interest accrues and compounds and what loan repayment plans are available.”

— Amanda Black

However, government loans do come with some restrictions. For example, you must attend an approved program to qualify. You must also hold U.S. citizenship or a current, valid, long-term resident visa.

If you do not qualify for federal or state loans, or if you have already maxed out your lifetime eligibility, consider private funding sources. You can also investigate private loan options if you have received the maximum amount of available federal and state aid but still need additional funding.

Interview With an Education Financial Literacy Professional

Amanda Black
Amanda Black

Amanda Black


Amanda Black lives in Tampa, Florida, and has worked at Saint Leo University for seven years as the associate director of communications and financial literacy. She has a BA in art history from Temple University and an MS in arts administration from Drexel University. Prior to her position at Saint Leo, she worked in fundraising and financial aid positions for 10 years in several art schools in Philadelphia. She is an expert in financial aid, financial literacy, fundraising, and arts management.

What challenges do students face when financing continuing education?

Today, many people starting or returning to higher education are older than the traditional college student. Because they are adults — often with spouses, children, or other family members they are financially responsible for — finding room in their budget for tuition and general educational expenses is the main obstacle.

Rent, mortgages, car payments, utilities, medical bills, health insurance, and living expenses will always take priority. Once bills are paid, there isn't much left to put toward the cost of attending school.

What costs should students consider when financing their continuing education?

Tuition is obviously one of the main costs associated with attending school. However, other large expenses that should be considered are housing and personal expenses.

For example, students with children may need to pay for childcare when attending class or studying. Other expenses include books, computer equipment, and miscellaneous fees that may not be covered by financial aid.

Of course, expenses vary depending on where a student is studying and living.

In your experience, what are the main questions and concerns students have about financing their continuing education?

In my role at Saint Leo, I work with federal student loan borrowers. These students are mainly concerned about understanding how their loans work.

Common questions pertain to when loan repayment will begin, when and how loan interest will accrue and compound, and what repayment options are available. Often, student borrowers do not understand how federal student loans work until they are either halfway through their education or have completed their studies and must repay debt.

Is it ever financially not a good idea to go back to school?

If a student must borrow to finance their education and, at the same time, is undecided as to what they want to major in, it may be prudent to delay going to school.

Until students are sure of what they would like to study, they might consider auditing a couple classes in their area of interest or taking a micro-credential course. Both options allow them to see if they like a particular career or education path before taking the full plunge into a degree or certificate program.

At Saint Leo, we always encourage students to speak with a student financial advisor to review all available options. We want our students to feel confident in the education and financial decisions they make.

How does the financial aid process work for adult learners pursuing continuing education? Is it different from traditional students?

The financial aid process for adult learners and traditional students is the same in that the first step is to complete the FAFSA. The FAFSA can be completed online at studentaid.gov.

Students should never pay a fee for completing and submitting the FAFSA. Also, it is important to note that the FAFSA must be completed each year that the student is attending school and would like to receive eligible financial aid.

What financing options are available to students returning to school to continue their education who have financial hardships (for example, payment plans)?

Saint Leo offers payment plans that allow students to divide the amount due from their billing statement into multiple installments. Payment plans are a convenient way to automatically withdraw payments from a banking or credit card account over the course of each semester or term. Students also have the option of exploring scholarship and grant opportunities, as well as private loans.

How can students prepare to afford the cost of going back to school to earn a degree or complete a certificate program?

Students can prepare for the cost of higher education by thoroughly researching their educational options well in advance of when they intend to enroll and by practicing the arts of budgeting, saving, and living below their means.

The sooner students closely examine schools, majors, and educational costs associated with each of these, the sooner they can anticipate what expenses may be on the horizon. It is also crucial that future students strategize early on how they will manage living expenses while they are in school and paying tuition.

The best budgets are made before they are needed. If a student can anticipate their educational expenses and budget for them ahead of time, they will likely eliminate significant financial stress. Another strategy is to apply for scholarships and grants early as possible, as these funds may be limited.

What are some mistakes you see students make when financing their continuing education?

The worst mistakes I see pertain to students mismanaging finances and debt. Students often borrow excessive amounts and do not understand their repayment obligations or the effect of compounding interest.

Some borrowers spend decades repaying student loan debt. As many borrowers progress through life and take on mortgages, raise children, and (try to) save for retirement, their loan payments hinder them every month of every year that they are in repayment.

It is critical that students understand the consequences of what they borrow. This includes knowing the math behind compounding interest and how repaying debt over several decades can negatively affect a borrower's future standard of living.

Anything else students should know about financing continuing education?

Federal loans are a valuable resource for students pursuing higher education. However, depending on how much you borrow, loan debt can have a huge effect on how you live your life up to 30 years down the road.

Students should not even consider borrowing loans until they fully understand how loan interest accrues and compounds and what loan repayment plans are available. Prospective borrowers must always do the math and understand their loan obligations.

Student Stories in Continuing Education

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