The traditional path to earning a degree takes students from the high school classroom to the college classroom. But older adults who are returning to school or attending for the first time have a significant presence on college campuses. In 2018, 7.6 million students enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities were 25 or older.

The value of a college education is apparent. In a 2017 survey conducted by Full Circle Research for Champlain College, six out of 10 respondents aged 23 to 55 said they’ve personally considered returning to school to complete a certificate, associate degree or bachelor’s degree. Seventy percent said will be “very important” or “somewhat important” to hold a bachelor’s degree to secure a job in the future, while 73% said their main motivation for going back to school was to increase their earning potential.

A college degree can pay dividends. The median weekly earnings for someone with a bachelor’s degree totals $1,173, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, the median weekly earnings for someone with only a high school diploma is $712. That’s a difference of $23,972 annually; over a 40-year career, the person who only holds a diploma will earn $958,880 less than their bachelor’s degree-holding counterpart.

There’s one major obstacle to getting a degree later in life: cost. In the Champlain College survey, 75% of respondents said the main barrier to going back to school was concern over being burdened with student loan debt. Seventy percent worried they wouldn’t be able to afford college. 

“Going back to school as an adult can be a challenge and very different from when you were in high school,” says Dawn-Marie Joseph, founder of Estate Planning & Preservation in Williamston, Michigan. “To determine if it’s the right decision, you need to consider both time and money.”

If you’re contemplating a return to college as an adult, here’s how to plan for additional financial burden.  

Consider Financing Options

There are several ways to plan and pay for college costs, starting with the most obvious choice. While taking on debt may not be ideal, federal and private student loans can provide the funding you need for school.

If you’re seeking federal student loans, you’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “Filling out the FAFSA form will be different because you’re using your income, not your parents',” says Joseph, You're also reporting your own assets. There’s no age limit to apply for federal aid and your credit score won't affect your ability to qualify for loans.

Private student loans are different, in that private lenders will consider your income and credit history as part of the approval process. The stronger your credit score, the more likely you are to be approved and qualify for the best interest rates.

Private loans also lack many of the protections and benefits associated with federal loans.

“Federal loans offer a variety of repayment plans, including ones that are based on your income,” says Dr. Virginia Marsico, a chiropractic physician who returned to school later in life. “Federal loans are discharged upon death, while private loans are not; and often times, family is responsible.”

Further, federal student loans are eligible for public service loan forgiveness if you pursue a career in public service. While federal loans have fixed interest rates, “private loans may have variable interest rates that will most certainly affect your financial obligation when you’re ready to start paying those loans back,” Marsico says.

In addition to student loans,  consider scholarships and grants. While many awards are geared towards first-time students, there are programs that cater to returning students. The main advantage of these programs is that, unlike student loans, they typically don’t need to be repaid. Keep in mind, however, that some scholarships and grants may come with strings attached. The NURSE Corps Scholarship program, for example, offers funding to students of all ages in exchange for a work commitment after graduation.

A third option is to ask whether your employer offers tuition reimbursement, scholarships or repayment assistance for student loans.

“Many adult education programs at both the undergrad and graduate level are often geared toward workers who get some support from their employer,” says Sean Pearson, Ameriprise financial advisor in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. “For 2018, employers can provide up to $5,250 of tax-free tuition reimbursement.”

If your employer offers help with college costs, that could work to your advantage in more ways than one. “Returning to school could potentially add to job stability because once employers are invested in you, they may also have an incentive to keep you around now that you’re more qualified and have an expanded skill set,” Pearson says.

Keep Long-term Financial Planning in Sight

As you plan for how you’ll pay for college, don’t neglect the other pieces of your financial puzzle. That includes shoring up your emergency fund and keeping your retirement savings on track.

“When considering whether you’re going to go back to school, it’s important to make sure you have at least six months of living expenses saved,” Joseph says. This can help you cover expenses if going back to school means temporarily reducing your hours at work or you need extra cash to help cover college costs that aren’t taken care of by loans, scholarships or employer financing.

If you’re continuing to work while going back to school, resist the temptation to put your 401(k) or IRA contributions on pause. At a minimum, contribute enough to your workplace retirement plan to qualify for your employer’s full matching contribution. If you’re saving in a traditional IRA, contribute as much as you can up to the annual contribution limit to maximize your deduction for those contributions at tax time.

Take advantage of other savings opportunities as well. You can contribute to a 529 college savings plan before you go back to school and while you’re enrolled. These plans allow for tax-free withdrawals when you use them to pay for qualified education expenses. If you don’t exhaust your 529 savings to earn a degree, you can pass the account on to your spouse or children.

The Bottom Line

When planning to go back to school as an adult, remember to calculate your return on investment, in terms of salary earnings and career advancement, to make sure it’s worth it. Consider the best, middle and worst-case scenarios, Pearson says, to get a realistic outlook on your goal. “Conducting research on salary expectations and having a mentor give you a third-party opinion can help ensure your formula looks attainable from an impartial perspective,” he says. Finally, consider how well you’ll be able to balance classwork with your career and home life. 

“Getting back in the academic mode is challenging,” Pearson says. “If going back to school was easy, and most people finished every program and subsequently doubled their salary—everyone would do it.”