When the markets go berserk and the country slips into recession, you can count on these trends: People scale back their spending, focus on paying off debt and building savings. They also head back to school.
Many of the people who've written to me lately were recently laid off. Others are trying to skirt becoming jobless by learning skills that will make them more valuable to their bosses. And some are stay-at-home moms or dads who want to earn a degree so they can get a job and add to the family's income.
All of them ask: "What's the best way to make this transition? How the heck do I pay for it?" Luckily, neither issue is as difficult as it seems. Family Plan
Going back to school will shake up your life, no doubt about it.
"Getting them lined up so that they are supportive of what you want to do is very, very important," says Al Seibert, co-author of The Adult Student's Guide to Survival & Success. Your spouse is going to have to take on some of the household tasks you usually handle, and, if your kids are old enough, they'll need to pitch in, as well. You'll also need quiet time when you're home so you can study.
Remember, this is a family project—the end result will be a better lifestyle for everyone. Sticker Shock
We all know higher education is costly. But in nearly all cases, the sticker price of a school is merely the starting point. Financial aid can make that number drop significantly. Don't rule out schools until you learn whether they're willing to offer financial aid. Find the Money
Nontraditional students often have the misconception that aid is intended only for high school students entering college. Luckily, that's not the case.
"Financial aid doesn't care how old you are. It's an ageless system," said Gen Tanabe, co-author of 501 Ways for Adult Students to Pay for College.
In fact, as an independent student, you're eligible for higher limits on unsubsidized Stafford loans. Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which the U.S. Department of Education uses to determine your aid eligibility.
If you want to start school this fall, submit your form now. Even if you think you're not eligible, try. Scholarships
Start by checking FastWeb.com and CollegeBoard.com. Then ask around at any organizations or professional groups you belong to, which often offer money for scholarships. If you have a job, your employer may offer tuition reimbursement if your studies are related to your work.
Your financial aid application is very mathematical, crunching numbers about your income and assets to come up with what's called your expected contribution, or how much the government thinks you can comfortably afford to pay. But the part of the process when colleges devise a financial aid package for you is very human.
"Most college financial aid forms have a blank space for you to describe anything that they should take into consideration. That's where you can explain your personal situation, including a layoff in your family," Gen says. Because financial aid counselors tend to be numbers-oriented, back up your case with statements and stubs—it will help make your case.