September is my favorite month of the year. I was born in September so may be a bit biased, but it's for other reasons that I love September so much. I grew up and currently reside in Massachusetts, so September always heralds the shift between my two favorite seasons, summer and fall. Watching the leaves change and nature take its course, while shifting to cozy sweaters and drinking pumpkin spice lattes and warm apple cider are special pleasures for me.
September also meant back to school. By the end of the summer I was usually bored, ready to go back to school and to see my friends. Now as an adult, it often feels like a reset to me, almost like the beginning of the year. A time to hunker down and determine what I want to accomplish in the next 12 months. For some of you, that accomplishment is going back to school for a first, second or maybe even third degree. Here are some of the steps I took (in no particular order) to lessen the cost of my Masters (I wasn't savvy enough to do it for my Bachelors unfortunately) and still get the education I desired.
Estimating Costs: This step can be done when you are considering which college to attend, or after you've been accepted. Honestly, it's best to do before or during application. I didn't think of it until after being accepted, but it was still beneficial to me to do it even at that stage.
Estimating costs for your education is essential because it allows you to better financially plan for funding your education. It can also be complicated to estimate costs given the long list of fees often applied to tuition bills. But don't let that deter you! Start on the website and calculate all the possible fees that may apply to you. Decide if you are doing in-person or online courses or a mix of both because that will determine the applicable fees. Typically you'll have to go to the specific program you're applying (i.e. Master's in Applied Linguistics) to see the full list of tuition and fees. Your estimate should include: cost of credit hours, health insurance (if needed), new student fees, graduation fees and any other possible fee that may be applied. An example of a breakdown of tuition and fees can be found here and will obviously vary by institution. Remember this is an estimate to help you budget for costs, and it is better than going in with no idea of what you'll pay.
Once you've looked at the website and determined an estimate based on your degree, type of learning, and number of credits you'll be taking, call the Bursar's office. They can often provide you more clarity for your estimate by walking you through definite fees you'll have to pay and potential fees you may have to pay. They can also give you information or direct you to their financial aid office which can also give you further information.
Financial aid: Almost all schools offer some form of Financial Aid, whether that may be filling out the FAFSA and receiving loans or grants, providing a tuition payment plan or offering scholarships you either automatically qualify for or can apply for. You should absolutely see what the options are through reviewing the financial aid website, and by talking to the financial aid office.
This is where a good estimate of what your cost is per semester (remember each year it will probably rise so you'll have to reassess) comes in handy, especially for loans. You do not have to accept all the loan money they offer you. Please be clear on that. You can respond to the offer with the amount you want to borrow. For how to do that, connect with your financial aid office. Why would you want to do that? Because then you will borrow less money which means you will owe less money. And the interest that will be accruing while you're in school will result in a lower amount over all because you borrowed less money. And you can start paying back that loan immediately rather than waiting, which will drive down the compounded interest. Don't take whatever they offer you. Come up with your estimate of costs and make an informed decision from there. It will help you get rid of those debts in the long run.
Consider online classes: This is especially relevant given COVID-19, but the truth is that online degrees have been available at accredited institutions for quite some time now. COVID-19 is helping to push institutions to make those online offerings better, and convincing colleges/universities that didn't previously have them, to invest in them. Online courses are typically cheaper than in-person classes because they require less for the institution to offer them. This may change in the coming years as online courses become more popular, but for right now, they remain the more financially sound option. More and more types of degrees are being offered this way, and, from personal experience, these online courses can be just as interactive as in-person learning. They also often provide you flexibility that you don't get with in-person classes, allowing you to take care of your other responsibilities as well. It does take a lot of self-discipline to do online courses, but if you are determined to get your degree, this may not be a deterrent.
Getting your degree while working: Especially if you are considering online courses, getting your degree while working a full or part-time job could be a huge benefit to you. Going back to school while working is hard. There is no way around that. However, there are some advantages to doing so. The first is obvious: you are still getting paid while going to school. If you go to school full time, you are likely not receiving a paycheck and so have to fund your education as well as your living expenses. Having a job while attending school allows you to get your education and have your living expenses, and potentially all or some of your tuition costs covered. I'm talking about tuition reimbursement which is offered as a benefit at a lot of workplaces.
I received tuition reimbursement from my job when I went back to school. In fact, I negotiated that into my contract when they were hiring me. Many places offer tuition reimbursement with stipulations. For example, you may have to have worked at the company for a certain amount of time before receiving this benefit. Or that your longevity at the company determines how much you receive in reimbursement. They might provide reimbursement only if you go to school for specific degrees that may benefit the company in the long run. You may also be required to receive a specific grade point or higher and provide proof at the end of the semester. Whatever the configuration, if you are considering going back to school, see if your job offers tuition reimbursement of any kind. And if they don't, ask them to consider it. The worst they can tell you is no.
In addition to tuition reimbursement, your employment typically provides health insurance. For most colleges and universities, it is a requirement that each student have health insurance. If a student does not have it independently, the school will require it be purchased from them. That cost is automatically added into your tuition bill without prior notice. If you don't know to address it ahead of time, you can be stuck paying for it, and paying for health insurance on top of tuition and books can be expensive. The average cost is between $1,500-$2,500 a year, which is often close to the equivalent of an online college course. If you are working, that cost is reduced or non existent for you. The one caveat is to make sure you submit the health insurance waiver. How often you have to submit the waiver is up to the institution you are attending, but make sure you get it in on-time to save yourself those funds!
Tax break: Another thing I discovered after going back to school is that you can receive a tax break for it! Make sure you include your tuition costs as well as any money you spent on books and supplies for school. It's worth saving those receipts if you can get some of your money back. The smart move would be to apply any money you get back directly to the next tuition bill. That way you don't have to budget for that money or borrow more than you need to cover your education costs.
Budgeting: Now y'all know I was not about to close out this blog without mentioning budgeting! It's my favorite financial topic! This is another area where determining an estimation of costs comes in handy. Knowing that estimate can help you determine if you need to borrow any money at all. That's a big statement to make but trust me on this one.
Figure out your estimate and understand what benefits your job can offer you. Knowing that number, figure out how much you have to put aside per month to pay for your tuition and start doing that ASAP. This should be how you operate whether or not you take out a financial aid loan. Setting aside this money every month means that you will have to borrow less. That set aside money can go directly to the school in one lump sum (if you're able to do that), in regular payments to the school, or to your loan repayment if you had to borrow to pay the tuition in full up front. Whatever way you choose, you are reducing how much you have to pay in the long run as well as the amount of debt you might accrue.
There is a lot to consider as you think about going back to school, and there are a lot of ways to make the financial burden less of a deciding factor. These are just some of the ways to do that, which I have personally employed. I am sure there are more. The important things are to know your options and understand all possible costs so you can make informed decisions that support your educational and financial goals. And the great thing about all of the above is that you can apply them even if you are already enrolled! If you have more semesters to go, start using the tips above to reduce the cost of the rest of your degree. Wherever you are in your educational journey, don't let the finances take up more worry than they need to. You got this!