Tackling costs of going back to school

When the economy is weak, career changers typically flock to graduate schools to obtain advanced degrees to make them more marketable in the work force.

But that switch, always a difficult one, is proving even tougher for some in this economic slump.

The number of applications to U.S. business schools, for instance, is down by 53 percent in the 2002-2003 school year, according to a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council in McLean, Va.

And the weak economy is in part to blame, said Daphne Atkinson, the council's vice president of industry relations.

"Career switchers are less inclined to risk leaving a job for two years until the economy shows signs of improvement," she said.

Indeed, going back to college midcareer often involves financial sacrifices that affect the whole family. Still, there are things that can be done to make it more manageable.

They include:

  • Calculate your need. The first step is to figure out how much money you'll need to attend school, how much debt you can reasonably afford to carry and, most important, how much time you anticipate being without a regular paycheck while you pursue that degree.

    To figure out how much debt you can shoulder, college-planning Web site FinAid.org (www.finaid.org) in Pittsburgh offers calculators that will crunch the numbers for master's and doctoral candidates.

    To get a feel for how long you'll be out of work, contact a financial-aid counselor at the school of your choice and discuss your goals. Determine whether it's feasible to attend night school and continue to work. Also, many fields of study require extended internships. Ask for guidance on how well these jobs pay, if at all.

    Now add in all the collateral costs: Will you need more child care? Will your commuting costs increase? Will you have to pay for your own health care? When you total it up, sticker shock may ensue. But relax, there is funding available to help ease the burden.

  • Search for financial aid. One big mistake most adult students make is assuming they make too much money to get financial assistance.

    "I have a client who really wanted to go to law school, but she was making a good deal of money in her current job as a career counselor and she didn't think she'd be eligible for any aid at all," said Patricia A. Konetzny, a certified financial planner in Maynard, Mass. But, "it turns out she was eligible for a full scholarship" that wasn't need-based.

    The best place to start looking for scholarships and grants is the College Board's scholarship site (www.collegeboard.com/pay), which lets you search based on your professional, military, religious and social affiliations, among other things. Another popular free search engine is Fastweb.com (www.fastweb.com), operated by career Web site Monster.com.

    Watch out for scholarship-finding services that charge a fee to track down money. Some may be scams, so check with the Better Business Bureau before paying for any service.

  • Ask your current employer. More companies are adding tuition-assistance programs to their benefits packages to attract and retain top talent. Some 81 percent of 960 companies surveyed offered some type of tuition-assistance plan in 2002, according to Hewitt Associates, the outsourcing and consulting firm based in Lincolnshire, Ill.

    But company aid often comes with strings attached. Many employers require assurances that you're enhancing your current skills, not training for a new career. And a growing number of companies are adapting the military's take on higher education: You sign a contract that says if your employer pays two to four years of higher-education costs, you'll continue working at the company for an equal or greater number of years.

    Finally, if you, a spouse or a parent is part of one of more than 40,000 labor unions in the U.S., you may be eligible for additional tuition-assistance programs, grants or scholarships.

  • Federal or private loans? Interest rates on federal student loans are at record lows, but many professionals may not be able to take advantage of them because of government loan limits, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org.

    For example, Stafford Loans have a loan limit of $18,500 a year, with a cumulative limit of $65,500. "So if a person's already borrowed $23,000 as an undergrad, he's only got $42,500 to pursue an advanced degree," Kantrowitz said.

    Many postgraduate students rely on private alternative loan programs from commercial lenders, such as Citigroup and American Express. But these programs typically charge a percentage point or two more than federal loans.

  • Leave that nest egg alone. Education is a long-term investment in yourself, so it might seem like a no-brainer to tap your 401(k) to pay for it -- whether you stay with your current employer or not. But borrowing from your retirement savings should be your last resort.

    "You're not only cashing out in the midst of a bear market, but you risk missing out on any recovery," said Dean Knepper, a certified financial planner and CPA with Lifetime Financial Planning in Leesburg, Va. "It's better to keep that money earning tax-deferred interest."

    And don't forget, you have to be able to pay it back quickly -- typically within five years -- or you'll get hit with personal income taxes and a 10 percent penalty on the money.
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