It isn't just 18-year-olds giving the old college try. Many working adults who have been out of school for years take classes for fun, to improve job skills or switch careers.
As of 1998, the latest figures available, students 30 and older made up 15 percent of the student bodies at four-year colleges, but accounted for 46 percent of part-time pupils, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid, an online source for financial aid information. At two-year schools, these nontraditional students were 27 percent of all students.
While plenty of adult learners are in classrooms, the misperception is that financial assistance is only for those young in years, financial aid experts said. But with research and the help of a financial aid office, nontraditional students may find they also can get a helping hand to pay for school.
Ask Susan L. Coard, 39, of Laurel. The single parent had been working as a medical assistant at a doctor's office and went back to school for a nursing degree in 1995 in hopes of higher pay. She continued working while attending classes part time at Howard Community College.
After paying $595 out-of-pocket for the first course, Coard wondered how she would foot the bill for five years of classes. She went to the financial aid office and said, "I want to do this, but I don't have the money."
The office helped secure grants, federal student loans and state scholarships. Coard became the first recipient of the Marie K. Kittleberger Nursing Scholarship, a $3,500 award given to a single parent with good grades at the school. She also received tuition help from her employer and a $500 scholarship from her church.
Coard graduated in May and earns nearly $8,000 more a year in her new job as a nurse at Howard County General Hospital than she did in her old post.
"I'm getting a bigger pay, experience and considered a professional," she said. "I'm more marketable now. I can go anywhere in the country ... and get a job."
If you're an employed adult headed back to the classroom, start your search for financial assistance at work. Many companies reimburse employees for classes, although the courses might have to be related to work, said Laura Donnelly, one of the Johns Hopkins University's aid directors.
Sylvan Learning Systems reimburses tuition costs of up to $2,000 a year for employees seeking a degree or certification. The company said it reaps the benefits of workers gaining more training and the 90 percent lower turnover among those receiving tuition aid.
Other potential sources of private scholarships or grants are unions and professional groups to which you belong, Donnelly said.
Also, visit Web sites, such as www.fastweb.com, that offer free scholarship searches. Plug in your school, hobbies, field of study and other information and the site unearths potential scholarships.
Financial help is limited for students taking, say, a basket-weaving class for fun. But many more options open up, including federal aid, to those seeking a degree or certification, said Janice Doyle, senior director of enrollment services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
The first step to tapping into these dollars is filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
It's available at high schools and colleges or you can fill it out online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.
The earliest the application can be submitted for the next school year is Jan. 1. Students should get it in as soon as possible, or at least by March 1, which is the financial aid deadline for the state and many schools, Doyle said. Check your school's deadline, it could be even earlier.
The application goes to the state and schools you want to attend, which determine available financial assistance.
For information on state aid, check the Maryland Higher Education Commission's Web site at www.mhec.state.md.us or call 800-974-1024.
Twenty-eight state programs exist for students in financial need or those entering fields with a shortage of workers, such as teaching and nursing, said Karen Price, director of the State Scholarship Administration.
Aid programs include senatorial and delegate scholarships given out by state legislators to constituents, the only such awards in the country. Senators, each given $138,000 a year to distribute, can award up to $2,000 per student annually, Price said. Awards from delegates, who each have $20,329 a year to hand out, can be as high as $4,000 per student, she said. Most legislators award the scholarships, although some turn the funds over to other financial aid programs.
Schools also have money to award students. Criteria and deadlines differ from school to school.
You may qualify for tax breaks if paying for classes yourself.
If you itemize your tax return, you might be entitled to deduct the cost of courses, books, fees and transportation to and from school provided the classes improve skills for your existing job, said Gail Perry, managing editor for AccountingWEB.com, an online magazine for accountants. The downside is you can deduct only those costs that exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income, she said.
Or, you might qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, which allows you to subtract 20 percent of the first $5,000 spent on college-level courses each year from your tax bill. The maximum credit per family is $1,000 a year. "You don't have to be enrolled in a degree or be a full-time student," Perry said. "You can just take one class or can take a one-day seminar if offered by a college."
The credit phases out for singles with adjusted gross incomes of $40,000 and higher and for married couples earning $80,000 or more.
Self-employed students undergoing educational training related to their business could be better off deducting the cost of classes from their business tax form rather than taking the Lifetime credit, Perry said.
You're entitled to take only one of the tax breaks at a time, so you should figure out which option gives you the best deal, Perry said.
You can contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at email@example.com.