Sure, it looks like great fun as Joan and Barri, two desperate 40-year-old housewives, frolic with 19-year-old boys, experiment with lesbianism, sample sex toys, and do beer runs for their new underage friends on the new TV sitcom Campus Ladies. But the show never answers a basic question: how are they paying for college?
A college education — at any time of life — costs money, often a lot of money. A four-year undergraduate education now runs close to $40,000 a year for tuition, room, and board for both large and small private colleges. Boston University clocks in at $42,046, and Stonehill, a small Catholic college in Easton, is $38,121. State universities are, of course, cheaper. Attending UMass Amherst costs $15,795 for residents, and $24,914 for out-of-staters, and attending UMass Boston is a third of that.
These days few students — or, let's be honest, parents — pay the full fare without assistance, and all schools have financial-aid offices to help put together the best package of federal loans, bank loans, and, if possible, scholarships to finance college. But these programs are, to a large degree, geared toward students who are just out of high school and following a traditional, kindergarten-through-bachelor’s-degree educational track. What about all those people — and there are plenty of them — in their late 20s, 30s, or even older who want to take the plunge into higher education?
There are lots of reasons why adults return to school to pursue long- or short-term academic careers: to get that never-completed Bachelor of Arts, to enhance their earning power with a master’s degree, to prepare for a new mid-career profession, or simply for personal growth.
Taking courses toward a degree is going to cost you money — there’s no way around it — but if you just want to pursue course work that interests you, school can be much cheaper. Harvard Extension, for instance, offers a wide variety of courses that can be taken on graduate, undergraduate, or noncredit basis. For example, you can take “The Vikings and the Nordic Heroic Tradition” for $1450 for graduate credit, $550 for undergraduate credit, or $325 for noncredit. (Most of the syllabi for these courses are available online, so if you are unusually disciplined and simply interested in learning about a given topic, you can easily put together your own at-home course.)
Many older students are looking for career changes that are less all-consuming than, say, law or medicine, but that still cost a pretty pound. Take the programs available at the New England Institute of Art, for example. It offers bachelor’s and associate’s degrees in a full range of majors — advertising, broadcasting, audio production, interactive-media design — all of which will lead directly to the workplace and cost $625 a credit. Translation: the cost is almost $78,000 for a bachelor’s, or $40,000 for an associate’s degree (including fees and materials). If you don’t happen to have that kind of cash in your sock drawer, you can always go to a bank and take out a loan, but you will pay current interest rates and must begin paying back the bank immediately. Luckily, there are many programs that help older students pay for at least some of their continuing education. Often these are the same as, or similar to, those in place for the traditional undergraduate or grad student, and individual schools may offer their own access to loan programs and scholarships. (Beware, though: in the past two decades, money available for students has not kept up with rising educational costs.)
Not surprisingly, funding for noncredit courses is practically nonexistent, but if you enroll full-time or part-time in a bachelor’s or any other degree program, you will have access to the full range of funding available to younger students. And fortunately, your age won’t matter.
Learn the territory
If you are thinking of going back to school, you will want to do four things before making that commitment. First, explore the economics of going back to school full-time versus part-time. Many prospective adult students already have full-time jobs and are perhaps considering going to school part-time. Do a quick cost-benefits analysis. If you become a full-time student, you lose your full-time pay, but you also become eligible for many more loans and grants. Most granting and loaning institutions require you to be enrolled, usually at least half time, in a degree-granting program before they’ll consider handing over any money.
Second, clearly define your immediate and long-term goals, and choose a school and a program that meet your expectations. In theory, this should be easy, since adult students have a reputation for being more focused, directed, and practical than younger students.