Paying for Additional Education to Get the Job You Want After 50

By Kerry Hannon

Copyright © 2015 AARP. All rights reserved.

You may need additional education to get the job you want after 50. Although certain educational offerings are entirely free, many programs, especially those that offer a degree or certification, cost money. If you’re currently employed, you may be able to take advantage of employer-reimbursed education and training opportunities, or you may have enough money and time to work on your degree or certification one course at a time.

If you’re unemployed and strapped for cash, the financial aid department at the school you’re interested in can help you explore available options, including scholarships, grants, fellowships, and student loans. Keep reading to check out several options to help pay for your education.

Taking advantage of employer education/training opportunities

Roughly half of employers offer tuition assistance to employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Many employers offer tax-free tuition-assistance programs (up to $5,250, not counted as taxable income), and the contribution doesn’t have to be attached to a full degree program.

You may have to repay the funds, though, if you don’t stay with the company for a certain number of years afterward. And you may need to earn a minimum grade or get your manager’s approval for the curriculum to be eligible for this workplace perk.

Admittedly, if you choose a field that doesn’t directly relate to your current employment, you may need to convince your boss that your course of study will resonate, even tangentially, with your job. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. In essence, you’ll need to explain how continuing education will make you a more productive and creative worker. In other words, what’s in it for the company?

Getting a break from Uncle Sam

The federal government has a vested interest in keeping you in the workforce. The longer you continue to work, the more tax revenue you generate. So don’t hesitate to seek out government assistance to fund your continuing education. Government assistance typically comes in the form of tax breaks and low-interest loans. Here are a few resources to check out:

  • Visit the Tax Benefits for Education Information Center on the IRS website. The Lifetime Learning Credit, for example, can give you a tax credit of up to $2,000 to cover up to 20 percent of annual tuition; you don’t have to be enrolled in a degree program. (The benefit phases out completely for married couples earning $124,000 and singles earning $62,000.)

  • Consider a low-interest federal Stafford loan. There’s no age limit, and you’re eligible as a part-time student, too.

  • Search the web for your state followed by “college financial aid” to find links to sites that contain information about state financial aid programs for higher education.

Certain forms of financial aid are often available only to students working toward their first bachelor’s degree, but some schools will waive this requirement for older students returning to college to pursue a career change.

Go to FinAid.org and Edvisors.com for information on scholarships and grants for older students.

Considering Pell grants

For an undergraduate degree, check out federal Pell grants. They’re interest-free and don’t need to be repaid; the most recent maximum award is $5,730. The amount you’ll qualify for depends on factors such as your financial need, tuition costs, and whether you’ll be a full- or part-time student. For more on this type of aid, go to the Pell grant area of the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

Paying with tax-free money: 529 plans

To make the most of the money you have available to pay for classes, consider socking away money in a 529 plan. This tax-favored program, run by the states, isn’t just for your child’s or grandchild’s college tuition. People of any age can invest money in a 529 plan and use the cash for their future education costs.

A 529’s earnings are tax-free when you withdraw the money to pay higher education expenses. Some states even let residents deduct 529 contributions from their state income taxes. And if you wind up not using some or all of the money, you can transfer the funds to another beneficiary, such as your child or grandchild. You can research 529 plans at the College Savings Plans Network.

Scoring scholarships, grants, and fellowships

Try to score an older-student grant, scholarship, or fellowship. Some groups and foundations offer them, though it may take some investigating to track down this interest-free financing. The American Association of University Women, for example, offers fellowships and grants for women going back to school to advance their careers, change careers, or reenter the workforce. For more on grants, scholarships, and fellowships, check out the sites Fastweb.com and Finaid.org.

Choosing the right loan for you

If you must borrow, be conservative. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has excellent college financing advice to help you choose the right loan and pay the least amount of interest. Try to get a Federal Direct Loan. Rates on these loans are fixed and low.

You may be able to get your monthly student loan payments reduced if you work in public safety, public health, education, social work, or the nonprofit sector. Learn more at the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program area of the Department of Education site.