Higher education is not cheap by any means and finding ways to offset the cost could make or break your school plans. The first thing you need to do is apply for financial aid. In order to do this, you will need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. You should probably complete this now as many schools have deadlines for FAFSA applications.
Are you unemployed?
If you are unemployed, the first place to look for funding would be through your state employment commission. There are some programs run through the state and federal government that help provide training for the unemployed. Usually, the programs they fund are trades, but there are some opportunities for community colleges as well. Generally, you have to prove that your chosen career field is competitive. For this reason, getting funded for a degree in Art is probably not going to happen. I will say that because these are government programs, the funding may not always be there. Still, your state employment commission might be able to direct you to local funding sources. The department of labor and social services (if you receive certain benefits) may also provide information on returning to school.
Are you employed?
There are some companies that offer tuition reimbursement as part of their benefits package so your HR department is the first place you should go. Some employers may offer the tuition assistance up front which would mean submitting paperwork to them and they would pay your tuition before school starts. Others, you may have to pay for your classes up front and they would reimburse you after you had finished the class. There may be some restriction but overall, this is a great benefit and one that I myself am able to take advantage of.
Just remember that if you do go this route, there may be some stipulations tied to it. Usually, there is a grade requirement for the class so if you were to get a D or an F, your employer would not pay for the class. Also, some companies have stipulations about your length of service if they pay for school. Some may require that you work for the company at least 1-2 years after you have completed a course.
Even if your company does not have a formal reimbursement program, still talk to your supervisor about getting education to move up within the company. A friend of my mother’s worked as a nursing assistant at a nursing home. She expressed to her employer a desire to become a Registered Nurse and they gave her funding on the condition that once she became an RN, she would work for the facility for two years.
Grants are probably the ideal source of funding. They are based on the needs of the individual and don’t have to be paid back. They are available for going to traditional colleges or trade/career schools as well. There are state and federal grants that you may be eligible for. Your school should be able to provide information on state grants and how to qualify for them. The Pell grant is a federal grant program that is probably the most well-known. In addition there is the FSEOG. You can read more about federal grants here. Eligibility for these grant are determined through your FAFSA.
Scholarships are also free and don’t need to be paid back but the process for attaining one can be complicated. Because these are not government funds, there are thousands of scholarships with a multitude of criteria for eligibility. Scholarships can be merit based or need based. There are some that will pick a random winner, and some are based on a membership in a specific group, i.e. ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. There may be added steps to attaining a scholarship like writing an essay or completing an application. Just know that the bigger the amount, the more competition there will be for it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply but there are smaller scholarship that are probably offered in your local area that will have less competition. A $500-$1000 scholarship from your local women’s league may not be as appealing as a $10K national scholarship but every little bit helps!
Research your local area organizations first. Women’s clubs, volunteer organizations, even your employer. There are several web sites available as well. Scholarships.com is one that I have heard good things about. Check here for additional details. You should reach out to your school’s financial aid office as well. Many schools have scholarship programs geared specifically towards their own students.
If you cannot find any of the above sources for funding, you may have to pay out of pocket for classes. Many schools do have payment plan options available so ask your school before registering for class.
If money keeps you from going back to school, I think a student loan should be your last resort. There are private loans that you can take out, and there are federal loans. Make sure to do your research to determine what will work for you. Here you can find out about federal student loans. Student loan debt is like no other debt. It doesn’t get forgiven or discharged so be careful here. You will have this debt until you pay it off or you die. If you go this route, take only what you need for school. There may be an opportunity to get more than what you need, but since loans have to be repaid, it isn’t a good idea to take it. Talk to your school about getting a loan.