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How to go back to school without going into serious debt

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Consider going back to college with as little debt as possible.
More and more workers are going back to school in hopes of getting a better job once they graduate. 

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data shows that one in six college graduates is now over the age of 35. Yet despite the tremendous interest in returning to school, exorbitant educational costs may keep seasoned workers from pursuing additional education, especially in light of rising student loan debt. 

The average student loan debt for 2011 graduates was $26,600, but in 2012 that number grew to $29,400, according to the latest Project on Student Debt data. 

If you're considering going back to school, but are anxious to avoid this additional liability, here are ways to fund your education without fueling your debt:

Cover Your Investment

Before you invest in more school, make sure you'll be able to cover the costs. Visit the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for employment and wage estimates organized by job title, hiring trends and wage expectations. Other sites such as CareerProfiles.info provide additional information about specific jobs. Research your odds of getting hired and your starting and career salary potential to get a better sense of how much debt you'll be able to manage after graduation and whether your prospective career path is worth the investment.

Cut Costs

Once you've settled on what degree to pursue, look for ways you can cut educational costs. You can apply this on several fronts, starting with school selection. The average annual college tuition cost ranges from $3,131 for a public, in-state two-year college to $29,056 for private four-year colleges, according to the College Board.

The Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center provides a variety of tools to help you compare tuition costs and find a good. Many universities are now offering distance education classes called massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can be attended for free. A list of available courses is indexed at mooc-list.com.

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Returning to college can be a fantastic move for your career ... but consider the cost before diving in!

Find Funding

When it comes to finding funding without falling into debt, there are a number of resources you can pursue. The U.S. Department of Education's Federal Student Aid site provides information about federal grants, scholarships and work-study jobs as well as loans. College financial aid offices, public libraries and sites such as FinAid.org can provide strategies and resources for pursuing additional scholarship opportunities.

If you have the ability to save, a 529 plan provides a tax-advantaged vehicle to invest tuition funds. If you receive payments from a structured settlement or annuity, companies like J.G. Wentworth buy future payments for a lump sum of cash now, which you can use to pay tuition expenses.

You may also be able to get an employer to cover tuition costs. Many employers offer tuition reimbursement programs, while others may be willing to create one if you approach them and demonstrate how educating you will benefit them. Under Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code, employers can provide you with up to $5,250 in tax-free education benefits per year.

In conclusion

If you're contemplating returning to school to improve your employment opportunities, research your funding options as carefully as possible before you commit. Doing so can help you land a great career without going into serious debt.

Guest post by Kelli Robinson, a retired teacher from Maine who blogs about the current state of education.


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