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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 5/9/2007 9:53:57 AM ET 2007-05-09T13:53:57

Are you an adult who has spent time out in the working world and who now has a hankering to beef up the education section of your resume?

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If so, you’re not alone. More than a third of all college students are over the age of 25, and they go back to school for all sorts of reasons: to hone their career goals, to launch entirely new and different careers or simply to immerse themselves in a field of study that makes them happy.

All of those are worthy objectives, of course – but the specter of assuming thousands of dollars of student-loan debt a little bit later in life is enough to make any adult a wee bit nervous.

Whether your focus of study will be ultra-practical or ultra-ethereal, the following tips can help you go back to school as a grown-up without going completely broke.

1. Know what you’re after. Be decisive about what you want your schooling to accomplish for your overall goals before you disrupt your life and the lives of your family members. Meet with a career counselor if you’re unsure about just which major to pursue, and do enough research to recognize when a certain course of study won’t be likely to pencil out for years to come.

2. Cash in on real-life experience, knowledge. Good news: Many colleges and universities allow older students to trade in their career experience and other skills for college credits. You also can earn college credits passing inexpensive College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests.

3. Try for financial aid. Don’t assume you make too much money at this stage of your life to qualify for financial assistance. You never know – depending on your life experience, you might even qualify for a full scholarship. Check for both scholarship and grant possibilities through FastWeb and the Financial Aid Resource Center. (Scholarships and grants are great because they never have to be repaid.)

4. Present the most accurate financial picture possible. Ask a financial-aid counselor whether your needs can be assessed based on your coming year’s projected income rather than the past year’s income. This will be key if your income will drop significantly after you begin attending school.

5. Look into loans with care. With subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest on the money you borrow while you’re in school and during the grace period before repayment begins. Another possible option to consider: The entrepreneurs who started the Web site MyRichUncle.com take a “holistic” look at individual students’ grade point averages, programs of study and test scores when deciding how to give out loans for their school costs.

6. Take advantage of tax breaks. The Lifetime Learning Credit gives you a tax credit for up to $2,000 you spend on education each year. Or, it might make more sense for you to pursue a tuition-and-fees deduction of up to $4,000. You also can deduct interest paid on student loans.

7. Spread out school expenses. Even if the program you plan to pursue only lasts one year, you could score two years’ worth of deductions by deliberately paying for college costs over the course of two tax years.

8. Ask for tuition help from your employer. Many employers will cover at least some portion of their workers’ educational costs. Up to $5,250 of the tuition assistance money you get is tax-free. And if you get laid off, ask for your severance package to include tuition assistance.

9. Pursue higher education wherever you can. Do you work for a large company that offers a “Corporate U”? Such corporate universities may not grant degrees, but hundreds of their classes have been accredited, meaning you could get credit for them when you enroll in a degree program and save hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

10. Consider online programs. Scores of convenient possibilities exist out there for working adults, but just make sure you choose an online institution that is accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

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