By Christopher Maag
There was a time that getting a college degree was considered a necessity for a financially successful life, and while it may hold true that college graduates earn more than high school graduates, skyrocketing tuition, the accompanying student loan bubble and an anemic economy means that higher education can pose a financial risk. A big one.
"We're at a point where student debt is crowding out other kinds of spending, making it impossible for people to buy a house or a car," says Mitchell Wiess, a former banker who co-founded the Center for Personal Financial Responsibility at the University of Hartford. "It's not sustainable."
That's especially true for middle-aged students. People who return to school after age 40 have fewer years of employment to help repay expensive school loans, and they also need to be setting money aside for retirement.
"How do you compete with a 25-year-old with the same master's degree, and you're middle-aged?" Weiss says.
One way to compete is to minimize your costs from the outset. Here is Weiss's seven-step plan for students -- middle-agers and younger -- to reduce or eliminate their student loan debt.
1) Test Out of Tuition
Many people have heard of Advanced Placement tests, which smart high school students take to prove their mastery of math, English, history and other subjects. Less well-known are the College Level Examination Program tests, which are also used to show proficiency in various disciplines.
Perhaps the best thing about both AP and CLEP tests is that students who score well enough can submit their scores to their college or university. Many schools accept the tests in lieu of taking (and paying for) classes. At most schools, students can swap tests for up to 12 credits toward graduation, Weiss says.
That means you can save yourself a semester's worth of tuition simply by taking a few tests.
"When you're paying for it yourself, that's a big deal," Weiss says.
2) Start Cheap
Some people still look down on community colleges. Weiss has some advice: Get over it. The average community college charges just under $3,000 a year for tuition, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Tuition at Sarah Lawrence College, meanwhile, costs more than 15 times as much ($45,900 for the 2012-13 school year, according to the school's website).
But there's a way to get the four-year degree without paying four years of astronomical tuition: Transfer in. Most elite colleges and universities accept up to two years' worth of credits from less prestigious (and less expensive) schools. It's the same route followed by one former student who spent two years at Columbus State Community College (tuition: $3,555), and transferred the credits to Harvard (tuition: $37,576), says Will Kopp, a spokesman for Columbus State.
"As an employer, I care more about where they end up than where they started," says Weiss, who hired workers for the financial services companies he led until retiring four years ago.
3) Use Your Breaks
Most colleges and universities allow students to transfer credits from classes taken during winter and summer vacations. As long as you make sure beforehand that the classes are eligible, taking such inter-session courses at a state university or community college is an inexpensive way to pick up credits.
"And you don't have to knock yourself out," Weiss says. "Just take a class at a time. That way you still get to have a vacation."
4) Tweak Your Schedule
At most schools, 12 credits is considered a full course load. But what's to stop you from taking 15, or even 18? Nothing but your own need for sleep. Loading up on classes may be intense, but it's also a way to earn extra credits -- and graduate faster -- without paying additional tuition.
Here's another way to think of it. If you don't load up on credits, and stick with the normal 12 credits per semester, "You're paying 50 percent more per credit than if you take 18," Weiss says.
What happens when you're feeling burned out from an 18-credit semester? Take 10 credits the next. Dropping just below your school's definition of a full-time student also means you pay much less than full-time tuition. Weiss advises students to take this waxing-and-waning approach as a way to graduate faster, stay sane, and save money.
Many college administrators don't like it when students play such tricks. Weiss's advice: Fight back.
"The schools like the current system because they get paid," Weiss says. "You have to advocate for yourself."
5) Look for Small Money
Here's the simple version of this tip: Apply for scholarships. In return for a few hours spent writing essays, you can win lots of money to help pay your tuition.
Here's the advanced version: Apply for small scholarships. Many students apply for big ones, which offer tens of thousands of dollars a pop. But there's far less competition for smaller ones, which may five only $250 to $500 each.
That means you have a much better chance of winning. Weiss knows a student who strung together a number of such small awards to cover almost $5,000 of his first year's tuition.
"It was a pain in the ass," Weiss says. "But he had a great strategy."
6) Get a Job (The Right Job) First
People in the work force have a great advantage over people fresh out of high school: Their years of work experience can help them land jobs in which employers reimburse workers for going back to school.
This means that for people in middle age, the most important decision you make about college may have little to do with college itself. It may come years before, when you decide where to apply for work. Don't consider just the up-front pay, Weiss advises. Employers who offer tuition reimbursement also tend to value their employees, and give workers the schedule flexibility they need to attend early night classes.
"You want to know that your employer has a stake in this," Weiss says.
7) Apply Now
If you're going to school in the hopes of landing a better job, don't wait until you have your diploma in hand to start looking for that job. Apply now, making it clear that you're still pursuing your degree. If you get a job offer, you'll know you're on the right track.
And if you're roundly spurned by employers, you may discover that your degree isn't taking you where you want to go (before you're on the hook for several years' more of tuition).
"Apply for the job first," Weiss says. "You want to know you're going to get a return on this investment you're making."