How to Save Money on College Tuition as an Adult Student

Quick Answer

Whether you're starting your bachelor's degree late or you're returning for a graduate degree, you may be able to save money on tuition by utilizing tax breaks, filling out the FAFSA, asking your employer about tuition assistance, applying for scholarships and grants and picking a less expensive school.

Adult college student explains concept to help classmates

If you're thinking about returning to college as an independent adult to open up new opportunities in your career or switch career fields altogether, obtaining a degree can be expensive.

Fortunately, there are some ways you can save on college tuition and other education costs, including taking advantage of tax breaks, filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), seeking tuition assistance and more.

As you consider your options, here are some great places to start.

1. Utilize Tax Breaks

Depending on your situation, you may be able to take advantage of one or more tax breaks. Here's a quick summary of each one:

  • American opportunity tax credit: If you haven't attended college yet, you may be able to get a credit of up to $2,500 per year for your first four years in school. That's 100% of the first $2,000 in qualified education expenses for the year, then 25% of the next $2,000 you spend. Note that only $1,000 of the credit is refundable.
  • Lifetime learning credit: If you no longer qualify for the American opportunity tax credit, you can still get up to $2,000 each year with the lifetime learning credit. That's 20% of the first $10,000 you spend on qualified education expenses each year. Keep in mind that this credit is not refundable.
  • Student loan interest deduction: If you decide to take out student loans, you may be able to deduct up to $2,500 in interest that you pay on those loans each year. If you choose to defer your payments until after graduation, though, you won't be able to take advantage of this tax break until then.

It's important to note that all of these tax breaks come with limitations, such as income limits, restrictions on expenses and more. Consult with a tax professional to determine your eligibility.

2. Fill Out the FAFSA

The FAFSA is your gateway to federal financial aid, including student loans, grants and work-study jobs. What's more, it's also used by your school to determine your eligibility for school- and state-based aid.

As a result, it's crucial that you fill out the form each year before the annual deadline—check with your financial aid office to get this date.

Don't wait until the last minute, though. Some forms of financial aid are on a first-come, first-served basis, so the sooner you fill out the application, the better your odds of getting assistance.

The good news is that, as an independent adult, you won't need to provide any financial details from your parents, which should make the process go more quickly.

3. Ask Your Employer About Tuition Assistance

Many employers offer tuition assistance as an employee benefit, usually in the form of a reimbursement. In fact, the IRS allows employers to provide up to $5,250 in tuition assistance each year, completely tax-free.

If you aren't familiar with your employer's education benefits, contact your human resources manager to learn more. Note that some employers may require you to work for the company for a minimum amount of time before you can take advantage of the perk, so switching jobs to a company that offers it may not work if you're looking to return to school soon.

Also, keep in mind that you may not be able to get reimbursement for certain expenses, including but not limited to:

  • Meals
  • Lodging
  • Transportation
  • Computer
  • Courses involving sports, games or hobbies unless required for the degree program or they have a reasonable relationship to the employer's business

4. Apply for Scholarships and Grants

Check with your school's financial aid office to see whether scholarships and grants are available to you—many colleges and universities offer aid based on merit or financial need.

You can also seek out scholarship and grant opportunities from private organizations. Websites like and Fastweb maintain databases of millions of scholarship and grant programs.

It may take time to research and apply for these financial aid opportunities, but the effort can be worthwhile if it can reduce your need for student loans to finance your education.

5. Choose a Less Expensive School

While it may be tempting to attend a school with a household name, the sticker price of tuition isn't always indicative of the value you get for your money.

Do your research before you choose a school to get an idea of which schools are best for your chosen field of study and whether you can get a quality education without breaking the bank. If you don't yet have a bachelor's degree, it may even be worth it to attend a community college for the first couple of years to get your general education courses out of the way.

Additionally, make sure you select multiple schools when filling out the FAFSA, so you can easily compare financial aid award offers from each one to determine which will make your college experience the most affordable.

Build Your Credit to Improve Financing Options

In addition to tuition and other educational costs, you'll also need to pay for various living expenses while you attend school. If you're not planning to continue working full time while you attend school, you may need to take advantage of other credit options to stay afloat.

As you begin or restart your college career as an adult, monitor your credit to gauge your overall credit health and make improvements to build and maintain a good credit history. That way, if you need to rely on a personal loan, 0% intro APR credit card or some other form of credit to make ends meet, you'll have a better chance of getting approved with favorable terms.