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Going to School and Paying for School: Making Wise Choices

Produced by Deborah Harris, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, and Ruthie Liberman, Crittenton Women’s Union
Created October 2010

College and post-secondary training can be expensive. However, increasing your skills may allow you to get a new job or career with higher wages and/or better benefits. The tips below may help you choose the path that is best for you.

Q1: What should I study?

  • Choose a degree, certificate, or credential that interests you, that will pay a good salary, and that has job openings. Career counselors, career centers, and employment agencies can help you figure out what jobs are available and what education or training they require.

    You can also refer to Crittenton Women’s Union list of “Hot Jobs 2010”. These “hot” jobs require two years or less of post-secondary education, pay enough to support a family, and currently have high vacancy rates.

  • If you have a criminal record (Criminal Record Offender Information or CORI) or are an undocumented immigrant, make sure you know whether you will be able to work in your field of choice. For example, some people with certain criminal records may not be able to get jobs in health care or banking.

Q2: Where should I study?

  • Make sure the school is accredited and licensed in Massachusetts. You can find this information at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
  • Consider attending a public community college or four-year state university. You will pay less in tuition and fees than at a private school and still receive a quality education.
  • Ask about the school’s graduation rates. How many students who attend the school actually graduate with a degree? Does the school have resources like free tutoring and counseling if you have problems while in school?
  • Ask about the school’s job placement rates, and find out whether they have resources like a career center to help students obtain jobs. Schools cannot guarantee you a job, but they can help you look for one.
  • Talk to students who went to the school. Were they happy with the school? Were they able to obtain a job after completing their education or training?
  • Make sure the school will prepare you for any licensing exams that you may have to take to work in your new field. Ask about the school’s licensing exam passage rates.
  • If the school makes a promise about something, such as tutoring or helping you with job placement, make sure you see it in writing (for example, in a brochure or a Web site.) If you do not see this service confirmed in writing, ask the school put it in writing.

Q3: When should I enroll?

  • Start researching enrollment requirements right away. Many schools will require you to take a placement test in English and math. Depending on your scores, you may need to take some remedial or developmental courses before starting your program. Taking these remedial courses through an adult basic education program in your community may help you save money on your college bill.
  • Make plans for child care and transportation so that you will not have to miss class.

Q4: How can I afford it?

  • Calculate how much school will cost. Include fees, books, supplies, and extra costs for transportation and child care, not just your tuition. Plan how to pay for it in advance. See if your school’s admissions office can offer suggestions on how to pay these costs.
  • If your school is approved by the U.S. Department of Education, then you may be able to get federal and state grants, loans, or work-study. Work-study programs provide part-time employment to undergraduates and graduates to help with college expenses.
  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to find out what financial aid you may be eligible to receive. You can get the application online at  or in paper form at a library or college. The FAFSA is not just for recent high-school graduates. Adult students can complete it, too.
  • Try to fund your education through scholarships and grants, instead of taking out student loans. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid as long as you meet their requirements. You do have to repay loans. Many types of loans are available. If you do need a loan, try to take out federal government loans first. Federal loan programs have many flexible payment plans to help you.

    Private loans are almost always more expensive and do not come with the same types of protections as federal government loans.

  • Research your student loan company to make sure that the rates will stay reasonable and that there are no large payments due at the end of the loan (balloon payments). Ask what would happen if your school went out of business or if you made a late payment. Make sure you will be able to afford loan payments after you finish school. Some financial advisers suggest that your monthly school loan payment should not exceed 8% of your anticipated monthly income.
  • You can reduce your costs by finishing faster. Find out whether you can transfer credits from other schools. Ask if the school offers credit for prior learning or prior learning assessment. This type of program awards college credits for skills you have learned elsewhere, such as on the job or through volunteering.
  • Find out if your current job has any tuition assistance benefits to help you pay for school.
  • Check out the section on Tax Benefits to see if you can pay less federal income tax or get a higher refund when you are paying for school or paying off school loans.

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