School Loan

The road to beefing up your job skills may be paved with financial roadblocks.

Heading back to school for a certificate or graduate degree can refresh your resume, land you a promotion or fast-track a career change. But failing to do your financial homework could cause you to overpay, borrow too much or default on student loans.

Follow these five back-to-school best practices to give your career a face-lift without burying yourself in student loan debt.

• Go back-to-school shopping: Choosing the right program is essential if you want to walk away with more than just a shrunken bank account and new crop of student loans. "One of the biggest errors we see is the failure to shop around," says Dorothy Wax, associate vice president for operations at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Investigate programs at a local community college, four-year universities and a mix of public and private schools before narrowing down your search, says Wax.

Compare the costs and design of an on-campus program with an online alternative, says Wax. Taking an online course may not be cheaper, but saving cash on gas, parking or child care may make it worthwhile.

Consider a certificate if you're hesitant about getting a graduate degree. You can dive into a subject that interests you at work and test out going back to school without committing to a degree program, says John Caron, senior associate dean of academic and faculty affairs at the College of Professional Studies.

• Don’t get stuck on sticker price: Tuition and fees are just the launching point when tallying up a program's cost, says Jee Hang Lee, vice president for public policy and external relations at the Association of Community College Trustees.

Remember to carve out space in your budget for books, supplies, rent, transportation, maybe even a new computer or a baby sitter. When comparing different programs, factor in course fees and other mandatory charges to get a better sense of the true cost, said ​Ebony Carter, director of financial aid at the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, in an email.

• Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
Even if you're hesitant to borrow, federal student loans can allow you to work fewer hours, focus on your course work and possibly complete your studies faster, says Lee. Plus, government aid, such as Stafford loans and PLUS loans, typically have more flexible repayment options and opportunities for forgiveness than private debt.


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