ROI for the AARP crowd

If you plan on working another 15-20 years, it's certainly worth attending college.  And, as I've mentioned earlier, it's often less expensive than buying a new car, and you don't have to replace your diploma with a newer model.  A perspective from SmartMoney.com.

But going back to school is an expense in itself. The average public four-year college charges about $760 per class for an in-state student; private colleges charge roughly $2,700. At these rates, an additional bachelor's degree can easily cost more than $30,000, according to data from The College Board. Even continuing education programs can be expensive: A certificate in accounting from NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, for example, costs about $5,000. And the average cost of a master's degree can range from about $5,000 to more than $40,000 per year.

As a result, older learners need to do the same kinds of cost-benefit analyses that first-time freshmen do, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of financial aid sites Fastweb.com and FinAid.org. As a general rule, don't take on more debt that the starting salary you expect to earn as a result of this new certificate or degree, he says. Secondly, consider how long you plan to work and how quickly you can pay off any debt you might take on by heading to school. "If you're planning to work for another 10 to 15 years, it's easier to amortize the costs of education," Alboher says. "If you're looking for a very short-term career extender, it's not so easy."

That said, there are plenty of ways to save money. Seniors can often sit in on classes for free if there's space available, says Kantrowitz. It's a more common practice at community colleges; just call and ask. People who are still working can ask if their current employer offers tuition assistance, as more than half do, according to a 2010 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management (the IRS lets companies give each employee up to $5,250 per year in tax-free money for university-level courses). There are also scholarships and tax credits and deductions for tuition and related expenses. If you saved money in your child's 529 plan and didn't spend it all, you can use it for your own education, or if your state gives you a tax break, you might consider creating your own 529 plan (see SavingForCollege.com or CollegeSavings.org for more information).

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