Deciding to return to education in later life can be the start of an exciting journey of self-development. Learning can not only expand our minds but also open up a range of new career prospects.
However, with some courses charging eye-watering fees and with the various financial responsibilities we have – such as monthly bills and family responsibilities – the prospect of taking some time to study might seem impossible from a financial perspective.
Luckily, there are lots of ways that you can get help with paying your tuition and supporting yourself and your family while you study, so that you can focus on fulfilling your goals.
Here are our four top tips on financing your education later in life.
1. Check whether you can learn for free
Free qualification courses
It might sound a little obvious, but the first thing to do when working out how to finance your studies is to see if you can study for free. You could be eligible to take advantage of a range of government schemes that deliver free education to adults, and help them gain in-demand skills to open up a range of different job opportunities.
For instance, adults don’t normally have to pay to take their first English or Maths GCSE. Plus, if you don’t already hold a full Level 3 qualification (which is equivalent to an advanced technical certificate, diploma, or two A-levels), then you might be entitled to take one of a range of government-funded Level 3 courses for free.
You can browse these courses and check if you’re eligible, on the government website.
Free online courses you might be interested in if you’re not worried about gaining a qualification
If you’re not looking to gain a qualification and you just want to learn to find out more about a subject that you’re passionate about, then the good news is you have even more options to learn for free. Two of the most popular resources that provide knowledge seekers with free online courses are Open Learn and Future Learn.
Open Learn is run by The Open University and their free courses are made up of material from their full degree courses. So you know you’re getting access to expert knowledge, information, and exercises. Future Learn also offers a wide range of free online courses from universities and other institutions from all over the globe. Once you’ve finished one of these courses, you’ll get a certificate of participation that can look good on your CV.
Although online learning has opened up lots of educational opportunities to a wide range of people, not everyone wants to learn online. You might prefer a classroom setting where you can interact with other people while you learn.
In this case, there are also plenty of in-person courses that you can access for free. To find these, it’s worth speaking to your local council or library. You could also get involved with organisations like the University of the Third Age, which run learning groups and educational talks all over the UK.
2. Do your research when looking for courses
No matter what you want to study, there’s a wide range of course providers out there offering different courses at different prices. So when you’re looking for a course, it’s important to do as much research as you can to help you get the best value for your money.
Sometimes, these variations in prices can be relatively small. For instance, the National Extension College offers their online GCSE English Literature course for £495, while Open Study College offers their version of the same course for £449.
But, other times, especially if you’re wanting to study for an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, the variation in course price can be huge – and you could save thousands of pounds on your education costs depending on what course you choose. For example, The Open University offers their three-year BA in English Literature for £6,336 per year, while the University of Birmingham offers theirs for £9,250.
Although, it’s worth bearing in mind that no two courses are made equal. So even if two courses help you prepare for or grant you the same qualification, it doesn’t necessarily mean that both will have the same quality of teaching and cover the same content in as much detail. Getting the best value for money isn’t necessarily aboutchoosing the cheapest course you can find – so investigating the actual course is also important.
There are many ways you can get an idea of how good a course is, but two great ways to do so are to look at the course content, which can usually be found on the course provider’s website, and to read reviews from past students. You can search for student reviews on broad websites like Trustpilot, or you can use student-specific services like WhatUni and StudentCrowd.
It’s also worth seeing if your course provider offers any open days or taster sessions, so you can get an idea for what the teaching and atmosphere will be like.
3. Find out about government-funded loans
If you’re looking to study for a degree, then you could consider applying for a government-funded loan…
Tuition fee loans
Tuition fee loans are for exactly what you might guess; they cover the cost of your tuition. These are paid directly to your course provider so you don’t have to pay your tuition up front. You won’t have to pay tuition fee loans back until you finish your degree, and not until your income reaches a certain threshold.
Whether or not you’re eligible for a tuition fee loan depends on a wide range of circumstances, including where you’re studying, as well as personal circumstances like your nationality and whether or not you have served or are currently serving in the armed forces.
It’s also important to bear in mind that if you’re 60 years of age or older on the first day of your course, you can typically only get a loan to cover your tuition fees if you’re studying for your first degree or higher education qualification. This is something that we, quite frankly, don’t understand. However, there are exceptions to this rule if you’re looking to study for a second degree in nursing, midwifery, or teaching.
To find out more about tuition fee loans, including whether or not you’re eligible for one, you can take a look at the student finance section of the government website.
You might not only need financial support when it comes to paying your tuition, but also in regard to living expenses such as travel, accommodation, and groceries. In this case, it’s worth seeing if you’re entitled to a maintenance loan to help cover costs like these.
Whether or not you’re eligible for a maintenance loan – and how much you’re eligible for – depends on a wide range of factors. Some of the most influential of these are your household income, where you live, where you’re studying, and your age.
Age is an important factor as, if you’re 60 or over on or before the start day of your course, then you’re only entitled to a reduced amount and, if your household income is above a certain threshold (£43,703), then you, unfortunately, won’t be able to apply at all. Again, these restrictions surrounding age just don’t make sense to us.
To find out more about maintenance loans, including whether or not you’re eligible for one, the best place to look is over on the student finance section of the government website.
Advanced learner loans
If you’re studying a government-approved course at Level 3, 4, 5, or 6 (A-level to degree equivalent), then you may be able to apply for what’s called an advanced learner loan to help pay towards your tuition.
Whether or not you’re eligible for an advanced learner loan will depend on a range of factors, including whether or not you’ve had one in the past, as well as your nationality or residency status and the length of your course.
If you want to find out more about advanced earner loans and whether or not you’re eligible for one, then head on over to the government page about them.
4. Consider applying for grants, bursaries, and scholarships
If you’re looking for ways to finance your education in later life, then it’s also worth having a look to see if there are any grants, bursaries, or scholarships available that you can take advantage of. Unlike loans, if you qualify for one of these, you won’t usually have to pay any of the money back.
In most cases, grants and bursaries are offered to help underrepresented groups (such as people from low-income households or those with disabilities) excel in education – and they’re typically intended to help cover living expenses. The main difference between the two is that grants are usually offered by the government, charities, and other organisations, while bursaries are usually offered by universities, colleges, and potential employers.
Scholarships, on the other hand, are typically offered by the same organisations as bursaries – the main differences being that they tend to be awarded to students because of academic excellence, and they usually cover tuition fees as well as some living expenses.
If you’re interested in applying for a grant, bursary, or scholarship, then, to help you along and give you an idea of what’s out there, here are a few popular government-funded ones that you might be eligible for…
Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)
Disabled Students’ Allowance is a government-funded grant that aims to help undergraduate and postgraduate university students with disabilities, long-term health conditions, or learning difficulties with any extra costs that may arise as a result of their disability during their time in education.
This can include money towards costs for any specialist equipment, non-medical helpers (such as British sign language interpreters), any extra travel costs that arise because of your condition, as well any other disability-related study support.
Once your eligibility for DSA has been confirmed, you may be required to go through what’s called a ‘needs assessment’, which is designed to work out what help you can access through the scheme.
To find out more about Disabled Student’s Allowance and to see if you’re eligible, why not take a look at the government website?
Teacher training bursaries and scholarships
If you’re looking to return to education in order to become a teacher, then you might be eligible to apply for government-funded bursaries and scholarships to cover or contribute to the cost of your Initial Teacher Training (ITT).
There are a few different types of teacher training bursaries and scholarships that are funded by the Department of Education. So, to find out more about them and to see if you’re eligible, check out the government website.
And if you’re considering becoming a teacher in later life, but you’re unsure as to how to get started, then why not check out our guide to becoming a teacher? You might also be interested in reading Frances’ story, who became a teacher in her 50s after a career in the armed forces.
If you’re responsible for children under the age of 15 (or under the age of 17 if they have special educational needs) and you’re looking to return to education full-time, then you might be worried about how you’re going to care for them. In this case, the government offers a grant to help with the cost of childcare.
The grant will cover up to 85% of your childcare costs and how much you’re eligible for will depend on your household income, as well as the number of children you have.
For information on the Childcare Grant and to see if you’re eligible, why not take a look at the government website?
There are a variety of grants, scholarships, and bursaries available from a range of providers, so this might mean that you’ll have to do a bit of digging around to find one that you’re eligible for. But if you know what institution you’re studying at, then the first thing you can do is see if they offer any that you might be able to apply for.
And if it’s a university scholarship you’re looking for, then a great resource is The Scholarship Hub. With The Scholarship Hub, all you have to do is enter a few details – including what level of study you’re at, where you’re looking to study, and what you want to study – and it’ll aim to put you in touch with a wide variety of scholarships across the UK and beyond that you might be eligible for. Plus, they have some great articles and advice on funding studies.
So whether you’re wanting to gain a GCSE qualification or a postgraduate degree, there are lots of things to consider when it comes to financing your education. And although knowledge should be free to everyone, unfortunately, some of the courses out there aren’t too easy on the wallet.
However, we hope these tips will help you bring down the cost of whatever you’re studying, so you can take steps towards achieving your goals.
If you’re thinking about returning to education but you have some reservations about taking the plunge, then why not have a read of our article; 6 fears you might have about returning to education as an older adult? It outlines a few common worries people have about learning later in life, but also offers tips on how to overcome them.
And if you’re interested in gaining a degree, we have a few different articles to help you along on your journey. Why not take a look at our guide to becoming a university student in your 50s, 60s, and beyond, as well as our tips for choosing a university as a mature student?