Going Back to School, and Paying for It

This week on All Things Considered, we've been hearing from families struggling to pay for their children's education. Today we examine what happens when parents themselves go back to school — and come face to face with the costs.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

We're hearing this week about parents struggling to pay for their children's college education. Today, a look at what happens when it's older adults who are heading off to school. There's a growing number of them on campuses around the country. And as NPR's Rachel Jones reports, coming up with tuition is just as challenging for them as it is for their younger classmates.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

It's presentation day in the information management class at American University's Business School. Phil Schuttler(ph) and three other students have spent the past few months critiquing how a local law firm handles its files and other data.

Mr. PHIL SCHUTTLER (College Student): OK, as Michelle said, I'm going to look now at the financial analysis that we did. Of course...

JONES: Schuttler stands out in this group of 20-somethings. At 53, he's the only one with a head full of pure white, closely-cropped hair. With his steely-blue eyes and trim physique, he looks every bit a former deputy commander of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Mr. SCHUTTLER: While it's real nice to know for the company that information technology can provide efficiencies for them, but they also need to know, number one, that they can afford it, and number two, that the benefits outweigh the costs. So that's what we...

JONES: Schuttler has juggled a few budgets in his day. At the end of a 30-year career in the Marine Corps, he directed 15,000 Marines, 400 aircraft, and a $600 million budget. During a break from class, Schuttler says he could've landed a big salary doing defense consulting, but he decided he wanted to change course to the field of education.

Mr. SCHUTTLER: The side of it that I'm interested is actually the comptroller's role, how the university raises money, how public school systems raise money for themselves as they--kind of the corporate leadership side of it.

JONES: That meant getting a business degree to go with his 1974 bachelor's from Princeton, but only if Phil and his wife could afford to pay for it without raiding the family coffers. Rita Manfredi Schuttler(ph) works part time as an emergency room doctor to help raise their three young children, age 12, 10 and six. She supported Phil's decision to go back to school with one caveat: hands off their children's college funds.

Dr. RITA MANFREDI SCHUTTLER (Phil Schuttler's Wife): Now with children's education looking at somewhere between 200 and $400,000 for the four years they go to school, I think we have to be very careful not to touch it.

JONES: After lots of heart-to-heart talks and number crunching, the Schuttlers concluded Phil would go to school wherever they could afford to pay tuition with a combination of his GI Bill benefits, retirement pay and scholarship support. Their decision was made for them when American University came through with a grant and stipend that almost covered the business school's $30,000-a-year price tag.

The Schuttlers realize Phil is lucky to be able to college full time. Statistics show most older adults in college are part-timers, squeezing in classes during evenings or weekends. They're either finishing up an undergraduate degree or taking their first plunge into the college realm. And most older adults with spouses, children, ailing parents or mortgages couldn't even fantasize about expensive graduate schools. They pick community colleges or state schools or sign up for online classes.

Ms. TAWERI MARSHALL (Graduate Student): OK, let me just go over the instructions for the exam...

JONES: And there are more older full-time students than you might think.

Ms. MARSHALL: Also your instruction, as you know, is to develop a well-organized essay--yes?--that reflects mature and thought-provoking writing.

JONES: Fifty-three-year-old Taweri Marshall is a PhD candidate in English literature at Howard University in Washington, DC. While she prepares for her dissertation, she's teaching English composition. Today, her lilting voice reassures the freshmen prepping for their final exam. Marshall strikes a regal pose dressed all in black. Her dreadlocks scrape neatly off her angular face. She knows it's ironic for her to be standing here. Back in 1969, she quit college before the end of her freshmen year at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.

Ms. MARSHALL: It was late '60s, early '70s and there was a lot of political distractions. And I was more interested in flexing some of those newfound cultural awarenesses than academics. I just was not focused on school at the time.

JONES: Marshall never had trouble finding jobs after she left college. She was a secretary, then spent a decade at the DC Board of Elections. Then she landed a great job as an executive secretary at a law firm. Marshall thought a nice salary and cushy benefits would make her happy, but something kept nagging at her.

Ms. MARSHALL: Actually, what happened, I was editing a paper for a friend of mine, and he said, `Why aren't you in school?' Because I had never gotten a bachelor's, and I think I had talked about it a little bit in terms of it being something that I wanted. It was just an emptiness.

JONES: In 1994, Marshall decided to take a few evening courses at the University of the District of Columbia. At $300 apiece, the were easily affordable, and she could take her time getting a business degree. But a year later, Marshall says her college dream was almost derailed when she was laid off. Fortunately, she had landed a scholarship and a work study job. But Marshall knew she'd also need to borrow some money--lots of it.

Ms. MARSHALL: I really did not have a substantial savings, you know, and CDs and investments at the time, you know. And God forbid anything major in terms of medical needs would have happened.

JONES: Also, being a full-time student required that she ignore what society said she ought to have--a house, a car and great clothes. And like a lot of high school seniors, Marshall came up with some creative strategies to pay for school.

Ms. MARSHALL: I went to some of the city officials that I had met, and I went to my pastor. And I went to some other friends who supported what I was doing. And I asked them would they buy my books this semester.

JONES: Along the way, Marshall changed her major from business to English. She got her bachelor's at UDC in 1999, her master's from the University of New Hampshire in 2002. She'll complete her doctorate at Howard next year. Marshall is proud of her efforts even though the bill is staggering.

Ms. MARSHALL: Right now, I must admit I'm up to $60,000 in student loans. I intend to get a professor position and wipe out that in the first year--that's my intention.

JONES: But however long it takes, Marshall says the investment in her future is worth every penny. Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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