Affordable New Ways to Get Job Skills

The federal 'income-based repayment' plan and free online courses are options.

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A study of laid-off workers in Washington state during the early '90s found that those who went to community college to get new skills and credentials earned about 9 percent more, over the long term, than those who didn't get extra education.

While tuition is rising and some scholarships are drying up, there are still plenty of ways to go back to college for free, or at least on the cheap.

Free: Workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition are eligible for government programs that pay for up to 2 ½ years of education. And a growing number of schools, such as Bergen (N.J.) Community College, are waiving tuition for laid-off workers. Anyone with a low income may qualify for a federal Pell Grant of up to $4,731, which should cover most costs at community colleges. The quickest ways to find out what's available is to drop in at your local unemployment center or call your local community college.

Students who are just looking to develop new skills and don't need grades or credit can study the lectures and assignments posted online by professors at MIT, UC-Berkeley, the Universidad de Chile, and dozens of other schools, searchable at www.ocwconsortium.org. Stanford, Michigan Tech, and several other universities have also posted free courses at iTunes U.

Very cheap: Anyone good at studying independently can cram for CLEP or DSST tests in everything from history to criminal justice. Hundreds of colleges consider passing these tests to be the equivalent of college courses. The total cost for each, including study guides, practice tests, and final exams, is less than $200.

Fairly cheap: Community colleges generally charge less than other schools. And a growing number are offering online courses, saving the costs of transportation or parking. Students who don't qualify for grants can usually get federal loans (especially if they attend at least half time). Starting in 2009, graduates can apply for a new federal "income-based repayment" plan that will allow low wage earners to make affordable monthly payments.

Former machine tool factory worker Daniel LaRue, who was adrift when the Hillsdale, Mich., plant he'd worked at for six years shut down in 2004, says he's living proof that even the worst high school screw-up can ace college.

Because he'd done so poorly in high school, LaRue admits he "was scared" about returning to school. "But college was completely different," in part because he was more mature and motivated. His 2006 accounting degree helped LaRue land a good job as a branch manager of a credit union in Battle Creek, Mich. "I'm proof. There is hope," says the 29-year-old.

LaRue's advice: Pick your courses carefully. While healthcare programs are popular, some are so overwhelmed with applicants that there are long waiting lists. LaRue took accounting courses because he noticed most of his laid-off colleagues were studying to become heating and cooling technicians. Many of them, he says, graduated to a flooded job market.