A study of laid-off workers in the state of Washington 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 free or on the cheap:
Free. Workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition are eligible for government programs that pay for up to 2½ years' worth of education. And a growing number of schools, such as Bergen (New Jersey) 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 way to find out what's available is to drop in at your local unemployment office or call your local community college.
Very cheap. Anyone good at studying independently can cram for CLEP or DSST exams, in everything from history to criminal justice, which hundreds of colleges consider to be the equivalent of college courses. The total cost for each, including study guides, practice tests, and final exams, is under $200.
Fairly cheap. Community colleges generally charge less than other schools. And a growing number are offering online courses, saving the costs of transportation and 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 where he'd worked for six years shut down in 2004, says he's living proof even the worst high school mess-up can ace college.
His 2006 accounting degree helped him land a good job as a branch manager of a credit union. "I'm proof. There is hope," says the 29-year-old.