Beef Up Job Skills Without Going Deeper Into Student Loan Debt

The road to beefing up your job skills may be paved with financial roadblocks.

Heading back to school for a certificate or graduate degree can refresh your resume, land you a promotion or fast-track a career change. But failing to do your financial homework could cause you to overpay, borrow too much or default on student loans.

Follow these five back-to-school best practices to give your career a face-lift without burying yourself in student loan debt.

-- Go back-to-school shopping: Choosing the right program is essential if you want to walk away with more than just a shrunken bank account and new crop of student loans. "One of the biggest errors we see is the failure to shop around," says Dorothy Wax, associate vice president for operations at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

[Decipher the true cost of your online degree.]

Investigate programs at a local community college, four-year universities and a mix of public and private schools before narrowing down your search, says Wax.

Compare the costs and design of an on-campus program with an online alternative, says Wax. Taking an online course may not be cheaper, but saving cash on gas, parking or child care may make it worthwhile.

Consider a certificate if you're hesitant about getting a graduate degree. You can dive into a subject that interests you at work and test out going back to school without committing to a degree program, says John Caron, senior associate dean of academic and faculty affairs at the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.

-- Don't get stuck on sticker price: Tuition and fees are just the launching point when tallying up a program's cost, says Jee Hang Lee, vice president for public policy and external relations at the Association of Community College Trustees.

Remember to carve out space in your budget for books, supplies, rent, transportation, maybe even a new computer or a baby sitter. When comparing different programs, factor in course fees and other mandatory charges to get a better sense of the true cost, sa id Ebony Carter, director of financial aid at the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, in an email.

-- Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid: Even if you're hesitant to borrow, federal student loans can allow you to work fewer hours, focus on your course work and possibly complete your studies faster, says Lee. Plus, government aid, such as Stafford loans and PLUS loans, typically have more flexible repayment options and opportunities for forgiveness than private debt.

[Consider graduate certificates to save time and money.]

If you're counting on federal financial aid, inquire early about whether the program and school offer it, says Carter. About 9 percent of community college students are enrolled in schools that don't offer federal aid, says a recent report from the Institute for College Access and Success. Students taking courses without pursuing a degree might not qualify; plus, several schools don't offer federal aid for certificate programs, says Carter.

-- Transfer credits: If you've collected credits from previous degree attempts, ask whether they can be transferred. "We see students who have credits from the same class at five or six different schools," says Wax. "They waste a lot of time and money by not doing some due diligence upfront."

Certificate holders should check to see whether the credit hours earned during the certificate course can transfer toward a degree as well, says Caron. He estimates that you may be able to cover a quarter of a master's degree with related certificate credits.

-- Cross the finish line: Dropouts don't just waste time and money. They also tend to default in higher numbers, says a recent report from the Association of Community College Trustees and the Institute for College Access and Success.

[Learn how an online education may drive down the cost of your degree.]

Plus, federal financial aid is finite, says Carter. Use up the maximum Stafford amount on failed degree attempts -- that's $65,500, including what you borrowed as an undergraduate -- and you're out of luck next time. Borrowing will start to get more expensive as you look into PLUS loans, which currently have a higher interest rate and a lifetime limit for graduate students of $60,000, or private debt.

Make every effort to finish your studies. "If life throws something your way, don't quit," says Caron. "Talk to an adviser before you withdraw. There may be options to deal with that curveball."

Searching for a graduate school? Get our complete rankings of Best Graduate Schools.