Every little grant helps: For mature students, the cost of extra education can be daunting. But help is available if you know how and where to look. Lee Rodwell is your guide

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The Independent Online
IT'S NEVER too late to learn - and adult education is booming. But, as Paul Stirner, an education and training researcher, says: 'It is not enough to want to study, whether for pleasure or to improve your career prospects. You must also be able to cover the costs.'

Mr Stirner is the author of a new handbook published last week to coincide with Adult Learners' Week. He says: 'A recent report by Wirral Metropolitan College suggests that one in three mature students drops out because of financial problems.

'There are sources of finance for adults, but the majority pay their own way. That's why it is important to work out - before you start any course - what it is going to cost you, and to investigate the possibility of grants or other support.'

He advises would-be students to be alert for hidden charges. 'Find out if the course fee is inclusive or not. Some courses have extra charges for registration, examination and assessment, or supplements for use of specialist equipment and returnable breakage deposits.

'Think about your travel costs, child-care costs if applicable, and don't assume you will be able to get every book you need out of the library. Try to talk to people already on the course. They are the best guide as to what you will end up having to pay.'

The next stage is to look at ways of getting financial help. 'Don't assume that as an adult you will have to pay your own way,' Mr Stirner says. 'Colleges, training and enterprise councils and local education authorities exercise a lot of discretion in awarding grants and setting concessionary fees. It is always worth talking to them, as things change so frequently.'

So what might be available?

Mandatory grants from the local authority where you live: you qualify if you meet the residence requirement, have not previously had a grant for a higher education course and if the course is full-time, leading to a first degree, a diploma of higher education, a higher national diploma, a postgraduate certificate of education or a specified equivalent qualification. There is no age restriction.

A mandatory award pays the course fees. You may also get a grant towards living expenses. This is means-tested. If you are married, your partner's income will also be taken into account. If you are under 25, your parents' income may be taken into account unless you have been self-supporting for at least three years or married for at least two years prior to the start of the course.

The basic grant for students living away from home and studying in London is currently pounds 2,560. For those studying elsewhere it is pounds 2,040.

In addition, mature students may qualify for:

1) An older student's allowance for those who are 26 or over at the start of the course (pounds 300, rising to pounds 1,045 if aged 29 or over); 2) a dependent's allowance for husband or wife (pounds 1,820) or for children (pounds 385 for each child under 11, rising to pounds 1,460 for each dependent child aged 18 or over); 3) a 'two-homes' allowance (pounds 635) if you have to maintain a home for yourself and a dependant as well as the home you live in while you attend the course.

Discretionary grants: if you do not qualify for a mandatory award, you may be able to get a discretionary grant towards tuition fees, other costs and living expenses. Local authorities can make these awards for full-time and part-time courses, but spending cuts have meant they are now much harder to come by. Each authority decides which applications to accept and how much to pay.

Student Loans: you may apply if you are a full-time student on any course that attracts mandatory grants. You may also get a loan if you are on a course leading to professional qualifications. However, you must be under 50 when the course starts, meet the residence rules, be up to date with repayments of any previous student loans, and have a direct debit facility with a bank or building society.

You may only apply for a loan once you have started a course, as eligibility is assessed by your college or university. Student loans are not interest- free, but they are cheaper than any bank loan. You can borrow any amount up to the current limit of pounds 1,375 for those studying in London and pounds 1,150 for those elsewhere.

Access funds: these allow for payments to full-time students who have serious financial difficulties or who might not otherwise have been able to afford to enter further or higher education. Colleges and universities decide which students qualify, and set limits on payments. Funds are limited, so payments are likely to be small - the University of Brighton notes that awards average pounds 150.

Career Development Loans: this scheme applies only to vocational courses, but covers full- and part-time courses, as well as distance learning programmes. You do not qualify if you are receiving financial support from other sources (for instance, from a grant or your employer). You may apply for a fixed-rate loan to cover 80 per cent of your course fees, plus the full costs of books, materials and other course expenses, including, in some cases, living expenses. In most cases the maximum loan is pounds 5,000 and the minimum pounds 200. The participating banks - Barclays, the Co-operative and the Clydesdale - will check your credit rating and may refuse applications.

Of course, the other aspect to consider is what Paul Stirner calls 'the opportunity cost' of studying - the amount you could be earning if you were not learning. 'One former mature student claimed it cost him around pounds 30,000 to take a year off and do a Master's degree. But he added that it really paid off. Mature students rarely regret returning to education. They might be poorer for it in the short term, but many come to value the investment.'

'Coming Back to Education' by Paul Stirner, Hobsons pounds 7.99.