Can you afford a career switch?

How a family will pay for Dad to go back to school.

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By Karen Cheney, Money Magazine contributing writer

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Diana and Kevin O'Leary, San Gabriel, Calif.
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(Money Magazine) -- Kevin O'Leary struggled with a mid-career crisis. After more than a decade producing TV ads, he wanted out. But what next?

In a complete departure, he began exploring jobs in medicine, and landed on the idea of becoming a physician's assistant, a licensed clinician who can make diagnoses. But before pursuing the education necessary, Kevin checked his gut by working in a hospital near his family's San Gabriel, Calif., home.

"If I had any doubts, this removed them completely," he says. He now hopes to start a two-year certificate program in fall 2010.

Kevin's wife, Diana, earns $140,000 a year as a fund-raiser. But supporting the family - which includes daughters Kaleigh, 4, and Jackie, 2 - and footing tuition on that will be tough.

The education itself will cost $25,000 to $60,000 in total, depending on where Kevin goes; plus he'll lose wages and benefits. And he may have commuting expenses. The O'Learys wonder: How can they pay for it?

The solution

1. Stockpile cash. If the O'Learys slice 10% off their spending, temporarily reduce Diana's 401(k) contributions to no more than the company match, and hold off on funding the girls' 529s, they can save $15,000 by next summer, says Denver financial planner Ray Benton.

2. Stay nearby. Kevin likes the programs at Stanford and UC Davis, but tuition at these is $30,000 and $24,000 a year, respectively, and travel to either could add $10,000 yearly. He should strongly consider local Charles Drew University ($14,000 a year), says Dallas financial planner Patrick Dougherty.

3. Plug tuition gaps. Because the O'Learys are unlikely to get grant aid, they should change the 529s' beneficiary to Kevin and use the cash for his education. If it doesn't cover the bill, he can apply for up to $20,500 in federal Stafford loans (6.8%) a year.

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