(MONEY Magazine) – Think the average college student is about 20? then this may come as a shock: This year, for the first time ever, some 40% of undergrads are 25 or older, up from 28% in 1987, according to the College Board in New York City and the U.S. Census Bureau. Some 70% of those 4.7 million older students are pursuing degrees from four-year schools, and almost two-thirds are women. "A lot of people are seeking to boost their careers by taking classes or getting another undergraduate degree," explains Carol Aslanian, director of adult learning services for the College Board. "And many women are enrolling who didn't go to college right out of high school or who dropped out to raise families."

Trouble is, it's more difficult for older students than younger ones to qualify for financial aid. For instance, when Bobbi Critchley of Palo Alto, pictured at right, applied last year to Stanford University to earn a psychology degree, she fully expected some grants. "My husband and I are comfortable but not rich, and we have enormous expenses," explains Critchley, 51. "And I got a 3.96 average during two years at two community colleges." Like 65% of all students 25 and older, though, she received no aid. Notes Aslanian: "Financial aid officers generally believe that older students have more earning and borrowing power than those 18 to 22, so they give more grant money to younger students."

Fortunately, older students can qualify for the same low-interest federal loans as younger students (see the table on page 123). In addition, here are ways you can trim your tuition tab as much as 50%, whether you want to finish your degree or earn one from scratch:

--Start at a two-year college. Community college tuition averages only $1,194 a year. So if you complete the basic courses you need for a bachelor's degree at a local community college and then transfer to a four-year school, you can cut your costs nearly in half, as Critchley did. Her degree will cost about $44,000, vs. $80,000 if she had spent four years at Stanford.

--Get your degree fast. You'll cut tuition as much as 25% if you graduate in six or seven semesters rather than the standard eight. Of course, you'll have to cram in more classes per semester and possibly pay a bit extra for each class over the standard course load. For instance, at Syracuse University, where four years of tuition totals $66,840, you'd save $16,710 if you finished your degree in three years.

--Ask your employer for help. If you work full time while pursuing an undergraduate degree, as 60% of older students do, you may qualify for full or partial tuition reimbursement from your employer. Some 72% of full-time employees at mid-size to large companies are eligible for financial assistance from their employers to cover the costs of job-related classes, and 22% get help even if their studies are unrelated to their job.

--Count all expenses when applying for financial aid. In determining your eligibility, many schools will consider commuting expenses, day-care costs, rent and the like as legitimate education costs if you must pay them to attend school.

--Go to college when your kids do. If you enroll in a college at the same time as your child does, you're more likely to qualify for aid. Say you and your child matriculate simultaneously, and college costs total $30,000 a year. If the federal financial aid formula determines your family contribution to be $15,000, you may qualify for enough aid to cover the balance and essentially get one education free. If you waited to enroll until your child graduates, you'd have to pay full freight for both degrees.

--Seek out special grants. Dozens of the nation's thousands of foundations and professional associations give education grants to older people. For instance, every year, the Jeannette Rankin Foundation awards as many as 20 grants of $1,000 each to women over 35 working toward their first bachelor's degree or getting technical training. Check the Foundation Directory at your local library for listings of such grants.

--Karen Hube