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Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students

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Financial aid isn’t just for traditional students. Most of the financial aid resources that traditional students rely on are available to nontraditional students. Students age 24 or older, are considered independent students for financial aid purposes, so only your income and assets (and your spouse’s, if you’re married) will count in the financial aid formulas.

Nontraditional students are the fastest growing segment of the postsecondary population: 41% of college students are over 25 and nearly 12% are over 40. Educational costs are a concern for nontraditional students. More than 22% of perspective adult learners who choose not to enroll cite cost as an obstacle. In the past, the bulk of financial aid went to traditional, full-time students in degree programs. Today, the financial aid picture is changing due to the large numbers of nontraditional students attending college.

Nontraditional students are required to apply for financial aid the same way as traditional students. You will need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to begin the financial aid process. This will determine what kind and how much financial aid you are eligible for. If you receive a grant, you are not required to pay it back. If you take out educational loans, you are responsible for repayment. Some types of financial aid you may receive include:

  • Pell Grants: for undergraduate students who have not already earned a degree; can be for part-time study; awards of up to $3,000 per year depending on funding.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant: for undergraduates with exceptional financial need; up to $4,000 per year depending on the availability of funds at each school.
  • Federal Ford Direct Student Loan Program or Stafford Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program: for undergraduate or graduate students enrolled in an eligible program at least half time; subsidized loans based on financial need and unsubsidized loans not based on need; not available to students enrolled in programs that are less than one-third of an academic year.
  • Perkins Loans: low-interest loans for undergraduates (up to $4,000 per year) and graduate students (up to $6,000 per year) with exceptional financial need.

A common problem for nontraditional students occurs when the student is quitting a full-time job to attend school. With financial aid, your expected family contribution will be based on last year’s income, even though you won’t have that paycheck once you start school. Because of this, your initial financial aid offers are likely to be skimpy. Be prepared to appeal. Many financial aid officers are willing to adjust your aid award to reflect the level of income you expect once you’re a full-time student.

If you continue working while attending school, getting need-based aid will be harder because of your income. You will be expected to use a large part of it to fund your education. You should still be eligible for Stafford loans. Before you borrow, look into possible funding from your employer. Employers provide financial assistance to many working adults for continuing education. Check with your human resource department about tuition reimbursement and other assistance. Restrictions often include work-relatedness of courses or reimbursement dependent on grade received. Some companies provide scholarships, distance training, or partnerships with universities that subsidize tuition costs. If your employer doesn’t offer any educational benefits, ask them for assistance. Emphasize how the education will improve your skills. Your employer may never have thought about educational benefits.

Many scholarship programs do not have age restrictions. Some programs are starting to develop scholarships specifically for nontraditional students. Check with employers, community organizations, high school alumni associations, professional affiliations, and unions for possible scholarship opportunities.

If you are a veteran, you may be eligible for educational benefit programs. Veterans of the Armed Forces, members of the Selective Reserve, and National Guard members may have financial assistance available to them to help meet educational and living expenses.

If you are returning to school because of a job layoff or downsizing, ask your city, county, or state government about retraining programs. Most retraining programs are designed to be used to update your skills, for certificate programs, or two-year programs.

Are you over age 60? Ask your school about free tuition. Most community colleges and many state colleges and universities offer free tuition to senior citizens. You will need to pay for fees, books, and supplies, but should receive free tuition.

A bank line of credit or home equity loan may be a tax-deductible but risky alternative for financing your education. Some banks and credit unions will allow you to take out a loan against existing savings accounts, bonds, CDs, IRAs, money-market accounts, etc. This is something to look into carefully. Weigh all the pros and cons.

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E. Sheppard over 9 years ago E. Sheppard

I really like how you cover all the different kinds of financial aid available, plus aid at the worksite and for people over 60 too. There are some really good facts here. a good article!

Carlo Louis about 10 years ago Carlo Louis

I have a full-time job, I would like to know what's the possibility for me to participate at this program; I need it.