Financial Aid for Adult and Non-Traditional Students
written by: Lisa Phelps for Student Choice
Deciding to enroll in college as an adult or non-traditional student can be a tough decision. You may have more responsibilities to juggle so going to school is a little trickier.
One thing you shouldn’t have to worry about is how you’re going to finance your education. Just like new high school graduates, you have lots of financial aid options including federal loans, scholarships, employer tuition reimbursement plans and private loans. If you do your research, you should have no problem coming up with ways to pay for your education.
Start with Government Loans
The best place to start looking for help is the federal government. Be sure to complete a FAFSA to determine what federal loans you might be eligible for. The good news is that if you’re 24 years or older, you’re considered independent which means your parent’s financial situation isn’t taken into account when your eligibility for financial assistance is considered. Chances are as an older student you’ll be eligible for more financial aid.
As an undergrad, you may also qualify for grants that may not need to be repaid if you meet all their criteria – make sure you do your research first.
Undergrads (working towards your first degree) are also eligible for increased loan amounts from the federal direct loan program (formerly known as Stafford) – anywhere from $9,500 as a first year student to $12,500 in your third year or beyond. Graduate and professional students are eligible for even more – up to $20,500 per year. There total loan limits, so check out StudentAid.ed.gov for more info!
Scores of Scholarships Available
This is a good news/bad news situation: There are so many scholarships out there that you could spend weeks researching them and it might actually take you that long to find all the appropriate ones for your circumstances. With a quick online search, we found more than 230 scholarships with a minimum age of 25 and 50 scholarships that require you to be at least 30.
You can start your search through online aggregate services such as scholarships.com. From athletic to religious, cancer survivors to first in family, the types of scholarships available are astonishing. Also check out fastweb.com where you’re matched with scholarships based on your age, major, degree sought, etc…With all that free money out there, investing a little time into some research will be well worth it.
Creative Financing Options
Don’t be afraid to get creative with your financing options. For instance, many colleges offer free or greatly reduced tuition if you’re an employee. Be sure to find out how long you need to be employed to qualify.
Even if you don’t work at a college, your employer may offer tuition assistance. Talk to your HR department and ask about any stipulations. Many employers include rules such as how long you need to remain employed with them or a minimum GPA. Often times, you may not get the money until your course is completed so you may have to wait several weeks or months to be reimbursed.
There are all kinds of need-based assistance programs, including those for single parents, military veterans, married students and students with dependents. There are even special financial awards for students age 55 or older, so it’s never too late to enroll.
Already picked a major? Check associations and organizations affiliated with your course of study for any available scholarships. Again, just hop on the web for your research.
If you own your home and have built up some equity, getting a home equity loan might be a great option for you with today’s current loan rates. Ask at your credit union to see what makes the most sense for your situation.
Finally, private loans, can be used after you’ve exhausted all lower cost options. Many local credit unions are now offering excellent student lending programs that are far more competitive than the “big banks” that may be more focused on profit than on your unique financial situation. Use our CU Select Tool to find a credit union in your area that offers student loans. Or, check out our website for more info about private student loans to see if they’re right for you.
A Degree is a Worthy Goal
Along with your degree, you’ll also gain a great sense of pride in your accomplishment. But be smart. Don’t borrow more than your expected starting salary after you graduate. In other words, if the average beginning salary in your desired position is $40,000, don’t borrow more than that or repaying it could be very difficult. To keep your costs down, consider starting your education at a community college where the tuition is generally less expensive. After two years, you can transfer to a 4-year school to finish your degree.
As a non-traditional student, your options are as wide and varied as those for all the freshly minted high school grads. Just do your research, ask questions and plan carefully as you embark on this exciting and challenging adventure known as college. And remember, your local credit union, financial aid office, and your HR department are great resources for additional information. Good luck!