Financial Aid and Scholarships for Adult Students

Adults who plan to return to school have many opportunities for receiving financial aid. Older students often – and wrongly – assume that financial aid is only for young (18-24) students. It simply is not true.

But the process for finding financial aid is the same as younger (traditional) students follow: start with FAFSA and FinAid.

Most students regardless of age pay for education through a combination of funds: grants, scholarships, contributions from the student and others, and loans. It’s wise to put together a package following that order, too, so you only borrow the minimum.

The process takes time, but earning a degree with minimum debt to repay will make the effort worthwhile.

Aid for non-traditional students pursuing a first degree reports that many scholarships are actually reserved for adult students, often called non-traditional students. In fact, 20.9% of Pell Grants and 4.7% of private scholarships go to students ages 24-29 pursuing a first bachelor’s degree. Students over 30 receive 32.0% of Pell Grants.

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Aid for non-traditional students pursuing a two-year degree

For students seeking a certificate or associate’s degree, students age 24-29 receive 25% of Pell Grants and 16% of private scholarships. 29% of students age 30 or older receive Pell Grants when pursuing a certificate or associate’s degree.

Aid for those over-55

One often-overlooked source of funding is the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. FinAid reports that anyone 55 or older who volunteers for 350 hours a year may receive education awards of $1,000. This award can be used for their own education the education of a child or grandchild, or even a foster child.

For all students

Adult students also may establish a 529 college savings plan. With a shorter time horizon, a 529 will not provide as much help as it does for younger students, and you need to be very careful in how you invest in these. But if you have even small amounts donated by friends and family into your account, and let the money accrue interest for a few years, it may help. Perhaps you could establish this account two or three years before you ever start school, and plan to use it only for your last year. That would allow you to accumulate for six years or so, and that could become significant.

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A Stafford loan of $4,000 per year for the first two years and $5,000 per year for the last two years is another option for a student who is 24 or older.

Private scholarships

FinAid list two sources for scholarships. Business and Professional Women’s Foundation keeps a list of aid available for women 25 and over and Talbot’s Women’s Scholarship Fund awards five $10,000 scholarships and 50 $1,000 scholarships to women who earned a “high school diploma or GED at least ten years ago.”

Adult students should also consult local sources of scholarship money. These may not individually be large amounts, but putting several of these together can make a nice package. Local civic organizations and your current employer may also offer assistance.

The school you are planning to attend is another good source of free, reliable information. They may have special, local scholarships reserved for non-traditional students. Some states have aid programs for adult students and for single parents. These are often targeted to specific areas within the state. That’s why you need to check with a financial aid officer.

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Don’t forget tax breaks

Tax breaks that help offset college tuition and associated costs such as books and fees, may also bring down the costs of education.

Most experts advise that any potential student begin searching for financial aid through government web sites. The information is reliable and free. It’s best to exhaust all sources of grants, scholarships, and tax credits before you begin borrowing money. And when you must borrow remember these two important points: choose government loans first and borrow wisely. Take on no more debt than is absolutely essential.