As numerous reports recount the fact that earning a college degree can drastically improve an individual’s earning potential over their lifetime, it’s no surprise that many people are turning to college campuses as a means to improve their financial status—including those who may be have already entered the workforce or are already past the “traditional” college age.
Though these nontraditional students represent an increasing percentage of enrollment at colleges and universities, they are not always considered in the discourse surrounding educational legislation and reform. “There is not a lot of focus by policymakers on nontraditional students,” says Mark Kantrowitz, Senior Vice President and Publisher of Edvisors.com. “Their needs, however, differ from those of traditional students. They often have families that they need to support, as well as full-time jobs. Housing for traditional students doesn’t address their needs, and they may need more flexible class schedules, such as evening and weekend hours. But their needs have been neglected, despite about half of all undergraduate students being nontraditional students.”
Financial aid is certainly another pressing issue for nontraditional students, as they are subject to the same skyrocketing tuition costs as everyone else. But even still, it is very possible to secure aid as a nontraditional student and finally earn the degree you’ve been coveting. Here’s how:
Although there are no scholarship databases or search tools that isolate awards specifically for nontraditional students, most major sites—Fastweb, Student Scholarship Search and others like them—still include listings for awards that cater to all types of students.
“Most of the scholarships a 23 to 53-year-old will qualify for are simply the ones where there is no age limit specified, and there actually are quite a few of these out there,” explains Kevin Ladd, Vice President of Scholarships.com, “Particularly if one is searching for what are commonly referred to as ‘outside scholarships’—meaning scholarships not offered by colleges and/or universities. [These] are intended to fund the gap between what one is expected to pay and what they can actually pay. Naturally, this is something for which we filter.”
When it comes to student loans, federal loans are ideal. They have low interest rates and are readily available (and generally easy to obtain) for nontraditional students seeking their first degree. Also, says Kantrowitz, even those students seeking a second degree could have some loan eligibility left if their first degree was earned years ago and they’ve already paid down the balances, since 2008 legislation increased the total limits for unsubsidized federal Stafford loans. Finally, second-degree earners can opt to pursue a graduate degree as opposed to another bachelor’s, which will reset the loan limits altogether.
One problem with loans, though, are the private loans issued through banks and other non-governmental lenders. These are troubles, says Joshua Cohen, because there is no way to get out of them if you fall on hard times, and there are often no flexible repayment plans. “It’s pay or don’t pay,” says Cohen, who is known as The Student Loan Lawyer. “If you don’t pay, it ruins your credit, and it cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Don’t take out more than you would for a car, but honestly, if a student needs a private loan, he should find a different school.”
Grants and Other Programs
Despite age, nontraditional students are still eligible for certain federal grants, like the Pell Grant, provided their Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) doesn’t exceed a certain threshold. Obviously, though, that can present a problem for some working adults. “The challenge for most nontraditional students is they tend to have income. They work,” Cohen says. “If a student is working, they may not get as much aid, but if cash flow is good and they can pay out of pocket, great! If not, they may need other aid to afford school.”
Additionally, nontraditional students are ineligible for most federal grants if they already have one bachelor’s degree and are returning to school to pursue studies in a different field. But they are still eligible for the federal work-study program, and, for those who do end up having to pay some educational costs out of pocket, there are several tax breaks available for to soften the blow.
“The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is restricted to four years of postsecondary education, but some nontraditional students might still qualify, since it was expanded from two years to four years during the Obama administration,” says Kantrowitz. “Also, if they don’t qualify for the AOTC, they will still qualify for the Lifetime Learning tax credit.”