By Ken O’Connor, financial aid expert and Director of Student Advocacy for Fynanz (aka: cuStudentLoans.org)
Going back to school is a big move for adult learners, and it is becoming more and more common.
During the past decade, the rise of non-traditional student attendance has changed the way colleges operate, with expanded class schedules, focused instruction delivery, acceptance of life and work experience as college credit, even child care options. Online college programs have also exploded with popularity, as they bring educational opportunities conveniently to a working adult’s home computer. However, during this same decade the cost of education has greatly increased, leading more students to rely on financial aid resources to help pay the bill.
Here are some key areas non-traditional and adult learners need to know before they commit to a degree program.
Your age and family status plays a direct role in determining eligibility for financial aid.
When filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) you must confirm your date of birth. If you are over the age of 24, the FAFSA determines the student to be independent, meaning they do not have to submit parent tax and asset information as part of the eligibility review for financial aid. It also means the student is eligible for increased Stafford loans, even more than if they were considered a dependent student.
- First Year/freshman $9,500 ($3,500 subsidized/$6,000 unsubsidized)
- Second Year/sophomores $10,500 ($4,500 subsidized/$6,000 unsubsidized)
- Third Year and Beyond/juniors and seniors $12,500 ($5,500 subsidized/$7,000 unsubsidized)
- Lifetime aggregate limit on Stafford loans is increased for independent students to $57,500.
However, as an independent student, if you are married, you must include your spouse’s income as part of the FAFSA. This includes all income and assets of the spouse, but also any dependents are considered when determining eligibility. Just make sure the information is accurately submitted.
Is this your first bachelor’s, second bachelor’s or a master’s degree/beyond?
There is major distinction between academic goals and financial aid eligibility. Students pursuing their first bachelor’s degree have access to the largest amount of financial aid through Pell grants, state grants and school backed grants and scholarships. If pursuing a second bachelor’s degree, financial aid eligibility is restricted to federal Stafford loans only, and rarely do schools provide additional grants and scholarships in such cases. Second bachelor’s degrees are very common for students pursuing nursing, as many times they completed a prior undergraduate degree, but are surprised when they learn that this second bachelors only qualifies for financial aid in the form of student loans. Graduate degree or Ph. D students only qualify for federal Stafford loans as well, but they are increased from $20,500 per year up to $40,500 per year.
Are you using any employer backed or state backed education benefit programs?
Many of the non-traditional students entering college today are seeking new and advanced training for job skills to help become more employable. Adult learners may be eligible for additional funding from several different resources. If currently employed, look for any education benefits from your human resource department. Workers that have been laid off may be eligible for tuition assistance from state backed programs. With college as expensive as it is, adult learners need to examine their payment options carefully. Qualifying for grants can make the right educational experience affordable. Educate yourself with a comprehensive report from the Lumina foundation on adult learners and the state based resources they can use to help pay for college: Adult Learning in Focus.
Spending money and getting results are two different things; look for schools that can serve you best.
There are many school options available, but finding the right fit can be challenging for non-traditional and adult students. The very name “non-traditional” denotes something out of the ordinary for these students, but in fact they are becoming more and more the standard. Schools are changing their class schedules and programs to better serve this growing cohort, but some do a better job than others. Before committing to a school and the costs associated with it, confirm if this is the right choice for you. Investing a lot of money towards a degree does not guarantee a job so use your resources wisely. Look at the results of other adult learners that have completed programs at schools you are considering. Was it worthwhile? This will help keep focus on what’s important to the adult learner, a results oriented education for career development.
Ken O’Connor is a 10 year veteran of higher-education finance, having served thousands of students and parents during his career as a financial aid counselor. Having assisted so many families, each having their own specific financial and educational needs, Ken has gained experience in creatively solving a multitude of the financial problems that arise with attending college. Now… Follow him on Twitter.
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