Financial Aid for Older and Nontraditional Students

Check out financial aid options for older, nontraditional and returning students.

August 25, 2015

Financial Aid for Older and Nontraditional Students

Contrary to popular belief, financial aid isn’t just reserved for first-time college students in their late teens/early twenties. Financial aid is available to older and nontraditional students as well. You just have to know where to look. Also, check out nontraditional, adult and returning student scholarships and internships.

Scholarships for Older Students

Many scholarship and fellowship programs do not have age restrictions, and there are no age restrictions on eligibility for federal student financial aid. Older students should conduct a search for aid just like younger students. The Fastweb scholarship database includes plenty of scholarship opportunities for students of all ages, and some scholarship offerings even have minimum age requirements for application that specifically target older students.

College Aid for Older Students

Although many schools restrict eligibility for the school’s own financial aid programs to the first Bachelor’s degree, some schools will waive the restrictions when the student is an adult returning to school to earn a second degree in preparation for a career change.

According to data from the 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), nontraditional students are more likely to receive the Pell Grant than traditional students, but less likely to receive private scholarships. Many colleges offer free tuition to senior citizens who wish to audit classes and significantly reduced tuition for classes taken for credit.

Federal Student Aid

Nontraditional students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid just like younger students.

Federal student aid generally does not have any age restrictions. The main exception is the Coverdell Education Savings Account, which requires the funds to be used by the time the beneficiary reaches age 30. Section 529 college savings plans, on the other hand, do not have any such age restrictions.

There are, however, restrictions based on educational background. A student who has already earned a bachelor’s degree or first professional degree is no longer considered an undergraduate student and is ineligible for the Pell Grant. However, such a student is still eligible for federal education loans and work-study. See Ask Kantro: What Types of Student Aid are Available for a Second Bachelors Degree? on the Fastweb site for additional details.

Students who are age 24 or older as of December 31 of the award year are considered automatically independent. Independent undergraduate students are eligible for increased unsubsidized Stafford loan limits — an additional $4,000 per year during the freshman and sophomore years and an additional $5,000 per year during the junior and later years — since their parents cannot borrow from the PLUS loan program. This yields annual loan limits of $9,500 during the freshman year, $10,500 during the sophomore year, and $12,500 during the junior and later years. Graduate and professional students are eligible for up to $20,500 in Stafford loans per year, no more than $8,500. They are also eligible for the Grad PLUS loan.

Nontraditional students who will be quitting a job to go back to school should ask the college financial aid office for a “professional judgment” review to adjust the income from prior tax year income to estimated award year income. If you are currently employed, ask your employer’s human resources office about the availability of employer tuition assistance. About 7/8 of large employers provide some form of tuition assistance. Up to $5,250 in such assistance is excluded from gross income (in some cases more). They may require you to keep working or agree to work for the company for a set number of years after graduation. They may require you to maintain a minimum GPA in order to get the assistance. Often the assistance is provided as a reimbursement after the fact, so you’ll need to budget for your cash flow needs.

Unfortunately, many nontraditional students will find that the colleges are less willing to adjust for other expenses, such as married student housing, supporting a family or providing family health insurance. This is why many families will have one spouse working while the other is in school, and then switch off so that the other spouse can earn a degree later. Even though nontraditional students may be eligible for increased loan limits, they should avoid overborrowing. Do not borrow more than your expected starting salary after you graduate. It may be tempting to borrow more for your living costs, but this will make it more difficult for you to repay the debt after you graduate.

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Award Programs

Business and Professional Women’s Foundation
The Business and Professional Women’s Foundation maintains a list of scholarships and fellowships aimed at women age 25 and over, who are going back to school to upgrade their career skills, train for a new career or re-enter the job market.

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