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Financial Aid for Older and Nontraditional Students

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This page contains information about financial aid for students age 24-29 and 30 or older, often referred to as "nontraditional students". See also the Distance and Continuing Education page and the FinAid bibliography.

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 more than 50 awards that have a minimum age restriction of 30 years or older. There are more than 230 awards with a minimum age restriction of 25 years or older. There are more than 1,800 awards with no age restrictions whatsoever.

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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.

  • Pursuing a Bachelor's Degree. Nontraditional students age 24-29 represent 13.8% of undergraduate students pursuing a Bachelor's degree, but 20.9% of Pell Grant recipients and 4.7% of private scholarship recipients. Nontraditional students age 30 and above represent 14.4% of undergraduate students pursuing a Bachelor's degree, but 17.2% of Pell Grant recipients and 4.8% of private scholarship recipients. Of nontraditional students pursuing a Bachelor's degree, 40.5% of students age 24-29 and 32.0% of students age 30 and above receive the Pell Grant, compared with 23.1% of traditional students. Of nontraditional students pursuing a Bachelor's degree, 3.0% of students age 24-29 and 2.9% of students age 30 and above receive private scholarships, compared with 11.1% of traditional college students.

  • Pursuing a Certificate or Associate's Degree. Nontraditional students age 24-29 represent 20.8% of undergraduate students pursuing a Certificate or Associate's degree, but 25.3% of Pell Grant recipients and 16.2% of private scholarship recipients. Nontraditional students age 30 and above represent 29.1% of undergraduate students pursuing a Certificate or Associate's degree, but 27.8% of Pell Grant recipients and 27.6% of private scholarship recipients. Of nontraditional students pursuing a Certificate or Associate's degree, 37.0% of students age 24-29 and 29.0% of students age 30 and above receive the Pell Grant, compared with 28.4% of traditional students. Of nontraditional students pursuing a Certificate or Associate's degree, 2.2% of students age 24-29 and 2.6% of students age 30 and above receive private scholarships, compared with 3.1% of traditional college students.

Nontraditional students are more likely to be pursuing a Certificate or Associate's degree than traditional students, and less likely to be pursuing a Bachelor's degree. A little more than a third (35.8%) of nontraditional students are pursuing a Bachelor's degree, compared with nearly three-fifths (58.6%) of traditional students.

Many colleges offer free tuition to senior citizens who wish to audit classes and significantly reduced tuition for classes taken for credit. The senior citizen must be a state resident and meet age thresholds (usually 60+, 62+ or 65+). In some cases there may be income limits (e.g., less than $15,000 in income during the previous year). Free tuition for auditing classes is usually only on a space-available basis. States which offer statewide tuition waivers at public colleges include Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington DC. In some cases the free tuition is only available at specific public colleges or only at community colleges. Fees may or may not be waived. The student must still buy his or her own textbooks.

People age 55 and older who volunteer may receive education awards of up to $1,000 for 350 hours of volunteer service through the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. These awards may be used for the volunteer's own education or transferred to a child, foster child or grandchild.

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. (There is an exception for postbaccalaureate programs necessary for teacher certification or licensing credentials as required by the state.) 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 $7,500 during the freshman year, $8,500 during the sophomore year, and $10,500 during the junior and later years. The aggregate limit increases by $23,000 for a total of $46,000. Graduate and professional students are eligible for up to $20,500 in Stafford loans per year, no more than $8,500 of which can be subsidized. 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. For more information or write to:
Scholarships
BPW Foundation
2012 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036

Talbots Women's Scholarship Fund
The Talbots Charitable Foundation awards five $10,000 scholarships and 50 $1,000 scholarships to women seeking an undergraduate degree who earned their high school diploma or GED at least 10 years ago. The application deadline is January 15 or until the first 1,000 eligible applications have been received, whichever is earlier.

Displaced Homemakers Network
This organization assists women who were homemakers and now need to get a job or go to school. For more information, call 1-202-467-6346.

 

 
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