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While most people picture teenagers fresh out of high school when they think of college students, plenty of adults attend college as well. Adult students face the same high tuition costs as other students, but they also have access to financial aid and resources that younger students don’t.
Older students can use age and experience to their advantage through several forms of financial aid:
5 ways to get financial aid as an adult
If you’re an adult learner going back to school or earning your first degree, there are several ways to get help with educational expenses.
The federal government offers several grants for students, which you may qualify for by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Because many federal grants are need-based, adult learners may qualify for more aid than younger students — any student over the age of 24 is considered independent, meaning parents’ income is not counted against the student’s financial need.
There are multiple federal grants that adults can qualify for if they fall below the required income threshold, though most apply only to undergraduates. A few common grants are:
- Pell Grant: Undergraduates who haven’t yet earned a degree, as well as some students enrolled in a postbaccalaureate teacher certification program, can receive up to $6,495 annually — though the maximum amount depends on your financial circumstances and can change every year.
- Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant: TEACH grants award up to $3,772 per year to aspiring teachers who agree to teach in a low-income area for four years.
- Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant: Students may qualify for the Iraq and Afghanistan Service grant if their parent or legal guardian died as a result of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11. Students must have been under 24 years old or enrolled in college at least part time at the time, and they must meet every Pell Grant requirement except for the expected family contribution requirement.
Most states and colleges have their own grant programs that adult learners can take advantage of. For many of the state grants, eligibility is restricted to residents attending in-state schools. To find out what your state offers and how to apply, contact your state’s education agency. College grants will also impose their own eligibility requirements, but it’s possible to find specialized grants for nontraditional students, such as grants for single parents.
Students of all ages are eligible for the thousands of scholarships offered by private organizations. Scholarships are arguably the best way to afford a college education, especially as an older adult. Scholarships don’t need to be repaid, and some organizations offer awards specifically for adult college students. You can use a scholarship database to find the awards that are best tailored to you and your interests.
It’s likely that your school also offers institutional awards, some of which you may qualify for automatically based on your grades. It’s worth contacting your school’s financial aid office to see if it offers any awards specifically for adult students or for your intended major.
A benefit of working for several years and then returning to school is that your boss may pick up some of the tuition cost. Employers may provide up to $5,250 in tuition assistance every year without tax consequences for them or you — so even if your employer doesn’t have a specific program set up already, it’s worth asking your HR department if the option is available.
Working at a college or university can come with tuition perks for adult learners. Employees of a university may be eligible for tuition remission, which is a type of program that allows employees to attend college courses at that university for free.
Tuition-remission programs for employees may come with strings attached. Though programs vary from institution to institution, colleges frequently offer remission only to full-time employees who have been with the institution for a certain amount of time, and they may put caps on how many classes employees can take per semester. Employees may also be required to pay registration and other fees for their classes.
After using up free financial aid, adult students may also want to consider student loans.
Federal student loans are often the best choice, since borrowers can access several benefits and repayment options, including one that adjusts your monthly payments based on your income. Independent students pursuing an undergraduate degree have an aggregate borrowing limit of $57,500, while those pursuing a graduate degree can borrow up to the total cost of attendance, minus any other financial aid received. Students may take out federal student loans after filling out the FAFSA.
Private student loans may also appeal to adult learners who have had time to build up their income and credit. Unlike federal student loans, each lender controls the eligibility requirements, application process and rates of its products, and borrowers with good financial health could score a lower rate than they would get with federal loans.