How to Get Grants and Student Loans for Adults Returning to School

If you’re thinking of returning to campus with a little more experience under your belt — and perhaps a little more gray in your hair — you won’t be the only one. Nearly 3 million college students enrolled in 2018 were 35 or above, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Perhaps more financially-savvy than you once were, you might also be concerned with the price of your education. Employ the tips below on scholarships, grants and student loans for adults returning to school so you can spend less than your peers.

Getting funding and student loans for adults returning to school

Some of the strategies here aren’t that different from those geared toward incoming freshmen, but there are others that offer special advantages for older adults going back to school. Here are five tasks to tackle that can help you get the best deal on higher education.

1. Complete the FAFSA to be eligible for federal financial aid

You might remember this form from your first time around, but either way, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is still a critical step. After all, it’s the gateway to grants and work-study programs, not just loans.

Keep in mind that as long as you’re above the age of 24, you’re considered an independent student in the eyes of the Education Department. With that distinction, you might be able to qualify for more need-based aid or be able to borrow a greater student loan amount than a teenager still dependent on their family or guardian.

That said, before borrowing student loans, adults going back to school should make sure to read point No. 5 below to consider all the ways to avoid college debt.

2. Check your eligibility for state grants

Beyond the federal government, your state could also be a source of financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid.

Focus your search on state grants for college specifically geared towards later-in-life, returning or part-time students. For example, Indiana has a “You Can. Go Back” program with a $2,000 tuition grant, among other benefits.

If you’re a senior (in life, not school), also check to see if your state offers free or discounted tuition for older students. Keep in mind that these programs are sometimes restricted to auditing classes, rather than earning credit toward a degree.

3. Seek private scholarships for adults going back to school

As you hunt for aid that could lessen your reliance on student loans, don’t overlook the private sector. Companies, nonprofits and philanthropic organizations are known to offer scholarships for all sorts of students, including returnees (and even retirees).

The Imagine America Foundation, for instance, awards $1,000 scholarships for adults looking to learn a new trade. There are also a myriad of opportunities at other foundations for women going back to school.

If, on the other hand, you’re staying in your current career, ask your employer (if you have one) for financial assistance. If you can show how continuing your education will make you a more valuable employee, your boss or human resources head might be hard-pressed to say no.

4. Turn your existing knowledge into college credits

If you’re serious about working toward a degree, you’ll likely want to take the fastest — and cheapest — route to graduation.

To avoid signing up for basic prerequisite courses all over again — think English 101 — ask your school’s admissions office about transferring your past credits, perhaps from your initial college experience.

Also, you could turn your accumulated knowledge into credits toward a degree. You might be long past taking AP classes in high school, but you could test out of required college courses using the College Level Exam Program (CLEP). Learn more about CLEP exams, including how to register for them, using the College Board website.

5. Carefully consider student loans for adults returning to school

For teens and 20-somethings, it’s not always possible to avoid federal or private student loans to attend college. For you, hopefully, it’s more likely.

Take advantage of tip Nos. 1 through 4 above, and combine earned gift aid with any income or savings you might have on hand. You might be able to meet the burden of tuition and other fees without having to repay a creditor down the road.

If borrowing becomes a necessity, however, consider your options carefully. There are two main types of student loans for working adults: federal and private.

As a seasoned adult, you might well be among the types of borrowers who could benefit from prioritizing private loans over federal debt. With a lengthy credit history, you could be able to score a relatively low interest rate from a bank, credit union or online company.

Still, ask yourself whether you might later need the safeguards that are exclusive to federal loans. Only federal student loans come with income-driven repayment options, expanded protections like mandatory forbearance, and access to loan forgiveness programs.

Don’t go broke when you go back to college

Returning to school can be an expensive endeavor, no matter your age. By looking for financial aid and taking advantage of shortcuts to your degree, however, you could significantly lower the cost.

Treat borrowing — whether from family or a lender — as a last resort. This way, you can add that degree to your resume without risking your finances.

And if you borrowed back in the day for your first time through college, consider how to manage your old student loans before stepping back on campus.

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