As the economy changes, so does the profile of a college student. As industries and occupational fields undergo massive shifts, millions of highly capable adults are looking into higher education to get back on a winning career track for the first, second, or even third time.
Usually anyone over the age of 24 while attending an institution of higher learning are called non-traditional students.
While a traditional student may look for back to school sales after a summer break, a non-traditional student looks for back to school grants. Some have never been to college before, and some are picking up where they left off.
Gone are the days when your Expected Family Contribution depended on your parent(s) salary. As a non-traditional student, it’s much more likely that a divorce (or even your own children heading to college) will play a role in your financial aid options. Scour through any database of college grants, and it may initially seem as if most are tailored for the “traditional” student. But rest assured, there is an uptick in grants for adults returning to college and grants for non-traditional students.
Who is Classified as a Non Traditional Student?
The label “non-traditional student” encompasses all kinds of students and learning modalities, and the categories are increasingly broad, including:
- Displaced workers
- Single parents
- Returning veterans
- Job switchers
- Older students
Though there are exceptions, one of the most common identifying characteristics of the non-traditional students is age. Unlike the young models seen in most college recruitment brochures targeting high school seniors, many a non-traditional student has already been around a block either in a career, in the military, or as homemakers.
This changes the financial aid game more than you may think: According to a 2007-08 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), nontraditional students are more likely to receive the Pell Grant than traditional students (they are 20.9 percent of Pell recipients), but less likely to receive private scholarships (making up only 4.7 percent of recipients).
As such, nontraditional student grants (which include the Pell Grant) comprise a critical part of your financial aid strategy.
Types of Grants
Though you should cast a wide net while searching for grants, it helps to start your search with the Federal government. By filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as early as possible, it also helps you kill two birds with one stone: You are automatically entered into consideration for a Pell Grant, as well as other federal grants.
- Federal Pell Grant: Pell Grants can pay up to $5,775 during the 2015-2016 academic year. Both online and traditional campus students can apply to them, as well as undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students pursuing their first undergraduate (bachelor or associate) degrees.
- Federal TEACH Grant: Providing up to $4,000 annually for students who plan to teach high need subjects in elementary or secondary schools that serve low-income students, the TEACH grant isn’t based on financial need but requires recipients to teach at low-income schools for at least four years.
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant: The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) provides money (ranging from $100 to $4,000 annually) for school to students with exceptional financial need.
The buck doesn’t stop at the federal government: State and private grants are also a valuable part of a non-traditional student’s financial aid portfolio.
There’s a rich variety of state-based grants available. You can expect variations between states as well as entities or individuals who sponsor such grants. For example, the Charley Wootan grant was established by a native Texan as a way to give back to his state.
Aid that doesn’t fall into the category of state or federal grants, typically is a private grant sponsored by the private sector. Corporations, non-profit organizations, professional associations, and even religious organizations are examples of entities that offer many private grants for adults returning to school.
In fact, colleges themselves are a large source of private grants that are the result of endowments to the school. Contact your college’s financial aid office, for currently available grant programs, as well as your department, for grants related to your major.
Grants vs Loans vs Scholarships
Aside from winning the lottery, a grant is possibly the next-best way to fund your college education. Unlike loans, grants never need to be repaid.
Herein lies the rub: Unlike scholarships, which are by and large merit-based, grants tend to have some need-based criteria. The other subtlety to remember, is that many college grants are both merit- and need-based!
Who is Eligible for Grants?
Let’s look at the profile of each type of non-traditional student:
Societal structures, and the global workforce itself, has changed dramatically. Not only did the recession shake up many industries (think: coal mining), many skills are automated or offshored.
Also known as a “dislocated worker,” the growing phenomenon of displaced workers is sending Americans back to school in droves.
A pink slip doesn’t just signal a layoff, it can mean that your occupation or industry is facing plant closures across the nation, foreign competition, or decreasing demand for your skillset
As the costs of childcare continues to outpace the costs of college tuition in 24 states, single parents face one of the most challenging transitions into an academic environment.
Nevertheless, single parents also have one of the largest incentives for advancing their education: New skills and credentials can break cycles of poverty.
Back to school grants for single moms are not only geared towards education, but also other areas of life that pose financial hardships: Housing grants help keep a roof over your head (and room in your budget to go towards tuition), as well as grants to help pay for childcare.
One example is the Live Your Dream: Education and Training Awards for Women. These grants provide assistance to women who are the main financial support for their families. Amounts range from $3,000 to $10,000, and are based on need.
As American veterans have made large sacrifices for their country, there is no shortage of grants established for their transition back into the civilian workforce. Make sure to review our guide on how to best use your veterans education benefits.
- Montgomery G.I. Bill — Available to military personnel who agree to have $100 withheld from their monthly allowance, the Montgomery G.I. Bill averages approximately $37,000 in education benefits per service-member (and approximately $11,000 for reservists).
- The Post 9/11 G. I. Bill — This bill provides 36 months of financial aid to benefit service members who were in active duty immediately after the September 11, 2001 tragedy.
- Spouses & Dependents — Because military service impacts families, there are also many grants tailored towards dependents and spouses: The Air Force Aid Society (AFAS) offers the General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant (approximately $2,000) to applicants affiliated to certain types of Air Force members.
Closely linked to the category of displaced workers, job switchers do not always switch careers out of sheer necessity. Sometimes the magic is gone from a current occupation, or a desire for a less stressful or more challenging role can steer you towards a new occupation.
- Regent University offers an online Master of Education in Career Switcher program for professionals that want to try their hand at teaching middle or high school students; and the program is approved for licensure in the state of Virginia. Programs that provide teaching endorsements may qualify students for the federal TEACH grant.
- The American Association of University of Women (AAUW) Career Development Grants target women with bachelor’s degrees that want to either switch professions, grow in their current career, or have taken time to raise children and are ready to reenter the job market.
Career switchers not only benefit from grant programs, but may also be awarded credits for prior learning which ultimately reduces overall tuition, making college more affordable.
Whether you’re earning your degree or certificate entirely online, or taking part of the on-campus experience (perhaps for the second time), there’s less and less reason to feel “grey and out of place.”
As lifespans lengthen and the structure of the workforce changes, many older adults are now college students. Nearly half (43 percent) of college students will be over age 25 by the year 2020, predicts the National Center for Education Statistics.
To help keep up with the demographic demand, grants (especially from state sources) for older adults are increasingly plentiful. Many such grants are available if you have had to leave a state college or university within the past decade (to raise children, for example). The state of New Jersey offers the College Access Challenge Grant / Disengaged Adults Returning to College Program for such students over 20 years of age.
College Grants for Students Over 30
Jeannette Rankin Foundation Women’s Education Fund provides educational support for non-traditional students who fit this profile: Low-income females who are at least 35 years old and enrolled at accredited institution of higher learning.
College Grants for Students over 40
Whether you’re hitting your mid-career stride or are already retired into your twilight years, you know that a true student is a lifelong learner: Almost half of U.S. states offer statewide tuition waivers (for free or significantly reduced tuition) at public colleges for senior citizens who want to audit classes.
Not a senior citizen just yet? The Sophie Greenstadt Scholarship for Mid-Life Women award (up to $1,000) is open to women over the age of 35.
Note: While some grants for adult students have an age minimum, many others do not. Instead, they may require a certain number of months or years either out of school or away from the workforce.
Can I Apply for Grants with a Felony Conviction or Criminal Background?
Because of the taxpayer burden imposed by recidivism and/or skills stagnating during jail time, efforts are being made to keep former felons out of the bars (and in the workforce) by cutting down barriers to gaining new skillsets and structure.
Not all grants expressly exclude applicants with felony (or misdemeanor) convictions. Incarcerated and interested in learning via an online program? If you are in a non-federal or state institution, you can still be eligible for a Federal Pell Grant.
Once incarceration ends, most eligibility limitations will be removed, with the exception of certain drug or sexual offenses.
Do I Need to Complete the FAFSA?
Yes. All students, regardless of whether you’re traditional or non-traditional, should fill out the mandatory FAFSA.
Bonus: The information you put on your FAFSA won’t just help determine eligibility for grants—it also automatically informs you about your eligibility for a wide variety of grants!
How Much Can I Expect to Receive Per Grant?
As with traditional grants, the amount(s) you may receive per non-traditional grant is widely variable. It depends on many things such as your EFC (Expected Family Contribution), whether the grant is merit or need-based (or a combination thereof), your course load, and more.
How Difficult is it to Win a Grant, as a Non-Traditional Student?
As a non-traditional student, it can be intimidating to think of the probability of not winning any grants. The time and energy required to apply for financial aid is finite, but some demographics (such as single working parents) have even less time.
But here’s the good news: millions in financial aid sit around unclaimed. Lest Imposter Syndrome derail your financial aid confidence, remind yourself that the more you apply to, the more statistically likely you are to win an award (and spend less time in the future paying off loans).
How to Apply For & Receive Funds
Though the profile (age, modality, etc.) of non-traditional students differs from traditional students, both face a similar process in applying for college grants.
Many non-traditional students probably remember the pre-Internet days of applying for financial aid and grants: Driving to a physical library or college campus to scour listings, and mailing fat applications envelopes.
Nowadays, it’s a little bit easier to tackle your grants checklist entirely via the Web. As with all projects, tackle this in bite-sized pieces:
- Find 10 to 20 (or more, if you are ambitious!) relevant scholarships online. Play around with different browsers and use search keywords like “grants for non-traditional students” or “College grants for adults” or “grants for returning students”;
- Compile their deadlines, reserving the most immediate deadlines for the top of your To-Do list;
- Look for similarities, to cut out redundant tasks. Do most application essays incorporate a mission statement? A few letters of references? A copy of your previous fiscal year tax form? Having these things on hand will cut down half your work and double your motivation to persevere through the hunt.
When to Apply for Grants?
Is there a “best time of the year” to apply? As with any endeavor, “now” is almost always the best time to get started. The same goes for applying to grants tailored to non-traditional students.
School funding is influenced by so many different variables (especially political will) that it’s best not to leave your financial future up to chance. The earlier you apply, the more the “first come, first served” principle comes to your advantage. This is especially true if you apply for public grants.
Deadlines for Federal Grants
If you are applying to federal grant programs, understand that different programs have different disbursement schedules that can sometimes be affected by political situations (like sequestration, which reduces award amounts by a certain percentage): Important federal deadlines:
- Federal Pell Grant: The award year for the Pell grant began July 1, and ends June 30. You can also reapply for the chance to receive another is $5,775 award each additional year you are enrolled in school.
- Federal TEACH Grant: Committed to teaching in a high-need area? You have multiple seasons during which you can apply for (and accept) a TEACH grant.
- Spring Deadline: April 1
- Summer Deadline: June 10
- Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant: Awarded in the Fall and Spring semesters only, the FSEOG directly disbursed by your intended college (usually once per academic term). FSEOG grant amounts vary annually along with Department of Education allocations. Your best bet is to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible (starting January 1) to determine if you’re eligible for this grant.
Private (Non-Federal) Grants for Non-Traditional Students
Just like the government, many foundations and grant-sponsoring entities operate on a cyclical basis per the amount of funds they have available. For example, the American Association of University Women, which offers a year-long career development grant, has a cycle from August 1 to December 15.
Many financial aid programs have fall or winter deadlines: The Imagine America Adult Skills Education Program for non-traditional students has a December 31 deadline.
Missed the boat, and eager to get started in spring semester or even as early as January? Fear not, for plenty of students enroll during non-fall terms. The easiest way to find out may be to contact your intended school’s Student Financial Services (or similar) office to inquire about priority dates and available grants for each academic quarter or season.
Apply for the GetEducated Scholarship
Finally, make sure to apply for the GetEducated scholarship. While not a traditional grant, we take both merit and need into consideration when selecting our winners.
About the Author: Aimee Chou has written education-oriented articles featured in MSN, GradSchools.com, CareerBuilder, eLearners, and EarnMyDegree.com. She recently earned a certificate in programming for mobile web development. As an accessibility advocate, she writes about Deaf Community topics for consumer review platform DeafFriendly.com.