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Scholarships for Adults & Non Traditional Students: How to Find & Win

He won scholarships for adults & non traditional studentsScour through any database of college grants, and you’ll find an explosion of oddball, “niche” scholarships: Awards for left-handed people, for twins, for duct tape artists, and for those who play the digeridoo. Just like “there’s an app for that” applies to seemingly everything nowadays, so too is there a scholarship for seemingly every type of student.

Increasingly, mainstream scholarship awards include (either expressly stated or not) for adults and non-traditional students returning to college either for the first, second, or even third time. That’s because colleges and universities are undergoing an evolution in the 21st century, and responding to new marketplace demands for upgraded skillsets.

It is now a priority to educate a fast-growing new student demographic: Adults and “non-traditional” students.

With student profiles changing along with industries and occupational fields, millions of scholarships are now tailored towards highly capable adults who have already acquired quite a bit of life experience.

Luckily, there’s also no shortage of scholarships available for students whose Expected Family Contribution no longer depend on their parents’ salary. A divorce (or even your own children heading to college) is a much more dominant factor in a non-traditional student’s financial aid options.

Who is Eligible for Adult Scholarships?

By definition, non-traditional students are usually over the age of 24 while attending an institution of higher learning.

As such, many scholarships for distance learning students now include adult-inclusive language such as:

  • “Open to adult students who are returning to complete an interrupted education”
  • “… for adults looking to return to college to improve their career opportunities”
  • “Applicants must be between the ages of 25 – 50”
  • “… for returning students whose college education has been interrupted for a minimum of five years.”

Nevertheless, age and duration of one’s academic interruption aren’t the only eligibility factors for non-traditional students.

Many scholarships in the non-traditional category are catered to single parents as well as active military members, who face highly specific challenges while earning a higher education credential.

Who, Exactly, is Classified as a Nontraditional 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

Naturally, one of the most common identifying characteristics of the non-traditional students is age. Stock images for college recruitment brochures may have traditionally featured 18-year-old models, but nowadays college diversity initiatives feature students of all ethnicities, ages, and physical capabilities.

Whether you’ve completed several tours in Afghanistan or stayed home to raise multiple children, your financial aid strategies are unique compared to those of someone who just graduated from high school: According 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).

Does this mean you should ditch the scholarship search and focus exclusively on applying for the Pell Grant? Hardly. Just as your investment portfolio should cover a strategic blend of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and more, so should your financial aid portfolio.

Non Traditional Student Scholarships

For Single Parents

Single parents in college all have a unified burden: Juggling their childrens’ well-being with academic and work responsibilities, and paying for tuition along with increasingly high childcare expenses.

  • The Simmons Family Foundation Scholarship ($20,000 in funds available) is open to single parents pursuing distance education-related programs in rural Utah. All single parent distance students are encouraged to apply.
  • The Executive Women’s International supports single parents with thirteen ASIST (Adult Students in Scholastic Transition) scholarships per year. Over 150 awards are dispursed annually with awards ranging from $2,000 to $10,000.
  • ANTSHE has awarded over $100,000 in scholarships to non-traditional students, including single parents. Applicants must be at least 23 years old.

For Displaced Workers / Job Switchers

Gone are the olden days when it was common to work for the same employer for decades, and retire on its pension. Today, it’s not unheard of (nor unhealthy) to switch career tracks several if not many more times. In some cases, such as a fallout from a declining industry or field, career-switching is a necessity. Therefore, many scholarships are designed with career switchers or displaced workers in mind. 

  • If you’ve been out of school for more than five years and would like to resume your education at the bachelor’s level, consider the Osher Reentry Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships of up to $50,000 per year.
  • Members of The American Legion, Auxiliary, or Sons of the Ameican Legion can apply for a $2,000 scholarship specifically for non-traditional students returning to school for a trade, professional, or technical program.

For Returning Veterans

As American veterans have made large sacrifices for their country, there is no shortage of financial aid established for their transition back into the civilian workforce. In addition to a plethora of federal grants, returning veterans (and their family members) have access to a trove of distance learning scholarships as well:

  • The Army Women’s Foundation – Legacy Scholarship ($2,500) is open to women (as well as their children) who have served or are currently serving honorably in the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, Army National Guard.
  • The Afghanistan and Iraq War Veterans Scholarship ($2,500) is open to active-duty and honorably discharged U.S. military veterans and reservists and National Guard personnel of the Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan or Iraqi Freedom Operations (2003-present). Distance-learning or online programs (affiliated with U.S. schools) are eligible, but freshman and senior level students are not.

For Women Whose Previous College Experience was Interrupted

Though women are making historic strides by graduating from college in greater numbers than men, they still face hurdles similar to the previous generation. Women still earn, on average, 78 cents to every dollar their male counterpart earns at work.

Because women make up half (if not more) the country’s vital workforce, many scholarships are designed to address the gender pay gap as well as the “Mommy Track” phenomenon:

  • The Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO) awards of up to $3,000 are open to female applicants whose higher education has been interrupted. Its unique application process involves filling out an initial application form to PEO, which will forward it to local chapters which must agree to sponsor your application.
  • The Women of the South Primary Provider Scholarship is available to women of Oklahoma City metropolitan area, who are the primary providers of their families, with income levels defined by household formulas.
  • Emerge (Empowering Women Through Education) awards scholarships to women whose education has been interrupted as well as those who have overcome significant obstacles or given back to their community.

Do I Need to be Enrolled Full Time?

With the territory of non-traditional students, comes non-traditional schedules. That’s why some scholarships permit part-time enrollment (which may be defined as a certain number of credit-hours, or as at least half-time enrollment).

  • Saavy with social media? The GotChosen Scholarship ($5,000) is available each month and is awarded to the applicant who gets the most up votes on a qualifying post.
  • The Return2College Scholarship ($1,500) is open to applicants enrolling in college for undergraduate or graduate studies within the next 12 months. There are a total of three awards available, and part-time students may also apply.

Types of Adult Scholarships

Need-­Based Scholarships

Early on in your financial aid-building process, need-based scholarships should be your first step. They generally only look at numbers to determine eligibility; namely, your assets and income (or of your family’s).

That’s why you should make filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) your first priority.

If the FAFSA determines that your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is within the eligibility parameters for certain types of aid (such as federal grants), you will be notified quickly about your options.

Bottom line: The greater your financial need, the greater your chances of winning a need-based scholarship. It also affects how much you can receive.

Merit-­Based Scholarships

If you are reading this article, chances are good that you need financial help with paying for your studies. Nevertheless, not all scholarships are need-based simply because applicants apply for them out of an intrinsic need for the money.

Federal grant and need-based scholarship dollars can only go so far. To maximize your financial aid options, your next step should be to look at your talents, experience, and passions for a merit-based scholarship.

Don’t have the highest GPA, and are not in the upper percentile for athletic talent? Fear not, for scholarships are not simply designed for valedictorians and Olympics-bound athletes. Some also factor in community involvement (so don’t be shy about mentioning soup kitchens, or your weekends at the rescue pound!).

Not all students are financially eligible for a need-based scholarship (for reasons such as Expected Family Contribution being too high). But if you look strategically and aggressively enough, you will likely find a merit-based scholarship that you qualify for.

  • The College Jumpstart Scholarship offers $1,000 to a wide range of students, including non-traditional students, that remain committed to their educational goals. It is handed out annually, based on merit, and is good for colleges within the United States.
  • The Berklee Music Celebrity Online Scholarship Program offers 16 $1,400 scholarship awards ($1,400 each) to “promising online students” who have a teacher’s letter of recommendation and a GPA of 3.7 or higher as an online student.

View Berklee Programs

How Much Can I Expect to Get in Scholarships?

Unlike federal grants, scholarships vary widely by type and award amounts across the board. That’s why you’ll occasionally hear about students who funded their 4-year degree almost entirely by aggressively courting scholarship…as well as students who did entirely without scholarships and opted only for grants or work-study programs.

How Hard is it to Win a Scholarship?

There are two major forces in the evolution of higher education these days: The explosion of distance learning curriculum, as well as an unprecedented number of adults going back to school to adapt to the changing economy.

As such, more and more scholarships are designed with online students in mind. There are, of course, many scholarship awards specifically for students enrolled in online courses. But don’t limit yourself to them.

PRO TIP: Online students generally have the same eligibility for scholarships as traditional students. Whether your learning modality is on-campus or from your laptop, many scholarship administrators will still consider you a college student.

Where to Look for Scholarships

As anyone with daily access to the Internet knows, the Web can be a double-edged sword to our productivity. When it comes to scholarships, half the battle is not simply finding them online: It’s finding the relevant ones which are tailored to non-traditional students, as well as distance learning students, and also fit your unique personal background (such as single parent status or age category).

Indeed, you won’t lack for millions of results once you enter the keyword “scholarships” in the search box. But you’ll likely get overwhelmed quickly unless you tailor your query terms and eligibility filters.

Aside from search query results on your browser, don’t miss other tried-and-true pathways:

Finding Scholarships at School

Sometimes, the teacher’s pet really does get the apple: Cultivating a connection with your professors, tutors, and academic tutor or professional mentor doesn’t simply add up to a higher GPA, but also a solid roster of people who’d likely be happy to write you a letter of recommendation for a competitive scholarship.
Examples of scholarships that require reference letters:

  • Incight Scholarship Program: Applicants must have a documented disability and be attending college full time. A 250-word essay is also required along with a letter of recommendation.
  • World Campus Students Scholarships: Penn State offers a number of scholarships for online and distance “world campus” students. In addition to a letter of recommendation, requirements include nine credits in the World Campus program and a 3.0 GPA.

View Penn State Programs

PRO TIP: Make a habit of staying in touch with your academic adviser via email. Advisers are closely connected to the scholarships (and other types of financial aid) network. Don’t miss out on an opportunity despite not being on campus to peruse bulletin boards!

Community-Based Scholarship Resources

Higher education is not merely about being able to earn a high salary for oneself. It’s also about being in a position to give back to one’s community. If you volunteer with a social justice non-profit, attend church regularly, or are involved in political organizations, chances are they have scholarships available. Examples of scholarships that take community service into consideration:

  • The Society of Human Resource Management Scholarship ($750) is a distance learning scholarship available to current members of SHRM. Preference is given to applicants with “extensive work and volunteer experience.”
  • Texas Tech Distance Learning has need- and merit-based awards for its distance learning program. Requirements vary, but most include exhibiting traits “(that) Texas Tech considers consistent with its values, as well as community service and work experience hours.”

View Texas Tech Programs

PRO TIP: Apply globally, apply locally. Though online degrees and distance learning can open the world to you by allowing you participate from any zip code, it also helps to stay local. Look into local businesses, major local employers, and churches or faith-based organizations that may have scholarships. Sometimes, they may not even be widely advertised, so cold-calling to ask about available (or upcoming) academic financial resources can put you ahead of the game early.

Scholarships at Work

Because non-traditional students tend to experienced adults who are either currently working or have already acquired sizable work experience, distance learning is popular with them. And because distance learning allows for scheduling flexibility so they can continue working while getting value-added skills, they’re also popular with employers.

Mention to your boss or Human Resources office how learning a new programming language will help drive traffic to the corporate website; or how an MBA will build revenue. Even if formal scholarships are not yet available through your company, you could ask for other arrangements:

When to Apply for Distance Learning Scholarships 

“Early” and “now” are usually the best times to start hunting for scholarships (whether they be for traditional students or non-traditional students, or for on-campus or distance learning modalities). Just like the sheer variety of scholarships is staggering, so too are their deadlines and funding cycles.

Scholarship deadlines can depend on the following factors:

  • Whether the school has a semester or quarterly system
  • Funding and donor cycles for private sponsors
  • Donor cycles for non-profit organizations that sponsor annual scholarships

How Often is the Scholarship Disbursed?

In addition to the all-important deadlines, pay close attention to when scholarships are announced. That can also lead to variations in how much time you have available to work on your application. Sometimes you’ll have only weeks; other times you may have nearly an entire year to start perfecting an essay for a particular scholarship. Scholarships may be announced year-round, or several months before their deadline. Disbursement happens one-annually, biennial, or seasonally.

GetEducated Online Student Scholarship

Finally, don’t forget to apply for the online learning scholarship. Our scholarship is offered twice per year with deadlines in March and October. Depending on the number of applicants, we award up to three, $1,000 awards.

Apply Here

Related Resources
Rankings of the Most Affordable Online Colleges
Exhaustive Guide to Veterans Education Benefits


About the Author: Aimee Chou has written education-oriented articles featured in MSN,, CareerBuilder, eLearners, and 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