Financial Aid Basics and Advice for Adult Students

older studentIn 2010, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, more than 3.9 million people 35 and older were working toward some sort of degree in an institute of higher learning. That’s a huge segment of the population, and experts suggest that the bottoming economy may be to blame. As older workers found their jobs evaporating, and new jobs harder and harder to come by, they chose to go back to school to enhance their credentials, and perhaps make it more likely that they could become a viable force in the workplace.

In general, this is an excellent idea. Students who go back to school are picking up new skills, as well as honing those skills already in place, and they’re doing their part to ensure that there will be a place for them in the workplace for years and years to come. Sometimes, however, older students need a little financial boost in order to make their dreams of an education blossom into a reality. Financial aid packages can help, but there are some things students must do in order to ensure that they application process moves as smoothly as possible.

Choosing the Right School

There are a number of different routes older students can take as they attempt to improve their education. For some, attending a vocational school and obtaining some type of certificate is the best way to improve. An article produced by USA Today suggests that this is a popular choice, as about 1 million certificates were awarded in 2010 alone.

Any of these jobs could be rewarding, but some students choose to head back to school for a loftier goal. These students may want to complete a bachelor’s degree in a specific field of study, or they may want to augment a bachelor’s degree they already have with an advanced course of study that results in a master’s degree or even a doctoral degree.

Either of these routes is acceptable in the eyes of loan officers, as these options result in an education that gets results. At the end of the course of study, students have some sort of symbol for their time that they can show to an employer. These are the sorts of programs that can get students loans, while any program that doesn’t provide students with a degree or a certificate might be spurned from a funding program.

Talking to the School

When a student has settled on a career choice, the next step involves choosing a school. Finding a program that offers the right mix of classes at the right cost might seem reasonable, as might looking for schools that are close to a student’s home, but students should also be sure to discuss financial aid options with the school during the selection process. In fact, it’s a step that might make selection really easy.

Some schools offer generous compensation packages to returning students with excellent life skills and compelling histories. These schools might make those packages known during selection, and the cost reduction might make one school seem much more appealing than another. It’s something worth asking about.

Those students who may not qualify for merit awards should still ask about the loan sources the school accepts. The Project on Student Debt suggests, for example, that more than 20

percent of students in eight states can’t access federal funds in order to pay for community college, simply because the institutions don’t accept federal aid. Students who hope to use these sources in these schools might be flat out of luck. Similarly, some schools won’t accept any form of aid whatsoever. A college in Missouri, for example, is no longer accepting any applicant that plans to pay for school with any kind of student loan, according to MSN Money. This school hopes to spur students to work to pay for school, rather than borrowing money. It’s a noble idea, but it could be difficult for those students who had planned to attend and find that their loans just won’t work.

Older students can simply call the financial aid office of the school under consideration and determine what forms of loan are acceptable to the administrators there. The call might be quick, but it could be very illuminating.

Finding the Right Schedule

adult studentStudents who enroll in these programs might want to see the process go as quickly as possible, but they might also have demands upon their time, due to children or aging parents. Thankfully, some colleges are adept at working around these challenges, and they offer an extensive suite of classes online that students can take in accordance with their schedules. The University of Oklahoma, for example, has a high percentage of older students, and 98 percent of classes are available online. This sort of flex could help some students balance all of their demands, while allowing them to stay on track with a full-time education.

It’s reasonable for some students to approach education cautiously, however, and some choose to enroll on only a part-time basis. They might take classes regularly, and be committed to the process, but their schedules just don’t allow them to devote a significant amount of time each and every week to regular coursework. Students enrolled in a program on a full-time basis have a better chance of obtaining a loan, as they prove that they’re dedicated to the process and willing to do what it takes to complete the program in the shortest amount of time possible. However, students enrolled on a part-time basis might also get financial aid if they take classes each term and prove that they’re making progress toward their educations. Dabbling in classes, taking a few and then dropping out, can make financial aid officers leery, so it’s a habit that’s best avoided.

First Steps

No matter how an older student plans to pay for school, the process should start with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This document, available both online and in paper form, contains a series of questions regarding a student’s financial health. Since older students are no longer dependent on parents for support, questions regarding parental involvement don’t apply, but there’s still a significant amount of data that’s needed.

Grants are awarded automatically, meaning that the money doesn’t need to be accepted with a formal letter of agreement. But federal loans do have some strings attached, and students should be sure to understand the costs of the products they’re buying. Some products have low interest rates, but others have higher rates and origination fees. Some don’t accrue interest while the student is in school. Others do.

In general, however, loans that come from federal sources are considered ideal for most students. They’re protected by the stamp of authority of the government, and the costs associated with these loans tend to be lower than those seen in the private sector. They also have benefits, including flexible payment options and loan forgiveness options, that may not be available in the private sector.

Other Choices

student getting a loanWhile federal loans might be great for many students, not all older students will qualify. Some students have poor credit scores that can keep them away from PLUS Loans, for example, while others might not demonstrate a need that merits inclusion in a Perkins Loan program or a grant. Students might also find that the amount they can obtain in the federal market doesn’t begin to help cover their costs for tuition. Sometimes, a private loan can help.

The U.S. Department of Education suggests that nearly 25 percent of college students are older than 30. People like this tend to have good jobs, good credit scores and resources that can work as collateral in a private loan. This might not be the case for 18-year-old students who are fresh out of high school and still living with their parents, but it could be the norm for returning students who already have an economic life well underway when they ask the bank for help.

Some returning students apply for loans made specifically for educational purposes, but others apply for collateral-based loans backed up by their houses or retirement plans. These loans might have lower interest rates, but the student must be sure to pay the loans back, or the banks will simply take that collateral back. These loans also don’t come with the same generous set of benefits attributed to federal loans, such as balance forgiveness and flexible payment options, but smart shoppers may be able to lock in favorable interest rates that allow them to forget the benefits they might be missing.

 

Paying for Grad School