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Financial Aid Basics For Adult Learners


Financial aid, for any student, is often cobbled together from disparate sources. Adults returning to school can - and should - apply for financial aid just the same as younger students. Simply take care to note eligibility requirements: half-time enrollment, prior undergraduate degrees, and demonstrated income all affect eligibility.

The Basics

  • Employer Tuition Assistance & Reimbursement - One of the first places to look for financial aid is right where you work. More and more companies, keen to invest in the betterment of their employees, are offering tuition assistance. Any tuition due diligence should include consultation with your human resources department or employer benefit manager. Read more about Employer Tuition Assistance programs in a companion article on this site.
  • Federal Student Aid - Age has no effect on eligibility for federal student financial aid. However, if you have a bachelor's degree or one professional degree, you cannot qualify for a Pell Grant, except in some instances of teacher certification. Eligibility for all federal grants often hinges on half-time enrollment and half-time students are likely to receive less than their full-time counterparts. Other forms of federal aid - federal work study, federal student loans - have more flexible eligibility requirements. Federal aid is awarded for online education contingent upon enrollment in a degree program at an accredited school. Consult the Federal Financial Aid Guide and once you feel comfortable, you may begin the FAFSA application process.
  • State Aid - Attending school in your state of residence can expand your eligibility for financial aid. Residency stipulations, aid awards, and eligibility requirements vary from state to state. Schools and universities may cover state aid in their financial aid processes but contact your state financial aid agency for a comprehensive overview of available aid and for statewide programs that cater to the adult learner.
  • Institutional Aid - Institutional aid is that provided by schools. Colleges and universities, like the federal government, are prone to restricting eligibility for financial aid, typically to those students pursuing their first undergraduate degree and enrolled at least half-time. Query school financial aid offices for requirements and exceptions. Adult students should take special note: the Higher Education Act of 1965 allows financial aid directors to make manual adjustments to the Estimated Family Contribution determined by the government. Adults with dependents, child tuition costs, or anticipated changes in their financial circumstances should request a special financial aid office review.
  • Scholarships - Scholarships do not need to be repaid are in almost all but a few cases based on merit. Scholarships can be awarded by colleges, public companies, private institutions, and other organizations. Dig for scholarship opportunities; you are likely to procure small scholarships that add up in the end rather than one scholarship that covers all your education expenses. There are scholarships for Returning Adults but there is another subset of scholarships that have no attendant age requirements at all. In addition to online scholarship searches, the College Board publishes an annual handbook of scholarships, complete with eligibility indexes and application information.
  • Loans - While debt is never something one wants to shoulder, student debt may be justified by the earning potential that comes with degree completion. Adults over the age of 24 are typically eligible for higher loan amounts and should take care not to indulge more debt than necessary. You may find that you qualify for more money than you need. Ensure that you borrow only what you need for your education and resist borrowing money to uphold your standard of living or spending. Borrow from the federal government before signing up for private loans. Loan institutions lend; they do not impose a budget or stress the realities of repayment.

If you would like to delve deeper, FinAid and FastWeb are two reliable and exhaustive online sources for financial aid opportunities. Both sites can provide practical and detailed information to fill out these common facts.

  • "Federal Student Aid Programs", Federal Student Aid (
  • College Financial Aid for Dummies, Dr. Herm Davis & Joyce Lain Kennedy, IDG Books, 1997
  • "Higher Education Act of 1965", FinAid (
  • Scholarship Handbook 2010, Thirteenth Edition, The College Board, New York, 2009
  • The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, Lynn O'Shaughnessy, FT Press, 2008

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Disclosure: Not all programs are accelerated, available in all locations, or in both online and on-campus formats. Financial aid including grants, scholarships and loans may be available to those who qualify. Program lengths and outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guaranteed. CompareTopSchools is a consumer information site that offers free, independent ratings and recommendations of colleges and universities. While we receive advertising revenue from most of the schools we rate and recommend, our editors thoroughly research each school and offer their honest opinions when rating each one. We are independently owned and operated and all opinions expressed on this site are our own, including, without limitation, our designation of a particular institution as being a "top" or "best" school, college or university.