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People often think about college as the domain of the young: students straight out of high school or fresh off a gap year. But the reality is quite different.
Many adults return to college long past their high school graduation. In 2019, 7.4 million college students—more than one-third of those enrolled—were 25 years old or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Regardless of whether you’re changing careers, getting a degree for the first time, or just finishing what you started years ago, you have to remember the cost. Unless you’ve built up savings since finishing high school, you’ll probably have to rely on student loans to pay for your education.
In this guide:
- Financial aid for adults
- Other tips & tricks for going to college as an adult
Financial aid for adults
If you’re returning to college as an adult, there are a few ways that you can fund your education, just like any other student.
Adult student loans
Like anyone attending college, nontraditional students can fund their return to school through student loans.
Federal student loans
Anyone can apply for a federal student loan, whether they’re 18 or 80. That makes federal student loans a great option if you want to borrow money to return to school.
Federal student loans are based on your financial situation. The less income and money that you have available, the more money you’ll be able to borrow. If you have a full-time job and some savings, you won’t get as much financial help as a student fresh out of high school. Still, it’s worth applying.
To apply for federal student aid, you’ll need to fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Then, you’ll get a letter from the U.S. Department of Education detailing the aid you’re eligible to receive.
Federal aid usually has lower interest rates and qualifies you for income-driven repayment plans, making it one of the best ways to finance your education. In some cases, your federal student loans might even qualify for loan forgiveness. The government provides this resource about the aid it offers to adult students.
Private student loans
Federal financial aid is limited, so you can only cover so many expenses with the money you borrow. If you can’t cover the rest of your college costs with savings or income, your next best bet is applying for a private loan.
Private student loans usually have higher rates than federal loans and almost always start charging interest right away. Private lenders can also charge fees that add to your balance. But if need more money to cover tuition and other college expenses, private loans are great in a pinch.
One benefit of returning to school as an adult is that you’ve had a chance to build your credit history, which will help you score lower rates from private lenders. Students entering college directly out of high school have had almost no time to build credit and depend on cosigners to get good rates.
If you’re looking for a good student lender to work with, see LendEDU’s guide to the best private student loan providers. If you’re trying to learn more about the different loan options out there, check out our guide to the types of student loans.
Scholarships & grants
Borrowing money is just one way to pay for school. Sometimes, you can qualify for scholarships and grants, which you don’t have to pay back. These options can help you reduce or avoid student loan debt.
Grants for adults going back to college
Grants are offered by the federal and state governments to give money to students. If you receive a school grant, you have no obligation to pay it back. There are some grants specifically for adults returning to college or going to college for the first time.
One example is the Federal Pell Grant. You can apply for this federal grant when you file the FAFSA. It offers aid to students who have a financial need and who have not yet earned a degree.
The TEACH Grant is another grant that you can apply for with the FAFSA. This grant offers up to $4,000 annually to students earning a degree they plan to use for a career in teaching.
And the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity (FSEO) Grant offers between $100 and $4,000 to students with an exceptional financial need.
Scholarships for adults returning to school
Scholarships are similar to grants in that they give you money to use for college with no obligation of repayment. However, scholarships typically have more restrictions than grants do, allowing the group funding the scholarship to target specific types of students for aid.
For example, single moms might be able to find scholarships specifically for single mothers. Here are a few additional scholarships to consider as you begin your search:
- The Imagine America scholarship offers up to $1,000 to adults over the age of 21 who want to further their education.
- CollegeAmerica provides the Return to Learn scholarship, which pays $5,000 to students who have earned some college credit but who have not yet finished a degree.
- SuretyBonds.com has a scholarship specifically for small business owners and their families. If you run your own business and want to return to school to further your business’ success, this scholarship pays up to $3,000.
Other tips & tricks for going to college as an adult
Student loans, grants, and scholarships are all good options for financing your education as an adult, but there are some tips and tricks that you can use to help you save money.
Ask for employer benefits
If you have a full-time job, talk to your employer or benefits office about education benefits. Many employers offer some assistance to employees who want to pursue higher education.
This can include stipends to pay for the cost of attendance or a flexible work schedule to make handling classes and homework easier. If you work for a university, you can probably take classes cheaply.
Keep in mind that these deals usually come with some fine print. Most employers that offer education benefits will make you commit to your job for a certain amount of time after you finish the degree.
If you leave your employer during this time, you might have to repay the money your employer gave you to pay for classes.
Take advantage of a 529 plan
529 plans are special savings and investment accounts designed to help people save for education. You don’t have to pay taxes on withdrawals as long as you use the money for qualified education expenses, and some states also allow you to deduct your contributions.
Parents frequently use 529 plans to save for their children’s education, but there’s no reason you can’t open a 529 for yourself. If you plan to return to school, put some money in a 529 and use it for your tuition.
Don’t forget that money in a 529 is earmarked for education expenses. You’ll have to pay a tax penalty if you withdraw money and use it for another purpose.
The good news is that you can change the beneficiary of your 529, so if you don’t use all the money in the account, you can easily give it to a child or other relative.
See if you can transfer your past experience into credits
College is all about learning, and one of the best ways to learn is by doing. If you want to return to school, talk to your advisor about using some of your experience toward college credits.
If you attended school in the past, see if you can transfer the classes you took before to your new school. This can help you avoid taking the same classes multiple times and save you some money.
Or, if you have a lot of work experience, you might be able to test out of certain classes. For example, a professional journalist returning to school to get a degree probably wouldn’t benefit too much from an introductory course.
Ask if you can skip to a higher-level course or use the College Level Exam Program to test out of certain classes.
Author: TJ Porter