Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students

What is financial aid for nontraditional college students? Is it different from financial aid for traditional students who go straight from high school to college each fall?

Nontraditional Student Week

November 1-7, 2009, is Nontraditional Student Week, an annual recognition of nontraditional students in the college world. Nontraditional Student Week is sponsored by the Association for Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education, an international organization that advocates for adult learners.

What exactly is a nontraditional student? Believe it or not, there is still no “official” higher education definition, even though a college head-count from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that 70% of all U.S. college students are age 25 and up (6.8 million students).

A general definition of a nontraditional student is one who doesn’t follow the path that goes straight from high school to college at age 18. Nontraditional students are also referred to as nontraditional learners and adult learners (because they are usually adults who have been in the workforce for at least a year or two if not longer).

Here are some of the characteristics that define nontraditional students (as defined by the NCES and a growing number of higher education officials). You don’t have to meet all these criteria to be considered a nontraditional student—just one is enough. A nontraditional college student is one who:

  • Doesn’t go directly from high school to college in the same calendar year
  • Is age 24 or older
  • Goes to college less than fulltime for at least part of the academic year
  • May attend college one or two courses at a time
  • Attends college while also working a fulltime job (35 hours or more a week)
  • Meets the federal financial aid definition of “financially independent”
  • Has dependents other than a husband or wife (usually children, but sometimes others)
  • Is a single parent
  • May have a GED instead of a high school diploma

Where’s the Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students?

Many nontraditional students might say there’s a big item missing from the list above: A nontraditional college student is one who isn’t eligible for financial aid the way traditional college students are.

In fact, getting financial aid can be a real challenge for adult learners. Although it’s true that federal financial aid (Pell Grants, Stafford loans, and more) doesn’t have an age limit, there are still a number of Catch-22s that tend to apply only to working adults.

For example, since Pell Grants are targeted toward very low-income students, nontraditional students who hold down a even a low-paying job while attending college classes may make just a little too much money to qualify for a Pell Grant.

Adult learners may find themselves ineligible for federal loans for the same reason—even if the paycheck they earn barely covers their living expenses. And there are other criteria (enrollment status and length of time to complete a degree program) that often disqualify nontraditional students from Pell Grants and other federal financial aid.

On the plus side, officials from the Department of Education and Department of Labor are much more aware of the holes between their two sets of rules. They’re working to synch up their departmental policies so that the rules work together rather than conflict with each other.

Nontraditional Students are the Students of the 21st Century

The nontraditional student is the hot college student these days, for a variety of public and commercial reasons. (Educating workers for new industries and getting them back to work is crucial for our economy, but higher education is also a profitable big business.) Nevertheless, conflicting policies on financial assistance aren’t the only holes in the higher education system.

Working Learners, a report from the Center for American Progress proposes an overhaul of higher education to close up those holes and allow nontraditional students to be better served. The report’s suggestions may sound familiar to you, since adult learner advocates have been recommending such changes for years: accessibility, flexibility, more respect for professional certificates, career path coaching.

On the subject of more accessible financial aid for nontraditional students, the report also suggests the creation of a new “Micro Pell Grant” for students “who want to take one course per semester or an occupational certificate.”

It may feel as though the U.S. higher education and financial aid systems are skewed in favor of traditional students in a lot of ways, and they probably are. Not intentionally, just as a result of the influence of earlier times. But the country is going through a big change and this may shift more attention and resources to our huge population of nontraditional students.

As a hat-tip to Nontraditional Student Week, please write in and share your experience as a nontraditional student seeking financial aid. Did you learn any financial aid application tips you could pass on other students? We would love to hear from you!

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