How Nontraditional Students Get Their College Degrees

The subject of today’s post, though not exactly financial aid, feels like a higher education story for the holidays: a glimpse into how successful nontraditional students get their college degrees. Nontraditional college students (anyone other than an 18-year-old going to a 4-year college straight from high school, that is) are students of all ages and walks of life. If you’re one of them, you’re already familiar with the challenges that may have made it difficult for you to pursue your dream of a college degree.

This celebratory article, For one student, a long path to college degree, provides both inspiration and some insight into what it means to be a nontraditional student. It’s a great read. In this year of grim news, it’s nice to read about someone’s success for a change!

One of the resources the article mentioned is the Pell Grant. Pell Grants help millions of students a year, and data on Pell Grant recipients provides a familiar snapshot of nontraditional students. For instance, a recent National Center for Education Statistics report (July 2009) profiled Pell Grant recipients who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1999-2000. Here’s what the study found:

  • Majority were low-income
  • 23% were age 22 and under; 31% were 23-24; 27% were 25-29; and almost 19% were 30 and up
  • 60% were considered financially independent
  • 24% had dependents of their own
  • 11% were single parents
  • 34% delayed their enrollment in college after high school
  • 58% left college or career school for 4 or more months and later returned to complete a degree at either the same school or a different one

These percentages are from 10 years ago, so some may have grown or decreased in the recent recession. It would be a surprise if the percentage of Pell Grant recipients age 30 and older had not noticeably increased over the past two years.

Clearly, pursing a college degree is a big investment of time, money, and maybe even personal sacrifice, but to many people, it’s worth the effort. If not straight from high school, how do nontraditional students get started on their college degrees? Here are a couple of ideas.

What college will work for me?

The nonprofit education organization ACT, maker of the college entrance exam by the same name, has a checklist of 11 items for prospective college students to consider when choosing a college. The checklist is geared more toward the traditional college-bound high school senior, but many items are still relevant to nontraditional students working on their degrees across the years, colleges, and even states. Here are a few, with a nontraditional student twist:

  • Academics, particularly the programs, majors, and courses you need to stay on your degree track
  • Admission and transfer-admission requirements, and transfer policy
  • Total Costs: tuition, fees, books, transportation
  • Financial aid (who will give you the most?)
  • School size (can you get the personalized academic guidance and support you need to succeed, especially if you’re transferring in?)
  • Location (is it convenient for you?)
  • Housing for independent students if you need it
  • Facilities: certainly academic, maybe recreational, but also practical (is there a daycare center?)

Based on Catherine’s story in the AP article, it sounds like a checklist specifically for nontraditional students would also include:

  • Powerful belief in both oneself and the value of a good education
  • Determination
  • Support from family and friends
  • Stick-to-it-iveness: the ability to persevere against the odds

How do I get financial aid?

You start with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A new and improved one is being released in stages and the FAFSA for the 2010-2011 school year will be available on January 1st. Submitting a FAFSA is required in order for you to get a Pell Grant.

In the meantime, try the FAFSA4caster on Federal Student Aid website. This little calculator, a sort of mini-FAFSA, allows you to plug in some of the information you’ll need to put on the FAFSA, including the school(s) you’re considering. The FAFSA4caster then gives you an estimate of your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and your financial aid eligibility. It may be only the beginning of your journey to get your college degree, but a single step, or two, or three, can be a good start.

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