Tag: nontraditional students

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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What do you think of the new TV show “Community”? Does it help the president bring community colleges positive attention or does it reinforce the old cliché of community college as higher education’s Cinderella?

Almost half (44%) of U.S. undergraduates are community college students, earning more than 600,000 associate degrees and 320,000 professional and career certificates a year. Is it reality or fiction that some of those nontraditional students may end up having to live in their cars for a while at some point?

The unemployment rate just crept up over 10%, but back in July, TIME Magazine was already asking “Can Community Colleges Save the U.S. Economy?” and highlighting some of the stand-out benefits and problems of the community college experience.

The American Association of Community Colleges is on board with the TV show, operating on the belief that no publicity is bad publicity and seeing it as an opportunity to create a real “Community” community. While you’re on the AACC site, check out some profiles of real-life community college graduates.

Community colleges have always faced complex challenges, but maybe they really can save the economy.

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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!


10 Scholarships for Women

One thing we get asked about a lot is whether we know of any scholarships for single mothers, working mothers, and women in general. In fact, many private foundations provide grants and scholarships for women of all backgrounds and ages, including working mothers, women changing careers, women pursuing degrees in nontraditional fields, and women both beginning and returning to school. Here are 10 well-established scholarships for women:

Women’s Independence Scholarship Program (WISP)

  • Scholarships for formerly battered women, for the purpose of getting an education that will help provide stable employment, personal independence, and self-sufficiency
  • Primary goal is to help single mothers with young children who have the greatest financial challenges (childcare costs, etc.)
  • You must be pursuing an accredited program (fulltime or part-time) at state-supported community colleges, state-supported colleges or universities, technical/vocational schools, private colleges or universities, proprietary schools
  • Application Deadline: Check website for complete eligibility and application details

Success!Jeannette Rankin Foundation Scholarships

  • Scholarships for mature (age 35 or older), low-income women
  • You must be enrolled in or accepted to an accredited school in pursuit of an associate’s degree or first bachelor’s degree in a technical or vocational education
  • Application Deadline: Check website in October

Philanthropic Educational Organization (P.E.O.)

  • Program for Continuing Education: $2,000 need-based grants to women returning to school to support themselves and/or their families
  • STAR Scholarship Pilot Program: $2,500 scholarships for high school seniors to pursue postsecondary education at accredited institutions
  • International Peace Scholarship: $10,000 (maximum) scholarships for international women students pursuing graduate study in the U.S. and Canada
  • Scholar Awards: Substantial merit-based awards for pursuing a doctoral level degree or postgraduate study or research at an accredited college or university
  • Application deadline: Check website

Soroptimist Women’s Opportunity Awards

  • Scholarships (number varies): up to $10,000 each
  • For women who are the main breadwinners for their families and who have overcome challenges to return to school, to help them improve education, skills, and employment prospects
  • You must be enrolled in or have been accepted to a vocational/skills training program or an undergraduate degree program (you can’t already have an undergraduate degree)
  • Application deadline: December 1

Talbot’s Women’s Scholarship Fund

  • 60 Scholarships of $1,000 each and 6 Scholarships of $10,000 each (only applicants seeking a bachelor’s degree from a 2- or 4-year college or university are eligible for these awards)
  • For women who earned their high school diploma or GED at least 10 years ago
  • You must be seeking an undergraduate degree from an accredited 2- or 4-year college or university, or vocational-technical school
  • Application deadline: Check the website in the fall for a scholarship the following year

Possible Woman Foundation International Scholarships

  • Scholarships (number varies): approx. $2,000–$5,000
  • For stay-at-home moms entering the workforce in need of additional education/training, women returning to school after a break in their education, and women changing careers or seeking career advancement
  • Application deadline: January

American Association of University Women Career Development Grants

  • Grants: $2,000–$12,000
  • For women with a bachelor’s degree preparing to advance their careers, change careers, or re-enter the work force
  • Special consideration given to women of color and women pursuing their first advanced degree or credential in nontraditional fields
  • For pursuing master’s degree, second bachelor’s degree, or specialized training in technical or professional fields
  • Distance learning programs are eligible
  • Application deadline: December

Accounting Scholarships for Women in Transition

  • Scholarship: up to $16,000 over 4 years
  • Women in Transition and Women in Need Scholarships for women who have become the sole source of support for themselves and their family, either through divorce or death of a spouse; other circumstances also considered
  • For incoming freshmen, current freshmen, or women returning to school with a freshmen status pursuing an accounting degree
  • Application deadline: April

Royal Neighbors of America Scholarships for Women

  • Life Enrichment Scholarships for Returning Students (5): $500 each awarded to returning students over 21 and pursuing short term coursework
  • New Horizons Scholarships for Returning Students (10): $5,000 each one-time scholarships awarded to females over the age of 35
  • New Horizons Leader Scholarship for a Returning Student (1): $5,000/year for up to four years awarded to a woman over the age of 35 who goes above and beyond to volunteer in her community and achieve financial security, health and wellness
  • You must be a Royal Neighbors of America member
  • Application deadline: April

Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship

  • Scholarships: $10,000 each/year; Finalists: $1,000 award each
  • For rising seniors and graduate students enrolled fulltime in Computer Science, Computer Engineering program, or closely related technical field
  • Application Deadline: February 1

Be sure to visit each scholarship site for complete FAQ, eligibility details, and application process, and deadlines. For more scholarship opportunities for moms, see our post Single Mom Scholarships.

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Single Mom Scholarships


Even with just a quick look at the news it’s easy to see that college classes are filling up with record numbers of students this fall, and single moms are among them. Both campus and online colleges from coast to coast are bursting with enrollment, despite an increased need for financial aid.

Fortunately, the large number of older, “non-traditional” college students is beginning to get more attention these days, and student aid providers are creating more financial aid opportunities tailored to students in special circumstances. Single mom scholarships fall into this category of financial aid.

Before applying for scholarships, however, be sure to thoroughly read our section on scholarships for moms scams. Unfortunately, the business of scholarships is peppered with a couple organizations who use deceit and false promises to take money from vulnerable or unsuspecting moms.

leisure activitySingle Mom Scholarships Start with Federal Education Grants

If you’re a single mom returning to school to pursue your first college degree or career certification, and you’re within a certain income range, you’ll almost certainly qualify for need-based federal education grants such as the Pell Grant. Grants, unlike student loans, do not need to be repaid, and they’re not age-restricted. The money you’ll qualify for will depend on what year you’re in in your program and how many dependents you’re supporting, along with meeting other basic eligibility requirements.

There are federal education grants for single mothers also. To apply for these grants, you must go to the federal Student Aid on the Web site and file a FAFSA:

  • Pell Grant
  • Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)
  • Academic Competitive Grant (ACG)
  • National SMART Grant
  • TEACH Grant

State Financial Aid Agencies Also Offer Single Mom Scholarships

Most, if not all, states also offer scholarships reserved for women and single parents. Different states have financial aid programs customized with their own eligibility requirements, grant amounts, and application procedures. Find your state higher education agency at this site and see what single mom scholarship programs they offer.

Keep in mind that single mom scholarships (and single dad scholarships) are going to be need-based. All scholarships of this type will ask for proof of financial need and may also ask for proof of your being the custodial parent. Many will require you to file a FAFSA (see above).

In many cases, state single mom scholarships will actually be offered through a college or university system in the state. In addition to contacting your state higher education agency, you should contact the financial aid office of the school you want to enroll in and ask if the school offers single mom scholarships or grants.

A few examples of state and school financial aid programs for single parents include:

Single Mom Scholarships from Private Foundations & Organizations

A wide range of philanthropic and corporate foundations provide scholarships for single parents. Like the state and school scholarships above, these programs may be getting ready to open their new application season. Check their websites to see when their 2010-2011 scholarship applications will be available:

Single Mom Scholarships are a Win-Win Investment

Officials from the federal level all the way down to your town council know that helping you get valuable higher education now is a way of “paying it forward”: If your college degree or career training helps you ensure financial stability and a better life for you and your family, everyone benefits – your community, our larger society, and you.

Still not sure how to get started with finding Financial Aid? Start here:

1) 4 Ideas for Single Moms Going Back to School offers a basic back-to-college plan.

2) How to Prepare for the FAFSA: 3 Pre-FAFSA Steps provides a basic introduction to the Federal Application for Pell Grants and other federal financial aid.

3) The EducationGrant Guide to Grants & Scholarships has tips and information on:

  • Understanding the difference between grants and scholarships
  • How to apply for Pell Grants and other federal financial aid
  • Searching for state and private grants and scholarships appropriate for you
  • Some characteristics of successful applications for state and private grants and scholarships
  • Websites and addresses for more than 80 scholarships, so you can contact them
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iStock_low-paid working adultDoes the cloud of the current recession have a silver lining? Well, maybe it’s a hard look at need-based financial aid for working adults and a new spotlight on the importance of making higher education accessible to nontraditional students.

The flood of job losses has made career-oriented higher education a hot topic, and the need for effective job training programs and need-based financial aid for working adults have come together in a highly visible way. The U.S. has reached a 3-way crossroads of higher education, job training, and college cost.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported today that the new undersecretary of education, Martha Kanter, met with state higher education leaders and agreed that now is the time to coordinate education and career efforts more effectively.

What’s the best way to provide financial aid to to older students?

There are actually two parts to the discussion of financial aid for working adults.

1) The first part is education philosophy: thinking about the way higher education aligns with job training and workforce readiness. In the old days, people were apprenticed in a trade, gaining both skill expertise and knowledge of the subject.

At some point, a college education for its own sake, whether or not it included training for a specific job, became separate from apprenticeship training. And although liberal arts college education is valuable, the current economy is showing the importance of career-focused education, too.

2) The second part is public policy: creating a financial system that can help working adults who go back to school. Here’s what the Chronicle article said:

“The central question for many [working adult] students is not how they are going to be able to pay tuition itself — the focus of much current student-aid policy — but how they can afford to pay basic living expenses while classes and study are preventing them from working as many hours as they could.”

The real financial aid issue

This is the real issue in providing need-based financial aid for adults going back to school: Are the financial needs of working adults (also referred to as nontraditional students) different from those of an 18-year-old going to a 4-year university directly from high school?

If so, how do we update our existing financial aid system to help older, nontraditional students who are already in the workforce?

2 Kinds of financial aid, need-based and merit-based

In general, there are two kinds of financial aid: “need-based” and “merit-based.” A merit-based scholarship or education grant is awarded in recognition of a particular accomplishment or set of accomplishments, such as a high GPA, community service, and other measures of academic and personal success.

Need-based financial aid is awarded according to a student’s expected ability to pay education costs. Most federal education grants and student loans are need-based. Many private scholarships are adding a need-based qualification to their merit-based awards.

But for working adults, getting need-based financial aid is not as straightforward as it sounds! For one thing, if you work a lot of hours at the same time you’re in school, this can raise your income level to the point where you disqualify for a federal Pell Grant, federal Perkins loans, and subsidized Stafford loans (although even unsubsidized Stafford loans are still a better bet than private loans). So the current federal financial aid system penalizes hard-working adult students rather than supporting them.

For another, the process of applying for federal financial aid is so complicated and redundant that many potential students don’t even try, forfeiting what need-based financial aid they may actually qualify for and taking out expensive private student loans instead.

Lastly, maybe the FAFSA should have different categories of independent student. A 24-year-old with a cat but no family has different financial aid needs from a single mom with 2 small kids and no child support.

Some hope for a financial aid overhaul

The recession, the credit collapse, and the job losses we’ve endured have been a real blow to countless American families.

But take hope: one small silver lining has been President Obama’s sincere desire to make college accessible to anyone who wants higher education. Officials are taking a new look at both federal financial aid and the importance of community colleges.

Just in the last 6 months, we’ve already seen some progress made toward simplifying the FAFSA, and millions of dollars have gone to the states for career training programs. In the months ahead, keep a lookout for more new initiatives to overhaul need-based financial aid for working adults.

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