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Many resources geared toward college students focus on traditional students, who enroll after high school and live on campus. But they’re not the only attendees.
For a large percentage of students enrolled at universities across the country, the college experience looks much different. In 2019-20, slightly more than a quarter of first-time college graduates were 25 or older at graduation, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. For these people, the student loan process looks a little different, too.
Here’s what nontraditional college students need to know about student loans and financial aid.
What Is a Nontraditional Student?
A “traditional” student is someone who attends college straight out of high school or shortly thereafter, usually living in a dorm or an on-campus apartment.
- While many experts now consider the term outdated, a “nontraditional” student is generally in one or more of the following groups:
- 24 or older
- Living at home and commuting to college
- Returning to school after dropping out
- Single parent
- Already in the workforce
- Attending school part-time
Nontraditional students are often independent students, which is an official term used by the Department of Education. Independent students qualify for higher student loan limits than dependent students. They also don’t have to use their parent’s financial information when applying for federal financial aid.
To be considered an independent student, you must be one of the following:
- 24 or older
- Attending a professional or graduate school
- Veteran or current member of the military
- Orphan or a ward of the court
- Have legal dependents other than a spouse
- Emancipated minor
- Homeless or at risk of becoming homeless
Independent students are eligible for the same types of financial aid as dependent students, including student loans, grants, scholarships and work-study.
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Scholarships Available to Nontraditional Students
Nontraditional students can apply for both need-based and merit scholarships.
How to Qualify for a Nontraditional Student Scholarship
“The first place that nontraditional students should search for scholarships is in their own backyard or local community, including local nonprofit organizations, businesses and industry groups,” says Ashley Hill, a scholarship search strategist and creator of the Scholarship Success School.
There are many scholarships available specifically for nontraditional students. Students can search for scholarships on the following sites:
Many sites let you filter search results to focus on scholarships for nontraditional, independent or alternative students, but don’t limit yourself to those categories. Try to apply for as many scholarships as possible to reduce the amount of loans you have to borrow.
What to Know About Financial Aid as a NonTraditional Student
Like any other student, you must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for federal financial aid, including student loans. The FAFSA will ask for information related to your income and assets, like how much money you have in your bank and investment accounts and your annual earnings.
Many universities also require students who wish to be considered for scholarships and grants to fill out the FAFSA.
After you submit the FAFSA, the Department of Education will review it and send a copy to the colleges you applied to. Then, each university will determine how much financial aid you qualify for. Make sure to compare financial aid offers among colleges to see which offers more aid.
If you don’t receive enough aid, you can always file an appeal and request more. Appeals are more likely to be successful if you can prove that your financial situation has worsened since you applied.
The crucial difference when filling out the FAFSA as an independent student is that you don’t need to provide your parent’s financial information. When you’re a dependent student coming out of high school, in most cases your parent’s finances are used to decide the amount and what kind of financial aid you’re eligible for. But when you’re an independent student, the government only asks for your personal financial details.
You have to complete the FAFSA each year you’re enrolled, and the financial aid amount may differ from year to year if your circumstances have changed. For example, if you have a child, you may qualify for more financial aid because you’ve added a legal dependent.
How to Qualify for Student Loans
Federal student loans are only available to those who fill out the FAFSA. Some federal student loan types, called subsidized loans, are only available to students with the most financial need. But unsubsidized federal student loans are available to everyone.
Independent students can receive up to $57,500 in total in undergraduate federal loans and $138,500 in total for graduate or professional loans. These limits are higher than those for dependent students.
If you max out the federal student loan limit, a parent can take out a parent PLUS loan, which is a federal loan program that has higher interest rates and fees than other types. You can also apply for a private student loan.
Private Student Loans
Private student loans have higher loan limits than federal loans and don’t require you to fill out the FAFSA. They also tend to have higher interest rates and fewer benefits, like income-driven repayment programs and deferment options. For this reason, max out federal loans before applying for private loans.
Most private student loan companies will require a co-signer, another person who is legally responsible for the loan if you can no longer pay. The co-signer can be anyone you know, like a parent, family friend or partner. They usually need a credit score of around 660 or higher and a stable income to qualify.
How to Qualify for Grants
Nontraditional students interested in state or federal grants have to fill out the FAFSA to qualify.
Some states offer special grants for independent or nontraditional students. For example, Indiana provides a grant for adult students who have some college credits but never finished a degree. These students can receive up to $2,000 annually.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators offers a searchable list of state grants. Most state grants are only available if you’re attending school in-state, but some states may provide a grant even if you’re heading out of state.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students are not eligible for federal student loans, but they can qualify for state-based grants and university scholarships. This depends on the state and its particular rules.
The federal grant program only offers awards based on need. The Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) are the most common options.
The Pell Grant is available to undergraduate students and students enrolled in a postgrad teacher certification program. Students enrolling for the 2021-22 year can receive up to $6,495.
The FSEOG program is available for undergraduates and pays up to $4,000 annually. Students can receive both a Pell Grant and FSEOG award the same year.
Veterans who have served 90 days or more on active duty can use the GI Bill to pay for undergraduate, graduate or professional studies. The GI Bill covers all tuition, room and board and fees for in-state institutions. Veterans who attend a private or for-profit school will receive a certain amount of aid per year. As of 2021, the figure is $24,476.79.
How to Qualify for Work-Study
Nontraditional students who fill out the FAFSA may qualify for work-study, a type of federal financial aid program. The program is only available for students with a demonstrated financial need.
Colleges distribute work-study assignments on a first-come, first served basis. Typical jobs include working at the campus library or recreation center. You get a regular paycheck and can use the funds for any expenses including housing, transportation, groceries and more.
Students are limited to working 20 hours a week, but most jobs only assign between 10 and 15 hours a week. You can always work another off-campus job to supplement your work-study income.