You may be under the impression that financial aid is only for students who go straight from high school to college. Fortunately, you’re under the wrong impression. There is no age limit to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and there are scholarships directed specifically at returning and adult students. If you’re employed, you may even be able to receive financial aid through your employer. Read on to learn about the options you have for funding your education.


Compare all of the programs in which you are interested.

  • Find out if your chosen institutions are nonprofit or for-profit. Nonprofit institutions are generally cheaper than for-profit institutions since for-profit schools tend to raise their prices to combat their student’s federal financial aid packages. Nonprofit schools are also likely to offer discounts to in-state students, lowering the cost of attendance.
  • Compare prices of online programs with in-person programs. Though it may seem like an online program would be cheaper, this may not always be the case. If your prospective institution is online-only, compare the cost of attendance to a brick-and-mortar institution that offers online classes. You may find that one is cheaper than the other, despite the programs being the same.
  • Compare the length of each program you’re considering. If one program is longer, but the credential is the same, do a cost comparison. Is it because one program is part-time but the other is full-time? Is it because you’re earning credits for prior knowledge at one school but not the other? Remember, if your enrollment falls below half-time, you will no longer be eligible for your full financial aid package. It may be worth it to go full-time for a shorter period than lose some of your financial aid money because you want to stretch out the length of the program.
  • If you have previous postsecondary credits, find out if your prospective school will count them toward your degree. This will save you both time and money and prevent you from having to retake any courses that you’ve already completed.
  • Estimate your out-of-pocket costs at each of the schools you're considering. While this calculation won't give you an exact number, it will give you a ballpark figure that you can use to make your final decision. It takes into account a school's cost of attendance, the amount of federal financial aid you might receive, how much of your financial need a school is committed to meeting, and any scholarships you have received.

Apply for federal financial aid.

Your first stop for financial aid is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the FAFSA. There is no age limit to the FAFSA, and filling it out ensures that you are put into the running for federal financial aid. The FAFSA, which is available on October 1 each year, allows you to share information about your financial situation with the U.S. Department of Education. From there, the FAFSA calculates your expected family contribution, or the amount of money that you will have to pay out of pocket toward your education.

Once schools have received your results, they will determine your financial aid packages. Some schools meet 100% of your financial need (the difference between the cost of attendance at that school and your expected family contribution), while others have fewer funds available to them for financial aid. Your packages may differ between schools, but they may include:

  • Grants: Grants are free money. They do not need to be repaid.
  • Work-study: The federal work-study program provides students with campus-based employment that pays at least minimum wage in return for part-time work.
  • Loans: Loans are given to you by the U.S. Department of Education. This money must be repaid with interest.

Consider other sources of aid.

  • Institutional financial aid: Check to see if your school requires the CSS Profile, a financial application similar to the FAFSA that may be needed to calculate your financial aid package. Consider also talking to an admissions officer at your institution to learn more about institutional-based aid. Colleges often offer scholarships to competitive applicants. You may have to apply for these scholarships, or you may apply automatically by submitting your college application. Ask the following questions:
    • Does this school offer institutional aid?
    • Is institutional aid need- or merit-based?
    • What percentage of financial need does the school meet?
    • Are there institutional scholarships that are particular to my situation (as an adult, returning student, parent, etc.)?
    • How does one apply for institutional aid, and what are the deadlines?
    • Will the school match competing financial aid offers from other schools?
  • State financial aid: State aid comes from your state instead of the federal government or your school. Reduced tuition rates for in-state students fall under this category of financial aid, and typically, state aid is limited to students who are attending in-state schools. Use this map to learn more about grant and scholarship programs offered in your state.
  • Regional financial aid: Regional aid is applicable to students who want to pursue specific degrees that are not offered by any schools in their home states but are offered in a neighboring state. In these cases, students may be able to receive in-state or discounted tuition at out-of-state schools. Learn about regional aid here.
  • Employer-sponsored financial aid: If you are a working adult, you may be eligible for financial aid from your current employer in the form of tuition assistance. The IRS specifies that employers can set aside $5,250 in tax-free funds each year for each employee if they choose to do so. Learn more here.

Claim educational tax credits when you file your taxes.

As an adult student who is not considered a dependent, it’s worth looking into federal educational tax credits. The Lifetime Learning Credit provides up to $2,000 in tax breaks if you enroll in at least one class at an accredited postsecondary school. If your income is lower than $131,000 (filing jointly) or $65,000 (filing single), you can claim this credit for as many years as you are taking courses. If you have not yet received a bachelor’s degree and are beginning a program, you may qualify for the American Opportunity Credit which provides up to $2,500 in tax credits per student for up to four years. Individuals must have income less than $90,000 and couples filing jointly must have income below $180,000. For more information on tax credits, read this article.

Research private scholarships.

Private scholarships are not only available to students who are entering college right after high school graduation. In fact, there are specialty scholarships aimed at returning and adult students, veterans, parents, adult minorities, and low-income adults. A quick scholarship search on FastWeb or Scholarships.com may yield plenty of results. There are several scholarship programs for adult students listed below, as well.

For veterans, current service members, and military dependents:

  • American Veterans National Scholarship Program: These scholarships are available to veterans and active duty military service members with financial need. They provide between $1,000 and $3,000 annually for up to four years or a single $1,000 award.
  • Military Order of the Purple Heart Scholarship: This scholarship is available for Purple Heart recipients as well as their spouses, widows, and dependents. Applicants must not already have completed undergraduate degrees.
  • Pat Tillman Foundation Scholars Program: This program offers scholarships to active duty service members looking to begin or continue their college education as well as veterans and spouses who are enrolled full-time. Awards are both merit- and need-based.

For parents:

  • Soroptimist Live Your Dream Awards: Scholarships are available for women who support any dependents (spouse, children, siblings, or parents) and are enrolled in vocational or undergraduate degree programs. Awards range from $3,000 to $10,000.
  • The Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Foundation: This scholarship offers up to $5,000 to low-income mothers as they work to achieve their higher education goals. Students must be enrolled in nonprofit, accredited institutions and be pursuing vocational certificates, associate’s degrees, first-time bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, or professional or doctoral degrees.
  • Many opportunities for student parents are at the institutional, not national, level. Check with your institution to see if there are scholarships for which you may be eligible.

For adult minorities:

  • Dr. Blanca Moore-Velez Woman of Substance Scholarship: This scholarship is available to African American women who are at least 35 years old and enrolled in accredited institutions. There is an essay required as part of the application.
  • Hispanic Scholarship Fund: This fund grants scholarships to Hispanic students. There are scholarships for all levels of education: college undergraduates, graduate students, and community college transfers. Students must be enrolled full-time at accredited nonprofit institutions. Scholarships range from $500 to $5,000 and are awarded based on financial need.
  • Selected Professions Fellowships: These are available for women who are entering male-dominated fields. Applicants must pursue full-time enrollment during the fellowship year in one of the designated programs. Awards range from $5,000 to $18,000.

For low-income adults:

  • Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund: This fund provides scholarships for women who are at least 35 years old. Applicants must be pursuing vocational education, associate’s degrees, or first-time bachelor’s degrees at regionally or ACICS-accredited institutions.
  • Adult Students in Scholastic Transition: Scholarships are available to adult students who are challenged economically, physically, or socially and want to improve their situations by furthering their education. Scholarships range from $2,000 to $10,000.

This list intends to give you an idea of the private scholarship options that are available. It is not all-inclusive, and you should perform scholarship searches on your own to find the most compatible options.

Take out private loans as a last resort.

Private loans must be repaid. The federal loans offered to you through the FAFSA and your financial aid package are almost always going to be a better deal than private loans,. Private loans tend to have very high interest rates and less flexible repayment plans compared to federal loans. Private loans may not be eligible for loan forgiveness or direct consolidation. It is okay to turn to private loans if you’ve exhausted all other sources of financial aid, but don’t take out any more money than you absolutely need.

Page last updated: 07/2017