Financial Aid for Adult Learners

First of all, what is an adult learner or non-traditional student? It seems like a pretty straghtforward thing to define, but it can be confusing. An adult learner or non-traditional student is generally any undergraduate student who isn't between 17 and 24 years old. Students who are 24 or older at the time they file the FAFSA are independent students for the purposes of filing for federal financial aid. All that means is that you will only supply your (and your spouse's if married) financial information when you complete the FAFSA.

Although there are lots of differences between adults returning to college or starting for the first time and traditional students, as far as financial aid is concerned, the steps are pretty much the same.

Start with the Flowchart

Before you get started, we encourage you to visit our financial aid flowchart to help you determine what kind of financial aid you should be seeking, and in what order. The infographic helps adult students figure out the most fiscally responsible path to finding money for college just by answering a few basic questions that require just "yes" or "no" answers.

Financial Aid Flowchart

The questions are simply there to help you navigate and explore the various college funding options that apply to your unique situation and background. With each response, you’ll be taken to the next source of financial aid that is the most relevant to you. Once you understand your options, you can come back here to read up on how to get started with the application processes associated with each.

The Basics

First and foremost, file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even as an adult student, the FAFSA determines your eligibility for financial aid whether you do or do not have financial need. It is also your application for federal student loans should you wish to include federal financing in your plan. At the very least and provided you meet the usual requirements, you will be eligible to borrow an Direct Unsubsidized Loan. If you are offered a federal student loan in your financial aid award letter, you don't have to accept it if you don't need it. Either way, you've done the paperwork and it will be there if and when you do need it.

However, you may also be eligible for federal grant assistance if you have financial need. Programs such as the Pell grant and SEOG are available to non-traditional students that qualify. Plus, some states and outside scholarship agencies will use your FAFSA results to determine your eligibility for their awards.

Sometimes the paperwork can seem overwhelming, but it's just one of those things you need to take care–just like filing income taxes. Unlike income taxes though, this paperwork can reduce your cost of attaining your dream of a higher education.

Filing the FAFSA

Obtain a PIN at the PIN Site (you'll use your PIN to electronically sign your FAFSA) and complete your FAFSA online as soon after January 1st of the year in which you will need funding as possible. The FAFSA website will guide you through the process and there is plenty of help right there if you need it.

It will be easier to fill out the FAFSA if you have these items handy:

  • Your Social Security card and driver's license
  • Your W-2 Forms or other records of earned-income (and your spouse's, if you are married) federal income tax return.
  • Your federal income tax return
  • Records of other untaxed income you received, including welfare benefits, social security benefits, TANF, veteran's benefits, and military or clergy allowances
  • Your current bank statements and records of stocks, bonds, and other investments
  • Your business or farm records, if applicable
  • Your alien registration card (if you are not a U.S. citizen)

If you or your spouse have not completed federal income tax returns yet, you can estimate using your W-2 or final pay stub(s) from your prior year's employment along with your bank statements. Once your taxes are done, you will be able to go back and correct your FAFSA.

If your taxes are done, the FAFSA can import your tax information directly into the form from the IRS. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool if at all possible. It will make applying easier and ensure your form is completed accurately.

Other Applications You May Need to File
CSS/Financial Aid Profile™

Some private schools require the CSS/Financial Aid Profile. You can check here to see if your school is one of them. A few scholarship programs require the Profile as well and you will find them on that list. The CSS Profile is processed by the College Board on behalf of its member schools that require it. The Profile will delve deeper into your financial situation and your school will use that data to help them determine your eligibility for institutional assistance (money from the college). If your school requires it, pay careful attention to when you must submit your application.

Institutional Aid Applications

Your school may ask you to provide supplemental information on a form they will send to you. Be diligent in responding to any communication from the college and complete any requests for additional information from your school as soon as possilbe.

Follow-up Forms

Once the college has received your FAFSA data, they may still need additional information to complete your award. This process is called "verification". If you are selected for verification, the school will request that you fill out a Verification Worksheet, and ask you to provide copies of your and your spouse's (if applicable) federal income tax returns W-2's and any other income statements (e.g. 1099's).

Warning: the college will not processyour financial aid, without this additional documentation.

If you plan on accepting Stafford or Perkins loans, you will also need to complete promissory notes. The college you attend will provide you with specific information on how to complete this part of the process.

Read everything the college sends you carefully and respond to requests promptly. If you have questions or don't understand something, call the financial aid office and ASK! They'll be more than happy to provide a helping hand. Finally, remember, you'll have to re-apply every year.

Financial Aid Eligibility

Because there's a lot that goes into determining your financial aid eligibility, we wrote a whole section on how it's determined and what types of financial aid are available. Make sure you check with your employer to see if they offer any form of tuition reimbursement as part of their benefits. Learn more about financial aid eligibility and types of aid.