A Beginner's Guide to Grants and Scholarships for Adult Students

A Beginner’s Guide to Grants and Scholarships for Adult Students

Going to college is a huge investment in yourself—and that’s true whether you’re fresh out of high school or well-established in the daily routine of a working adult. Like with any substantial investment, you want to make sure you have a good handle on the options available to you as you work through how you’re going to afford it.

Grants, scholarships and other forms of financial aid can sometimes be a confusing subject to contend with, and it’s only natural to have questions. What are some of the types of financial aid options available? How are they different from one another? Are non-traditional students still eligible? To help you answer some of these questions, we’ve pulled together a helpful resource laying out some of the basics of financial aid so you can proceed with confidence.

Types of financial aid for adult students

There are four basic types of financial aid for college students:

  1. Grants: A form of financial aid (often awarded based on need) that generally doesn’t need to be repaid.
  2. Scholarships: Aid offered by an organization usually given based on merit or other relevant criteria (ex: being enrolled in a nursing program to receive scholarship funds from a nursing professional organization).
  3. Work-study jobs: A need-based program that uses government funding to cover part-time work related to community service or a student’s area of study. This money must be used on education expenses. 
  4. Federally subsidized loans: This refers to money borrowed from a lending institution to cover education expenses. These funds must be repaid along with any accrued interest, but typically come with more favorable terms than private loans.

Can you be eligible for a scholarship if you’re not a high school student?

The short answer is yes! While many scholarships and grants may (understandably) seem geared toward high school students, it’s not always a requirement. Some scholarship opportunities are even specifically targeted to assist older students—so don’t assume you’ll be out of luck. It will take some digging to find a good fit, but most scholarships have clear eligibility criteria listed. If you’re planning on attending college as a part-time student, you’ll want to pay special attention to enrollment status requirements, as many may stipulate the need for recipients to remain enrolled full-time.

Where to find scholarships and aid

1. Employer-based aid

While not every employer offers tuition reimbursement or other direct education aid to their employees, these offerings can be an appealing option for employers looking to retain and attract employees.

The criteria for these programs will vary depending on the employer. Eligibility conditions may depend on factors like how long the applicant has been employed, whether the coursework is relevant to a particular career path or a commitment to stay with the company for the entirety of the term.

Disbursement of funds can vary, as some companies may award the funding outright while others may require the employee to pay for tuition and then be reimbursed if all conditions are met. Be sure to investigate the specific conditions of the agreement before signing up.

2. Your school’s financial aid office

While your first thought may be to seek out aid from external sources, do not sleep on the prospect of working with your school’s financial aid office. There’s an entire team of professionals who help students navigate financial aid questions every day. They can help explain your options for financial aid and point you in the direction of aid programs you may not know about. 

3. Professional and community organizations

Another avenue to explore is through local and national community organizations. If you’re already affiliated with a religious organization, civic club or other local organization, it’s worth taking the time to investigate. While not every local organization can offer up huge amounts of aid, every little bit helps!

Another worthwhile option to explore is with professional organizations that are aligned with your chosen area of study—some are eager to replenish their ranks and will set aside scholarship funding for up-and-comers.

4. Scholarship search engines

You’ll find many scholarship search engines out there that can help you find scholarships geared toward helping adult students. These sites typically allow you to specifically search for scholarships based on key criteria. A few effective examples include:

Remember to be careful with giving out your personal information before confirming the validity of the organization offering the scholarship.

Federal aid for adult students

Aside from pursuing scholarship opportunities, adult students (like all eligible students) can apply for aid through federal and state governments by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can submit the application online as soon as you start considering college. Some forms of federal financial aid are actually first-come, first-serve, so don’t procrastinate!

While there’s no age limit for applying via FAFSA, some grants are limited to students pursuing their first Bachelor’s degree like the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) grant and the TEACH grant.

Federal vs. private student loans

Another common avenue for financing your education is to take out a loan. Both the federal government and private lenders can offer student loans, but there are some distinctions to note.

Private lenders have more latitude with the terms and conditions offered, while the federal loans have fixed-interest rate terms defined by law. Typically, private loans have higher interest rates and borrowers are not eligible for income-based repayment plans or other federal loan forgiveness plans.

While it may be worth looking into private loan options through your bank or credit union in some circumstances, you’ll likely want to first get familiar with the types of federal loans you may qualify for:

  • Direct Subsidized Loan: A loan for undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. The U.S. Department of Education pays the interest on these loans while the student is enrolled at least half-time, during the six-month grace period after graduation and during periods of loan deferment.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan: A loan for undergraduate students or graduate students. Unlike direct subsidized loans, all accrued interest must be paid by the student.
  • Direct PLUS Loan: A loan for graduate and professional students that includes all accrued interest.

Get the ball rolling

While it’s true that there’s a lot to get sorted out when it comes to paying for college, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own. Rasmussen University offers a variety of informational financial aid resources, including a tuition estimator tool, that can help get you on track.

Looking for more? Our article “Your Most Pressing Financial Aid Questions Answered” can help tackle some of the top financial aid questions you may have.

Sallie Mae is a registered trademark of Salle Mae Corporation.

About the author

Kirsten Slyter

Kirsten is a Content Writer at Collegis Education where she enjoys researching and writing on behalf of Rasmussen University. She understands the difference that education can make and hopes to inspire readers at every stage of their education journey.


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