Many scholarship and fellowship programs do not have age restrictions, and there are no age restrictions on eligibility for federal student financial aid. Older students should conduct a search for aid just like younger students.
College Aid for Older Students
Although many schools restrict eligibility for the school’s own financial aid programs to the first Bachelor’s degree, some schools will waive the restrictions when the student is an adult returning to school to earn a second degree in preparation for a career change. According to data from the 2015-2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), non-traditional students are more likely to receive the Pell Grant than traditional students, but less likely to receive private scholarships.
Non-traditional students are more likely to be pursuing a Certificate or Associate’s degree than traditional students, and less likely to be pursuing a Bachelor’s degree. A little more than a third (35.8%) of non-traditional students are pursuing a Bachelor’s degree, compared with nearly three-fifths (58.6%) of traditional students.
Many colleges offer free tuition to senior citizens who wish to audit classes and significantly reduced tuition for classes taken for credit. The senior citizen must be a state resident and meet age thresholds (usually 60+, 62+ or 65+). In some cases there may be income limits (e.g., less than $15,000 in income during the previous year). Free tuition for auditing classes is usually only on a space-available basis. States which offer statewide tuition waivers at public colleges include Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Washington DC. In some cases the free tuition is only available at specific public colleges or only at community colleges. Fees may or may not be waived. The student must still buy his or her own textbooks.
People age 55 and older who volunteer may receive education awards of up to $1,000 for 350 hours of volunteer service through the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. These awards may be used for the volunteer’s own education or transferred to a child, foster child or grandchild.
Federal Student Aid
Non-traditional students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid just like younger students.
Federal student aid generally does not have any age restrictions. The main exception is the Coverdell Education Savings Account, which requires the funds to be used by the time the beneficiary reaches age 30. Section 529 college savings plans, on the other hand, do not have any such age restrictions.
There are, however, restrictions based on educational background. A student who has already earned a bachelor’s degree or first professional degree is no longer considered an undergraduate student and is ineligible for the Pell Grant. (There is an exception for postbaccalaureate programs necessary for teacher certification or licensing credentials as required by the state.) However, such a student is still eligible for federal education loans and work-study.
Students who are age 24 or older as of December 31 of the award year are considered automatically independent. Independent undergraduate students are eligible for increased unsubsidized Stafford loan limits — an additional $4,000 per year during the freshman and sophomore years and an additional $5,000 per year during the junior and later years — since their parents cannot borrow from the PLUS loan program. This yields annual loan limits of $7,500 during the freshman year, $8,500 during the sophomore year, and $10,500 during the junior and later years. The aggregate limit increases by $23,000 for a total of $46,000. Graduate and professional students are eligible for up to $20,500 in Stafford loans per year, no more than $8,500 of which can be subsidized. They are also eligible for the Grad PLUS loan.
Non-traditional students who will be quitting a job to go back to school should ask the college financial aid office for a “professional judgment” review to adjust the income from prior tax year income to estimated award year income.
If you are currently employed, ask your employer’s human resources office about the availability of employer tuition assistance. About 7/8 of large employers provide some form of tuition assistance. Up to $5,250 in such assistance is excluded from gross income (in some cases more). They may require you to keep working or agree to work for the company for a set number of years after graduation. They may require you to maintain a minimum GPA in order to get the assistance. Often the assistance is provided as a reimbursement after the fact, so you’ll need to budget for your cash flow needs.
Unfortunately, many non-traditional students will find that the colleges are less willing to adjust for other expenses, such as married student housing, supporting a family or providing family health insurance. This is why many families will have one spouse working while the other is in school, and then switch off so that the other spouse can earn a degree later.
Even though non-traditional students may be eligible for increased loan limits, they should avoid over borrowing. Do not borrow more than your expected starting salary after you graduate. It may be tempting to borrow more for your living costs, but this will make it more difficult for you to repay the debt after you graduate.