Students contemplating a return to college know that more education can yield higher earnings, a better job, and an improved quality of life.
The financial concerns of the immediate moment—debt, childcare, the cost of tuition, the potential for losing wages from missed work—may be strong deterrents. About half of adult students take on debt to pay their tuition and other expenses. Despite this challenge, most adults say that a return to college is worth it.
You don’t have to save for years to afford college. Navigating the financial aid system does require some skill and time, so commit to exploring all options to put together a package that covers your tuition and expenses without upending your finances.
Financial aid refers to a wide variety of support programs, including scholarships, government and private grants, financial assistance from an employer, loans, and work-study benefits. Most students are eligible for some type of financial aid, even if they don’t have great credit or an outstanding academic record. You may need to cobble together several small financial aid awards, blend debt and grants, or dig into local organizations that assist students in your field. A little diligence may mean paying little or nothing out of pocket.
Types of Financial Aid
Students can choose from a wide range of financial aid options if they begin their search early enough. Most financial aid packages fall into one of the following categories:
A grant is a financial award that does not have to be repaid. In general, grants must pay for the direct costs of school, such as tuition and fees, first. Thereafter, a student can use excess funds for living expenses.
The Federal Pell Grant is one of the best-known options. Students whose family income is less than $50,000 per year are eligible, with a maximum award of $6,195 for the 2019-2020 school year. To be eligible for a Pell Grant, you’ll have to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
You are not eligible for a Pell Grant if:
Part-time students are generally eligible for Pell Grants. The total award may be prorated to the number of course hours in which a student is enrolled.
The Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant (OTAG) is a similar program for Oklahoma residents who attend eligible Oklahoma schools. This is a need-based grant, so the total award depends on a student’s family income. SNU students are eligible for an award of $1,300. Students must complete a FAFSA by December 1 of the year preceding enrollment to qualify for OTAG.
While OTAG and Pell are popular options, there are dozens of other grants. Students who complete the FAFSA may also be eligible for the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. Local organizations, national associations, and private corporations may also offer grants. If you’re a member of an organization or part of a special interest group, consider beginning your grant search there.
A loan is a financial award that must be repaid. Although it’s possible to get a private loan from a bank or credit union, most students begin their loan search through the federal government, which offers a number of loans. Students with demonstrated financial need are eligible for federally subsidized loans.
Subsidized loans are loans that the federal government subsidizes so that they do not accrue interest while the student is in school. Unsubsidized loans do accrue interest, which means you may accumulate more debt. Unlike grants and scholarships, there are usually no limitations on how you spend the loan funds. The money is awarded directly to your student account. After you’ve paid for tuition and related direct educational expenses, you’ll be able to use additional funds as you see fit.
To begin your search for a federal loan, complete the FAFSA. You’ll receive information about which subsidized and unsubsidized loans you might be eligible for. Because subsidized loans are more affordable, only accept an unsubsidized loan when subsidized loans are insufficient to pay the total costs.
Federal loans offer many benefits, including a fixed interest rate that can prevent your debt from ballooning. Though interest rates vary from loan to loan and year to year, interest rates for the 2019-2020 school year range from 4.53% to 7.08%.
To be eligible for a federal loan, you must:
Federal loans are the superior option for most students. However, some students may not meet the eligibility requirements. Others may need more funds to cover tuition and other costs. If you hit the federal loan limit, you will also be unable to get more loans, even if you otherwise qualify.
Some students may be interested in using their loans to fund a second degree. As long as you otherwise meet financial aid requirements, you should be able to fund multiple degrees.
If federal loans don’t meet your financial needs or you are ineligible for such loans, you may be able to apply for a private loan. These loans function more like traditional loans. You’ll apply directly through a bank or credit union, and the award will be based on your credit, income, and similar criteria. These loans offer less favorable interest rates and terms, so max out your federal loan options before pursuing a private loan. Then research each loan provider to get the best possible terms.
Scholarships are financial awards that you do not have to repay. They’re usually based on academic merit or performance. In some cases, you might have to join an organization or be part of a specific group. For example, Oklahoma’s large indigenous population should explore tribal and American Indian scholarships. Some choices include:
Scholarships are generally contingent on specific academic results. You may need to maintain a certain GPA, take a predetermined number of classes each semester, or make sufficient progress toward graduation each year.
Assistantships offer a great opportunity to get involved at school while getting cash for college. Undergraduates can pursue campus jobs that allow them to work just a few doors away from their classes. Graduate students can often help fund the costs of their coursework with graduate teaching assistant roles.
For adult learners, jobs on campus may be impractical, especially when taking courses online. SNU sometimes offers on-campus jobs during the day for students have time. These jobs offer valuable experience, and may help you network with leaders in your field who might hire you when you graduate. You’re guaranteed at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and receive direct deposit payments.
To be eligible for a work-study job, you must first complete the FAFSA and indicate you are interested in the program. SNU posts campus work for students on its website at http://snu.edu/student-employment.
Your return to school may offer tangible benefits to your employer. You’ll gain new skills, network with other professionals, and potentially bring useful new ideas back to the office. Many employers, especially larger companies, recognize this value and offer tuition reimbursement programs. Ask your HR department about tuition assistance and whether you need to apply or pursue a specific degree to qualify.
*Although undocumented students do not qualify for federal grants or loans, they may be eligible to receive state or college-funded aid. Learn more about financial aid options for undocumented students here.
What Does Filling out a FAFSA Entail?
For students who choose to apply for federal financial aid, the process begins with completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The application asks about your current sources of income and requires details about your tax returns dating back two years. You’ll also need to answer questions about additional sources of funding, such as gifts from relatives. You will need to create an account with the Department of Education to complete this application online and track its progress.
To complete their FAFSA, most students need:
You will also need to create a Federal Student Aid ID on the Department of Education website.
Some students who complete FAFSA documents are selected for a verification process. When this happens, you must supply additional paperwork to your school’s financial aid office. In most cases, this paperwork will be the same paperwork you used to complete your FAFSA, such as tax returns or bank statements.
To apply for additional aid, such as scholarships, you may need similar information. You’ll also probably need copies of your previous college transcripts. Some scholarships require you to write an essay or complete an interview, so set aside time to finish the entire application well before the deadline.
Which Option Is Right for Me?
Many students returning to school mistakenly believe that they will not qualify for financial aid. This is especially common among adult learners who have previous academic debts or who have a history of student loan default.
Even if you have previously defaulted on a loan, you can become eligible for federal aid by entering loan rehabilitation and making regular payments. And a federal loan default won’t necessarily affect your eligibility for private grants and scholarships.
Additionally, many adult students pursuing graduate degrees don’t realize that they also qualify for aid. Although most federal loans are in fact for undergraduate degrees, there are certain loans, such as the graduate PLUS loan and the Direct Unsubsidized Loan, that can also be used to fund graduate school.
You might worry that completing a FAFSA is too difficult or time-consuming. For most SNU students, the process is easy and straightforward. Our financial aid office can even help you complete the form in person or over the phone and assist you in figuring out how and where to get any supplemental materials the form might require, such as tax returns.
No single financial aid option works for every student. Some factors to weigh as you explore your options include:
Debt. Many adult students already have debt from previous student loans, as well as mortgage, car, or credit card debt. Ensure you’re comfortable taking on more debt and can afford the monthly payments upon graduation, even if you end up in a job that doesn’t pay much more than your current role.
Hidden costs. Some adults who can afford tuition out of pocket or who have access to employer assistance programs think they don’t need financial aid. Don’t be fooled. For returning students, higher education usually presents a number of hidden costs. You might have to pay for childcare, outsource some home management tasks, or take a pay cut at work for a more flexible schedule. The right student aid package can help you fund these costs.
Academic requirements. If you qualify for a scholarship or for some grants, you may need to move at a specific speed toward your degree. Weigh whether this is realistic for you given your current obligations.
How Is Financial Aid Different for Adult Students?
For students enrolling in college fresh out of high school, the FAFSA can feel daunting. It may be the first time they’ve thought about family finances. They might never before have seen a tax return or thought about how far their families’ income can go.
Adults are at an advantage here because they’ve probably filed their own taxes for many years and know where to find important financial documents. It’s a myth that there’s an age limit on financial aid. Indeed, you might actually be eligible for more aid now than you were as an incoming freshman years ago.
Some important things to know about filing for financial aid as an adult:
How Much Financial Aid Can I Get?
The federal government limits the amount of aid each student can receive per year and in total. Need-based financial aid is limited to the total cost of attendance, which includes expenses like tuition and books, as well as room and board.
The amount of total aid you can get from a FAFSA application is also limited, though the limit changes each year. The limits are as follows:
"Private loans do not have a consistent limit. Instead, your award may be limited by your credit and ability to repay the loan. "
There is no legal limit on the amount of financial aid you can get when combining aid from different sources. This means that even if you hit the limit for financial aid from the federal government, you may still be eligible for private grants, employer tuition reimbursement, or scholarships. Both types of loans are limited to the total estimated cost of attendance—a figure that includes direct costs such as tuition, books, and fees, as well as indirect expenses such as housing, transportation, and food.
What Are My Repayment Options?
Budgeting for student loans can prove difficult when you’re unsure how much money you’ll make in the future. So err on the side of caution, taking out only as many loans as you need to fund your education. The U.S. Department of Education offers a wide range of loan repayment options.
Helpful Resources and Links
How Does SNU Help?
When you enroll at SNU, we do everything we can to help you succeed. That begins with supporting you as you navigate the myriad challenges of funding your education.
We don’t think paperwork should be a barrier to the education and career you deserve, so we can help you fill out your FAFSA, in person or on the phone. We’re also here to answer questions and guide you through the verification process.
College is expensive, but it offers significant value. Depending on your age and demographic group, you can earn a million dollars more in your lifetime with a bachelor’s degree than you would without one. That extra money is worth the small price of filling out a FAFSA and researching aid options. We’re here to help. Contact us today to get started.