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Strategies For Non-Traditional Students Part I

By Laura DiFiore

What is a Non-Traditional Student?

Every school has its own definition of what a "non-traditional" student is, but generally a non-traditional student is:

  • An older student, usually over the age of 24 or 25.
  • A student who previously has attended college and is returning to college after a few years break.
  • A student who graduated from high school and went directly into the work force and is now attending college for the first time. The non-traditional student is the fastest growing segment of the student population. According to U.S. Census Bureau reports (October, 1996) 6.2 million college students in the United States (40.9%!) - were 25 years of age or older.
    Most definitely, the adult/re-entry, non-traditional student is not alone in our colleges and universities.
Okay, I'm a Non-Traditional Student. Now what?

1. Find A School, Determine Your Costs.

If you have not already chosen a school to attend, before you start looking for scholarships, grants, loans, and other financial aid, find a school that offers the degree program you want, and find out how much it is going to cost.

It is crucial to choose an accredited college or university. Ask your school's admission office if they are accredited. Most scholarships, state, and federal aid will not allow you to use awards at schools that are not already accredited.

It is a usually a good idea to look primarily at public colleges and universities, at least at first. They usually – not always - have lower costs and better resources for adult students than the private or technical colleges.

Consider attending a community college. I am a huge fan of community colleges. I admit I'm biased - I've attended six community colleges over the years and I've never regretted the choice!

Here are some tips to keep in mind when deciding on a college:
  • Community colleges often have good to outstanding resources for non-traditional students. They also often have partnership programs with local employers. And, you can't beat the low-cost-to-high-value ratio!
  • Consider attending part-time, especially for your first semester back after several years out of school. Attending part-time is cheaper than attending full-time. However your eligibility for scholarships will be significantly diminished and your eligibility for state and federal aid will be greatly reduced. But, attending part-time will give you a very good opportunity to determine if returning to school is what you really want to do before you commit a large amount of your time and money to it. The number one cause of failure when returning to school after a few years break is taking on too much. Many people decide to return to school and go back full-time, just to find themselves overwhelmed with the demands of their job, family, and full-time school.
  • College has changed a lot since you were last in school. And if you never went to college right after high school, you are going to be in for quite a shock. From my own experience, I strongly suggest that if you have been out of school for more than five years that you take only one or two classes your first semester. Don't set yourself up for potential failure from overloading yourself with work, family and school: Take it slow and easy, and give yourself time to re-learn how to study and what it is like to be in a classroom. It can be quite a culture shock!
2. File A FAFSA. Do This Yesterday.

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a form that almost all schools require you fill out. This form can be filled out online and is also available for free at all accredited schools' financial aid offices.

Your financial aid office should be able to help you fill out the form if you find it confusing. Do not pay to have someone fill it out or file it! Especially never pay a fee to send the form to the government. It is FREE to get this form and file it.

Why should I fill out the FAFSA?
  • The majority of aid for all students comes through the federal government in the form of loans, grants, or work-study. Aid available through the government is not restricted by your age.
  • Even if the federal government determines you are not eligible for aid, your school most likely will require you to file the FAFSA. Most schools use the information provided on the FAFSA to determine what aid they will offer you from their own funds.
  • Even if you think you earn too much money, you should file the FAFSA. Financial aid is determined using a rather complicated formula that takes into account things such as how many children you have, savings, and other assets. Fill out the FAFSA and let the financial aid office determine if you are eligible. Don't assume you are not eligible.
  • The FAFSA form is especially important to if you are a non-traditional student, since more of your aid, if any, is going to come from the government than from private scholarship sources.
  • If you have a defaulted on a student loan before, you are out of luck. You are not eligible for any forms of federal or state aid, and most schools will not provide you with funding from their own scholarship funds. But you should STILL file a FAFSA as your financial aid office may require it in order to get help you with other needs, such as helping you with scholarship applications or working with your student loan lender. But if you have a defaulted student loan, the best thing you can do may be to consider delaying going back to school for another year or so and pay off the loan. Or get it back into "repayment" status (instead of "defaulted" status).
3. Check With Your City, County and State About Available Programs.

Ask your city, county or state government about "retraining" programs, especially if you have recently been laid-off or downsized out of your job. Most retraining programs are designed to be used only to update your skills or for certificate or two year programs, but they are usually flexible and sometimes can be used to achieve a bachelor's degree.

Are you over 60 years of age? Ask about free tuition! Most community colleges and many state colleges and universities offer free tuition to residents who are senior citizens. You will still have to pay for related fees and books, but free tuition is a huge benefit.


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