Traditional student: An individual who becomes a full-time college student right after high school graduation.

Nontraditional student: Just about everyone else.

That’s how U.S. News & World Report defines the rapidly growing population of adult learners returning to school. If you’re among the 40 percent of college students age 25 or older returning to college for a degree (the National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent numbers from 2014), you might be grappling with an array of concerns that your younger classmates don’t share. Whether you’re a single parent, returning veteran, working professional looking to advance your career, or a middle-aged empty-nester who yearns to get that degree at long last — you’re probably wondering where the time, energy, and money will come from. You’re not alone.

The Education Commission of the United States cites a survey of adult students from the 2015-16 academic year in which researchers found that some needs specific to adult learners include:

  • Course offering flexibility.
  • More course offerings in their major
  • Multiple options for financial aid and billing.

Sources of financial aid for adult learners
The first step any prospective college student takes after applying to the school they hope to attend is to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This will determine how much federal, state, and institutional aid for which you qualify as a nontraditional independent student, based on data including your income and other financial assets. Your college’s financial aid office will walk you through this process if you need help, and it’s important to do this early in the application process to ensure you meet any scholarship and grant deadlines for which you might be eligible.

Financial aid can come from:

  • The federal government
  • The state where you live
  • The college you attend
  • A nonprofit or private organization


Federal student aid
The U.S. Department of Education awards more than $120 billion a year in aid to more than 13 million students. Even if you are a nontraditional student, you can use this money to pay for tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, and transportation. It can also help pay for other education-related expenses, such as a computer and dependent care.

Federal student aid includes:

  • Loans that you must repay with interest. These include Subsidized and Unsubsidized Direct Loans, and Direct PLUS Loans.
  • Scholarships and grants that you don’t repay. For example, needs-based Federal Pell Grants for undergraduate students and the Federal TEACH Grant for students who are pursuing a degree in teaching or education administration.
  • Work-Study opportunities that provide on- or off-campus jobs to help cover education costs.


State student aid
Many state governments have grant programs to help resident nontraditional students finance their education. Some of these programs are specifically targeted to nontraditional students, such as displaced workers and single parents, hoping to attend college to obtain career or professional training.

Because these grant programs vary from state to state, a visit to the dedicated website for your state’s Department of Education will show you what’s available. Many states, including Tennessee, New Jersey, New York, and Washington, have recently introduced legislation that specifically targets the adult-learner population.


Grants and scholarships
Who doesn’t love free money? Especially if it reduces the amount of student loan debt you have to take on. Leverage your status as a nontraditional student by seeking out grants and scholarships that most closely match your status as a student, your interests and personal affiliations, and your professional goals.

For example, an African-American woman looking for grants to complete her degree in nursing would search for specific programs that target her gender, race, and career path. She’d discover that the National Black Nurses Association supports a number of grants and scholarships for adult students of color who are returning to college to complete their nursing degrees, with awards ranging from $500 to $2,000.

If you’re a single mother who’s solely responsible for your family’s financial support and are returning to college to complete a degree, check out the Soroptimist Women’s Opportunity Awards. Regional Live Your Dream awards range from $3,000 to $5,000.

Service members and their spouses can apply for the General Henry H. Arnold Education Grant, which is supported by the United States Air force. This grant provides up to $2,000 for service-members and their spouses who are returning to college to complete their degree.

Although you’ll certainly face a different set of challenges when you return to school as a nontraditional older adult student, you enjoy many benefits in the form of personal enrichment, new friendships, career advancement, and increased income. The average salary for those with a high school diploma but no college is about $35,000, while the average salary for those with a bachelor’s degree is just under $60,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Additionally, the unemployment rate for those with a college degree is half of that of those without, notes U.S. News & World Report.

If you’d like to learn more about careers for adult learners that will allow you to serve others faithfully and wholeheartedly and you’re interested in a Christ-centered education, we’d love to chat with you. To learn more about how Oklahoma Wesleyan University can help you pursue your calling, phone us today at 918-335-6200, or email us at