How to Get Financial Aid as a Mature or Returning College Student

Two Methods:Federal Student AidOther Aid

There is the impression that financial aid is only for "traditional" young adults ages 18-24. This is not really true. A variety of financial aid programs are available for anyone who wants to pursue and can benefit from higher education. NOTE: This article generally applies to student aid in the USA and is generally intended for U.S. Citizens and U.S. Permanent Residents, although most private and some state aid is not limited to these groups.

Method 1
Federal Student Aid

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    Apply for Federal Student Aid with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at the FAFSA website. You apply once per Academic Year -- as soon as possible after Jan. 1 each year before the upcoming Academic Year, but you can apply at anytime during the academic year, as long as you're still enrolled in school.
    • This Federal student aid usually consists of grants (free money which doesn't need to be paid back) and loans (borrowed money that does need to be paid back when done with school, but at very reasonable interest rates and repayment terms), which are the largest sources of student aid.
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    Review your SAR. In a few days you will have access (at the same web site) to your Student Aid Report (SAR) which is what you get after the FAFSA is processed. Double-check the SAR for any data entry errors and make corrections online if necessary. Also make sure that the school or college you plan to attend is listed as one of the schools on your SAR.
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    Follow up. Make contact with the Financial Aid Office once you know for sure which school you are attending to see if there is anything else you need to do or submit to get your aid file processed at that school.

Method 2
Other Aid

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    Investigate private scholarships. Funds for education can come from a variety of private sources. A free scholarship search web site can be a good source of information. Besides your geographic location and your intended major or career field, be sure to search with keywords "returning student" and "non-traditional student" as some organizations look to help fund older students, especially those that had barriers to pursuing their education during their "traditional" college-age years.
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    Check with your work. If you are working or in a labor union, ask your employer (human resources dept.) or union if they offer financial assistance to return to school to help upgrade your skills. If you are a member of a church or any other type of organization, find out if they offer educational scholarships to their members.
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    Investigate state agencies. Most states also have their own student aid programs so look up the state agency that deals with higher (post-secondary) educational financial aid in your state of residency. Some are intended for traditional college age students, but some are not. Most are tied in to filing the FAFSA but some may require additional applications or documentation and may have early deadlines.
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    Ask your college. The college you want to attend may have its own sources of student aid funding. Most colleges have foundations that have fundraising and endowments specifically earmarked for student aid and scholarships. Contact the Financial Aid or Scholarship Department and/or Foundation of your college. If you know your intended academic major, also contact that academic department to see if there are scholarships for that specific major or department.
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    Get help paying for your education "after the fact" via federal tax credits and deductions. In other words, you pay for certain education-related expenses (tuition, fees, books, supplies and required equipment) "up front" and then you recover some or all of these outlays in the form of tax credits and/or deductions the following year when you file your federal tax return. Remember that credits (which directly reduces income taxes owed) are generally better than deductions (which reduces the amount of your income subject to taxes) and you normally can't do both.
    • The American Opportunity Credit can be used for your first four years of undergraduate (pre-bachelor's degree) education. The Lifetime Learning Credit can be used for most other higher education or training. Tuition and fees can be deducted from income, as can interest paid on student loans -- even if you don't itemize your deductions. See a professional tax preparer or IRS Publication 970 (at for more details.


  • Be truthful and accurate in your aid applications.
  • Maintain contact with your college's Financial Aid Office throughout the year, if you have any questions. Look out for and respond quickly to any requests from the Financial Aid Office.
  • The FAFSA is a financial "snapshot" in time and is used to measure the financial strength of your household. Your aid is based on a complex formula that basically takes into account your income from the calendar year prior to the start of the academic year (for example, 2014 income for the upcoming 2015-2016 academic year). It also looks at the number of people in your household, the number going to college, and in some cases the net worth of assets. If any of these things have changed after you've started school (such as a job loss, or a divorce or death in the household), you may contact your Financial Aid office to see if adjustments can be made to your aid, but be sure to explain and document these changes.
  • Read the questions on the FAFSA (and helpful definitions that pop up along the side) carefully. Not all student need to report assets, for example. And even if you do, not all types of assets need to be included, such as the value of your house if it's your primary residence, money in held in retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)'s, or the value of your business if you have fewer than the equivalent of 100 full-time employees.
  • If you filed a 1040 tax return, check with your tax preparer or the IRS to see if you were eligible to file the simpler 1040EZ or 1040A tax forms. If "yes", be sure to indicate that on the FAFSA.
  • The FAFSA looks at your marital status at the time you are completing the application. If you are married at the date of FAFSA completion, you must include your spouse in the household as well as his/her income from the prior tax (calendar) year, even if you weren't married during that previous year. So if you are considering tying the knot, especially if he/she earns much more than you, you may want to consider holding off the vows until you're done with school.
  • Conversely, if you are on the verge of separating or divorcing, you may want to do so before filling out the FAFSA, especially if you are the lower income earner. If you are divorced or separated, you should include only your income on the FAFSA, even if you filed a joint tax return the prior year.
  • In some cases, asset net worths do need to be reported. In those cases, it's a good idea to minimize them before filing the FAFSA. "Net Worth" means the current fair market value of an asset minus any debt owed on that asset. For example, the value of a second or vacation home minus any mortgage owed on it. Most stocks, bonds, mutual funds, trust funds, etc. are assets unless they are held in a retirement account -- so put as much as you can into your IRA-type accounts. Most personal property, your primary residence, and personal non-tangible experiences don't count as assets, so buy that new car, renovate your kitchen, or go on your dream vacation before filling out the FAFSA. Money in checking and savings accounts count so fill out your FAFSA when balances are low. Of course any money you spend on your own education is an investment in yourself, so don't feel bad if you're fortunate enough to have the means to do so.
  • If possible, to help avoid mistakes, use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool on the FAFSA application if you have already filed your tax return. This takes your tax return information from the IRS Web Site and transfers it directly into your FAFSA application. Be sure that the Income Earned from Work questions are entered correctly for you (and your spouse, if married). These come from Box 1 of your W-2's (if you had wages) and "net business income" on your Schedule C's (if you were self-employed). If you haven't filed a tax return yet, you can mark "will file" and estimate your income and income taxes paid to the best of your ability. It's generally better to file the FAFSA as early as possible, and then make corrections later on.
  • You may include in your household all your children (if they would be required to use your information if they were filing their own FAFSA) or if you will provide for more than half of their expenses during the relevant academic year (July 1 through June 30) as well as other people if they live with you and you (and/or your spouse, if married) will provide for more than half of their living expenses during that academic year. Include yourself and any of the people in your household that will be going to college at least half the time in the "Number in College" question.


  • Do not knowingly give false information on your FAFSA or other application forms. If you are unsure about how to answer a FAFSA question, don't guess at it; ask a permanent staff member at a college's Financial Aid Office or call 1-800-4FEDAID. The FAFSA is a federal government form. Just like cheating on tax returns, you may not get caught, but if you do there may be serious repercussions. Honesty is always best. Truly legitimate errors can usually be corrected at a later time.
  • Beware of scholarship scams and scholarship search scams. You should do your scholarship searching yourself. Never give out personal identifying info except for your name, address, and e-mail address. Especially don't give out your Social Security Number, date of birth, or any credit card or bank account information to anyone. The noteworthy exception here is that you must report your Social Security Number on the FAFSA application (U.S. Dept. of Education) and most likely to state aid agencies and to your college's Admissions Office and/or Financial Aid Office -- they are bound to keep this information confidential.
  • Other scholarship scam warning signs -- avoid these like the plague:
    • Any company or organization that requests an upfront fee to apply for aid or a scholarship, or to "hold" a scholarship, or to receive a scholarship.
    • Any company that will search and "guarantee" you a scholarship for a fee. There are no guaranteed scholarships, most are highly competitive, and you should do the work yourself.
    • Any application or contact that requests credit card or account number, or password information is the sign of a scam artist and must be avoided.
  • There is only one legitimate site for the FAFSA application -- that is . Avoid scam sites like or The first "F" in FAFSA stands for "Free". There is no charge to apply for federal or state financial aid. Legitimate private donors, corporations, and organizations will also not charge to apply for private scholarships. Also there is no need to pay anyone to help or prepare your FAFSA for you. Despite how it sounds, it's pretty easy to do it yourself. And if you need help call 1-800-4FEDAID or call or visit the Financial Aid Office at any local college.
    • One exception: If you are planning to attend an Independent private college or university, some universities require you to file the CSSProfile application put out by The College Board (the same folks behind the SAT exams). The CSSProfile goes into more financial detail than the FAFSA and is used to allocate the college's private (institutional) financial aid funds. There is a fee to apply and a fee for each college that is sent this information.
  • Generally speaking, grants, waivers, work-study, and scholarships are better than student loans because the former awards generally don't need to be paid back. However, sometimes students can not get through school without loans, and if you are borrowing for a good, reputable, and accredited educational degree, it is a worthy investment in yourself (i.e. good debt) that usually pays off in the long run. However, try to stick to Federal Direct Loans (apply with the FAFSA) rather than "private" or "alternative" loans from private lenders. The interest rates are usually lower on Direct Loans and they have more flexible repayment, deferment and forbearance (payment postponements) and discharge (cancellation) options. If you are eligible for it, it's less expensive to stick to Subsidized Direct Loans rather than unsubsidized ones. Never borrow more than you really need to to cover legitimate education related expenses (tuition & fees, books & supplies, transportation, basic room & board, etc.). Private loans should be the very last resort, as it is almost akin to charging all your expenses to a credit card.

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Categories: Budgeting and Financial Aid for College