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Funding your return to college as an adult student

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When I returned to school as an adult to finish my degree, my knowledge of financial aid was limited. Since I was a part-time student, I didn’t think I would qualify for aid. I was wrong. I did get financial aid, and now my job is to help other returning adult students navigate the college landscape, including funding for education.

Some of the best advice I can give you in this arena is to ask questions – early and often! Get in touch with the financial aid office at your school of choice soon after you are accepted. Ask about financial aid but also about scholarships, grants and other ways to help pay for college.

Funding college is different for older students, but opportunities still abound. Here are some additional tips:

headshot of Anne Niendorf
Anne Niendorf, student services coordinator

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Also known as the FAFSA, this is the first step in figuring out what federal aid is available to you for college. Returning adult students are just as eligible for aid as younger university students. Federal student aid can include grants, work-study or loans. In addition to using federal aid to pay for the usual expenses such as housing, transportation, books, tuition and fees, you can use it to help pay for dependent care, the purchase of a personal computer, costs related to a disability and more. Check deadlines and apply for free at fafsa.gov.

Find other funding sources. Consult with your college to find out if they offer other scholarships, especially for adult students. For example, here at UW–Madison Adult Career and Special Student Services, we award scholarships for nontraditional students each year. You can also search online using the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool as well as other online scholarship hubs, such as FastWeb or Scholly. And check with local nonprofits or community organizations for funding opportunities. Finally, check with your employer to see if any tuition assistance is available.

Take advantage of tax breaks. If you’re 25 years old or older, you’re considered independent for tax purposes. This can open up tax break opportunities at the federal level: The American Opportunity Tax Credit is for qualified education expenses paid for an eligible student for the first four years of higher education. The Lifetime Learning Credit is for qualified tuition and related expenses paid for eligible students enrolled in an eligible educational institution. This credit can help pay for undergraduate, graduate and professional degree courses, including courses to acquire or improve job skills. See irs.gov to learn more.

Nontraditional students reflect a greater share of the millions of Americans enrolled in higher education. The National Center for Education Statistics tells us that one in five nontraditional students is at least 30 years old and one in four is caring for a child. Half are financially independent from their parents.

Universities, colleges and other organizations must become increasingly responsive to the needs of returning adult students – financial and otherwise. Don’t be shy about speaking up and asking for assistance in funding one of the most important investments you could make – your education.

Anne Niendorf is a student services coordinator with UW–Madison Continuing Studies. She can be reached at anne.niendorf@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on October 17, 2021.

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