Today, nontraditional students make up more than 40% of the student populace. That number is growing so fast that those in the field of education are reconsidering terms like “traditional.”
When you’re a nontraditional student, you face your own unique sets of challenges. You’re a full-grown adult, independent of mommy and daddy. In fact, you yourself may be a mommy or daddy. You’ve got grown-up bills to pay, people to take care of, and need to find a way to leverage education to a greater income for a higher quality of life.
The problem is, of course, upfront costs. How are you supposed to return to school, take care of your kids, work and be able to pay day-to-day bills on top of tuition, fees and books? Most people turn to student loans, but with the rising cost of tuition, your chances of falling into debilitating debt is far greater than using them to leverage an immediate and noticeable increase in the quality of life for yourself and your family.
Know what? You don’t need student loans as a nontraditional student.
Trust me. I’ve been there. When my husband and I found out we were expecting, we made the bold and somewhat insane move of returning to school. Our incomes were nothing to write home about and allowed us no spare change at the end of the month to throw into savings. Finances were a struggle. But we knew we wanted a better life for our children.
As I had more college credits under my belt, I went back first. After I completed my degree, my husband returned to the halls of scholarship where he continues his studies to this day. When he’s done, I hope to go back to get an even higher degree. Not only have we not incurred any student debt throughout the process, but we’ve actually made money by going back to school.
Pell Grants: The Nontraditional Student’s Friend
The very first thing you should do when you’re thinking about going back to school is fill out the FAFSA. Depending on your income, the FAFSA will provide you with grants, work-study opportunities and access to Federal student loans. You don’t need another job; you’ve got enough on your plate. You don’t want to take out student loans. So we’re only going to focus on grants, which are free money you don’t have to pay back.
The Pell grant is awarded to qualifying students who fill out the FAFSA. The max Pell grant for a full-time student for the 2016/17 school year is $5,815. My husband and I qualified for the max Pell Grant for the first few years of our studies. We currently make a bit more than the average American salary since my education has provided an increase in income, and today we receive just a few hundred dollars shy of the max.
We’re going to make an assumption that because you’re an adult returning to school, your income is low to average. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be an economic reason to return to school. This means you’ll likely qualify for a pretty large portion of the max Pell Grant, if not the entire thing.
The average cost of tuition at a community college in 2015/16 was $3,430. Since data for 2016/17 isn’t yet available, let’s assume this number goes up by about 2.9%, as it did in the year prior. That would mean that the average cost in the 2016/17 school year would be about $3,529.47.
Because you’re allowed to use the Pell grant for living expenses, a student receiving the max Pell grant to attend an average community college would net $2,285.53 per academic year. If you buy books anywhere but the bookstore and utilize the Reserve section of your college’s library, you can likely contain your costs for textbooks to $300/semester or less, leaving you with $1,685.53 for living expenses.
You’ve already made money by returning to college.
But there’s more. Your state likely provides grants, too. Most of the time, you will automatically be guided to your state’s application page after filling out the FAFSA. If that doesn’t happen, do some research to find the agency in charge of higher education in your state. In my home state of Pennsylvania, failing to do so means you potentially miss out on $2,300+ of funding that could go straight back into your pocket as a community college student.
Scholarships: The Coupons of the College World
Anyone who has practiced any modicum of frguality has toyed around with using coupons. You may save $5 on your grocery trip by going through your Sunday paper, or you may be an extreme couponer who gets a ton of stuff for free by dedicating 40 hours+ a week to the task.
As a potential college student, your goal should be to become an extreme couponer for your education. Couponing for college doesn’t mean running through your Sunday paper every week; it means scouring the web, your financial aid office, your employer and community organizations for scholarships each semester. You may spend a good amount of time doing it, but it won’t be a 40 hour+ commitment 52 weeks of the year.
While a high-yield coupon may save you $5 on an economy pack of junk food, a high-yield scholarship could cover tens of thousands of dollars of your tuition, or even your entire education.
As a nontraditional community college student, you want to look for scholarships that allow you to use the money for living expenses, books, or anything beyond tuition since you already have that covered with your grants. Each and every scholarship you are awarded is money back in your pocket when you use this strategy. Most scholarships are going to award you a minimum of hundreds of dollars, with many others awarding thousands. The few hours you spend applying can pay huge dividends.
Transitioning To A Four-Year School
Community college is recommended for the first two years because it’s widely available regardless of where you live, and low tuition rates will save you thousands of dollars.
After those first two years, though, you will want to look at transferring to a four-year school to complete your studies. Logistically, your best approach is to find a university that has a partnership with your community college. Know what classes will transfer before you take them. Many schools will even have a cooperative degree program with local universities and four-year colleges to make the transition seamless.
Transfer too far outside your current geographic region, and you run a greater risk of losing some of your credit hours due to your new school not accepting them.
The last two years of your education will be much more expensive. The average cost of a state-run, four-year school is almost three times that of the average community college. But fear not. Apply the same principles you used in community college to your new educational institution: fill out the FAFSA, apply for state grants, and apply for scholarships.
Many states will increase their max grant award depending on the cost of tuition and fees at your school. If your state follows this pattern, that means the max state grant award will go up when you transfer to a more expensive institution.
Financing is another reason to stay local when selecting your four-year school. Even if there is not an explicit cooperative degree program, many schools will provide scholarships to students transferring from local community colleges. Another universal scholarship opportunity is to join Phi Theta Kappa, a national honors society for community college students. This organization provides scholarships to student members who transfer to four-year institutions.
Four-year schools also tend to offer their own financial aid packages. Contact the financial aid office to find out about potential opportunities after submitting your FAFSA.
There’s enough free money out there for qualified students to float their way through the last two years of school, too. Apply, apply, apply. You simply don't need student loans as a nontraditional student.
Getting Paid To Go to School Is Better Than Debt
Obviously getting paid to get your degree is better than graduating with debt. This is especially true when you’re a nontraditional student. Upon graduation, you’re going to face a unique set of challenges. You may have a family to support while you try to land a position. You may face ageism as you start interviewing for jobs. You may have to learn new skills that come naturally to those who grew up in an increasingly digital age. This is true even if you’re in your late twenties; times are changing rapidly.
Facing those challenges without student loans as a nontraditional student is hard enough. Facing them with debt can be devastating. It is extremely rare that you’ll see a student loan discharged in bankruptcy, and at a more advanced age you have less time to capitalize on your education and pay off your debt before retirement. The healthiest option is to use grants and scholarships to make money off of your studies. It’s a completely achievable goal for dedicated students.
Femme Frugality is a freelance personal finance writer and editor. You can read more of her writing on her blog where she covers money for parents, college students, brides and financial philosophers.