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Whether you’re going to school for the first time or going back to school for another degree, it can be stressful to figure out how to pay for college as a nontraditional student — typically students who are 24 or older and have dependents other than a spouse.
The good news is several options are available to help nontraditional students pay for school, including student loans for adults and other aid alternatives.
Here’s a look at how nontraditional students can pay for college:
- Start with the FAFSA
- Apply for scholarships and grants
- Take advantage of federal student loans
- Use private student loans to cover the rest
- How to pay for college as an adult with bad credit
- Other ways to pay for college as an adult
- Student loans for adults FAQs
Start with the FAFSA
If you need money for school, your first step should be completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your school will use your FAFSA results to determine your eligibility for federal student aid — including federal grants, loans, and work-study programs.
The FAFSA asks questions about your finances and personal circumstances. Be prepared to share documentation that shows proof of income and financial need, such as:
- Tax returns
- Bank statements
- Investment statements
The IRS also has a tool that you can use to pull your tax return information directly into the FAFSA. You’ll be given the option to access this tool while filling out the form.
Learn More: 7 Student Loans for Community College
Apply for scholarships and grants
- Nonprofit organizations
- Local and national businesses
- Professional associations in assorted career fields
Your FAFSA results might also qualify you for school-based scholarships.
Scholarships and grants for nontraditional students and adult learners
Some scholarships and grants are designed specifically to help nontraditional adult students pay for school:
- Adult Skills Education Program: This program provides scholarships for adults attending technical or vocational schools. You must be a member of Imagine America to apply. The deadline for scholarships is Dec. 31 annually.
- Adult Students in Scholastic Transition Scholarship: This scholarship is offered to select adults facing economic, social, or physical challenges and is worth $2,000 to $10,000. The scholarship programs open up again at the beginning of Jan. 2023 and closes in late March. Applicants for scholarships must reside near a participating Executive Women International (EWI) chapter.
- Beacon Scholarship for Rural America: This scholarship program awards $1,000 twice a year to select high school students, college students, and adult learners who earn a low income and live in rural areas. Application deadlines occur in June and November annually. You must carry a GPA of 3.0 or higher (high school or college), plan to enroll in an accredited college program, and meet other program requirements to qualify.
- Custody X Change Giving Fund: Single parents attending undergraduate programs can be awarded $500 to $1,000 through this program. The program gives out a scholarship three times annually with deadlines in April, August, and December. Applicants must have primary physical custody of one or more minor children, be enrolled (full or part-time) as an undergraduate at an accredited school, and carry a GPA of 3.0 or higher (waived if you’re a first-semester student).
- Ford Opportunity Program: Students 25 and older from Oregon and Siskiyou County, California, could have up to 90% of their unmet college costs covered through this program. The program opens on Nov. 1 annually for qualified applicants.
- Return2College Scholarship Program: This program offers $1,000 scholarships to students who plan to attend school in the next 12 months or who are already enrolled in a college or graduate program. The deadline to apply is Sept. 30, 2022.
Check Out: How Long Does It Take to Get a Student Loan?
Take advantage of federal student loans
If you need to borrow for school, it’s usually a good idea to start with federal student loans. This is mainly because these loans come with federal benefits and protections, such as access to income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs.
Here are the main types of federal student loans you might be eligible for:
- Direct Subsidized Loans are available to undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. The government will pay for any interest that accrues on subsidized loans while you’re in school.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students regardless of financial need. Unlike with subsidized Loans, you’re responsible for paying all the interest that accrues on unsubsidized loans.
- Direct PLUS Loans come in two types: Grad PLUS Loans for graduate or professional students and Parent PLUS Loans for parents who want to help pay for their child’s education costs. The interest rates on these loans are typically higher than the rates on subsidized and unsubsidized loans. You’ll also have to undergo a credit check.
|Loan type||Who qualifies?||Interest rates||Loan limits|
|Direct Subsidized Loans||Undergrad students with financial need||5.50%||$3,500 to $5,500 per year|
|Direct Unsubsidized Loans||Undergrad, graduate, and professional students||Undergrad: 5.50%|
Graduate and professional: 7.05%
|Dependent undergrad: $5,500 to $7,500 per year ($31,000 total limit)
Independent undergrad: $9,500 to $12,500 per school year ($57,500 total limit)
Graduate and professional: $20,500 per year
($138,500 total limit)
|Direct PLUS Loans||Parents, graduate students, and professional students||8.05%||Cost of attendance minus any other financial aid received|
Use private student loans to cover the rest
After you’ve exhausted your scholarship, grant, and federal student loan options, private student loans could help fill any financial gaps left over. Private lenders offer these loans, as well as traditional banks and credit unions.
While private student loans don’t come with federal protections, they do provide some benefits of their own, such as:
- Higher loan amounts: You might be able to borrow up to your school’s cost of attendance, depending on the lender.
- No application deadlines: Unlike federal student loans that require you to submit the FAFSA by a certain date, you can apply for private student loans at any time.
If you decide to take out a private student loan, be sure to consider as many lenders as possible to find the right loan for you. Credible makes this easy — you can compare your prequalified rates from our partner lenders in the table below in two minutes.
|Lender||Fixed Rates From (APR)||Variable Rates From (APR)||Loan amounts||Loan terms (years)|
|4.48%+10||6.03%+10||$2,001* to $400,000||5, 7, 10, 12, 15, 20|
|4.43%+1||5.8%+||$1,000 to $350,000 (depending on degree)||5, 10, 15|
||5.49%+2,3||$1,000 up to 100% of the school-certified cost of attendance||5, 8, 10, 15, 20|
|4.43%+||5.36%+||$1,000 to $99,999 annually |
($180,000 aggregate limit)
|7, 10, 15|
|6.25%+7||8.11%+7||$1,000 to $200,000||7, 10, 15|
|4.6%+8||7.37%+8||$1,001 up to 100% of school certified cost of attendance||5, 10, 15|
|5.35%+||N/A||$1,500 up to school’s certified cost of attendance less aid||10, 15|
|4.50%9 - 15.49%9||6.37%9 - 16.70%9||$1,000 up to 100% of school-certified cost of attendance||10 to 20|
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How to pay for college as an adult with bad credit
If you have bad credit, you can pay for college in several potential ways. Bad credit is usually considered to be a credit score below 700. Here are a few options to consider:
Use scholarships and grants
Scholarships and grants are generally awarded based on merit or financial need. This means you can apply for them regardless of your credit history. There’s also no limit to how many scholarships and grants you can get, so it’s a good idea to apply for as many as you can.
Take out federal student loans
Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans don’t require a credit check. This means you could still be eligible for them even if you have poor credit so long as you meet their eligibility criteria.
Additionally, while you have to undergo a credit check to apply for a Direct PLUS Loan, you don’t have to meet a minimum credit score requirement to qualify. Instead, you can’t have an adverse credit history — meaning you must not have any foreclosures, bankruptcies, or other negative items listed in your credit report for the past five years.
Learn More: How to Get a Student Loan With No Credit Check
What student loans can pay for
You can use student loans to cover almost any education-related expense, including:
- Room and board
- Books and equipment
But while you can use student loans for many expenses, be aware of limits. For example, you can’t use your student loan funds to pay for:
- A new car
- Vacations or travel
- Other debt
Keep Reading: How to Use Student Loans for College Living Expenses
Apply for a private student loan with a cosigner
You’ll generally need good to excellent credit to qualify for a private student loan. Several lenders offer student loans for bad credit — however, these loans typically come with higher interest rates compared to good credit loans.
If you’re struggling to get approved, consider applying with a cosigner to improve your chances. Even if you don’t need a cosigner to qualify, having one could get you a lower interest rate than you’d get on your own.
Check Out: Taking Out Student Loans Without a Cosigner
Other ways to pay for college as an adult
Here are a couple of additional options that could help you pay for school:
529 education savings plans
If you’re planning to go to school a few months or years from now, you could consider stashing away money in a 529 plan — a type of college savings account that offers tax breaks if you use the funds to cover qualifying school-related expenses.
While these accounts are often opened by parents looking to cover their child’s education costs, you also have the option to open a 529 account for yourself.
Unlike a regular savings account, a 529 plan allows you to invest the funds into mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, or individual stocks — depending on the plan. Additionally, some states provide tax deductions for contributions you make to a 529 plan.
Many employers offer tuition assistance or reimbursement programs that help their employees pay for college. These programs provide tax breaks for employers while also improving employee retention and skills as well as reducing recruitment expenses.
In many cases, you’ll be expected to work for a company for a certain amount of time before you can take advantage of a tuition program. Be sure to reach out to your human resources office to see if a program is available and how to apply.
Take out a personal loan
You can use personal loan funds to pay for just about anything, including college expenses. But you should consider them as a last resort to pay for educational expenses not covered through other financial aid options.
If you’ve exhausted your options, you can get a personal loan to cover costs like housing, car payments, food, and other expenses while attending school.
Learn More: 18 Best Personal Loan Lenders
Student loans for adults FAQs
Here are the answers to a few commonly asked questions about student loans for adults:
Is there an age limit for receiving federal student aid?
No, there’s no age limit for receiving federal student aid. To be eligible for federal aid, you must have demonstrable financial need and must be enrolled at least half-time at a school that participates in the federal financial aid program. You’ll also need to fill out the FAFSA.
Check Out: Best Graduate Student Loans
Is there financial aid specifically for single parents with children?
No, there isn’t a specific type of federal aid for single parents. However, you might qualify for federal aid based on your financial need — for example, if you’re an undergraduate student with exceptional financial need, you might be eligible for a Pell Grant.
Also remember that private scholarships and grants are available for people from many backgrounds — including some designed for single parents with children.
Is there an age limit for taking out a student loan?
No, there’s no age limit for taking out a student loan. But keep in mind that some loans can only be used by certain types of students.
For example, Direct Subsidized Loans are only available to undergraduate students with financial need while Direct Unsubsidized Loans can be used for undergraduate or graduate studies regardless of financial need.
What is the income limit for the FAFSA?
There’s no income limit for the FAFSA. Instead, both your income and family size are taken into account to determine what aid you might qualify for.
Read More: 2022-23 FAFSA Income Limits and Eligibility
Does the CARES Act apply to nontraditional students?
The CARES Act provides assistance to eligible students, regardless of age or other factors, by suspending federal student loans payments, setting a 0% interest rate, and stopping collections on defaulted student loans.
Currently, federal student loan payments are scheduled to restart after September 1, 2023. CARES Act benefits are for federal student loans only and do not extend to private student loans.
If you decide to take out a private student loan, remember to consider as many lenders as you can to find the right loan for you. Credible makes this easy: You can compare your prequalified rates from multiple lenders in two minutes — without affecting your credit score.
Kevin Payne contributed to the reporting for this article.