How to Pay for College as an Adult Learner

By Jamie Cattanach · August 14, 2023 · 7 minute read

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How to Pay for College as an Adult Learner

Adult learners — students who are age 25 or older — are an increasingly common sight on college campuses. Going back to school (or attending for the first time) at a later date, however, comes with some challenges. One of the biggest is finding a way to cover the cost of your education, since you may not be able to rely on Mom and Dad to foot some or all of the bill.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to pay for college as an adult learner, from scholarships and grants to good old-fashioned student loans.

To Start, Look at Scholarships and Grants

Whether you’re starting school or going back to college, it’s always a good idea to look into scholarships and grants early in the fund-finding process. After all, these are financial aid options that the recipient typically isn’t responsible for paying back.

Although most scholarships won’t pay the entire cost of college, they can offset thousands of dollars in costs — and when it comes to an expense as hefty as education, every bit helps.

It’s a good idea to check with your prospective school’s financial aid office to see if the college offers any grants or scholarships for adult learners, but there are also third-party programs worth looking into. Consider adding these to your list.

💡 Quick Tip: Fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee SoFi private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Executive Women International Scholarship

Offered through local chapters of Executive Women International, the Adult Students in Scholastic Transition scholarship of $2,000 to $10,000 is awarded to “adults facing economic, social, or physical challenges who are looking to improve their situation through educational opportunities.”

For full application details, contact your local chapter.

Award From Imagine America

Aimed toward adults who are attending career or technical colleges for a career shift or returning to school after time away, Imagine America’s Adult Skills Education Program offers awards of around $1,000 yearly to students over the age of 19 who are enrolled in a participating college.

Application details and step-by-step instructions are available on the Imagine America website.

Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship

Open to low-income women 35 or older who are pursuing a technical/vocational education, an associate’s degree, or a first bachelor’s degree at an accredited college, the Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund offers scholarships of $2,000-plus on a yearly basis.

Working Parent Award

Offering $1,000 to help with school costs, the Working Parent College Scholarship Award is open to parents who are full- or part-time students at a college or trade school, have a grade point average of 3.0 or higher, and work an average of 12 hours a week.

Applicants write a 600- to 1,000-word essay outlining “three keys to successfully balancing parenthood, working, and excelling in school.”

Single-Parent Scholarship

Custody X Change, a parent scheduling tool, offers three scholarships a year to single parents, who can receive up to $1,000 in college funding.

To apply, you’ll need to supply your unofficial college transcript or admissions letter along with a 400- to 500-word essay answering the question “How will you use your education to improve your family?” See eligibility and application details on the Custody X Change website.

There are many other adult-specific scholarships available, so it’s worth doing a Google search to look for more opportunities that might be a good fit for your situation.

Employee Education Benefits

If you’re employed, you may want to take a second look at that sheaf of paperwork HR sent you on your first day. These days, an increasing number of companies offer employee education benefits as part of their compensation package.

Three common types of benefits are tuition assistance, tuition reimbursement, and student loan repayment. Each of these works a little differently, but all of them can help offset the out-of-pocket costs of an education.

With tuition assistance, your employer may partner with specific colleges or universities to bring you discounted, or even free, classes — particularly if those classes will improve your performance at work.

Starbucks, for instance, is famous for its tuition assistance program, which covers 100% of employees’ out-of-pocket cost for first-time undergraduate students enrolled in Arizona State University’s online program.

Tuition reimbursement, on the other hand, means your company will repay you for out-of-pocket educational costs up to a certain limit.

Home Depot offers a tuition reimbursement program that allows employees to attend the university or college of their choice and receive up to $5,000 (for salaried employees), $3,000 (for full-time hourly workers) or $1,500 (for part-time hourly workers) per year.

Finally, some companies offer student loan repayment programs that help employees repay the loans they’ve taken out from third-party lenders.

Many of these programs have specific eligibility requirements, such as working a minimum number of hours or maintaining a certain GPA, so be sure to double-check the fine print.

Furthermore, certain colleges offer course credit for work and life experience, which could help you save money by cutting down on the total number of classes you need to take (and pay for). Check with your university to see if it offers this perk.

Federal Student Loans

Even if you successfully apply for scholarships and get employee education benefits, you may still be left with more college expenses than you can pay for out of pocket.

That’s where student loans come in — and generally, the first place to look for student loans is the government.

Despite the common misconception that federal student loans are only available to traditional-age college students, there’s no upper age limit.

And unlike many private student loans, applying for federal student aid doesn’t require a credit check.

Depending on your income, you may be eligible for Direct Subsidized Loans, which give you a break on interest while you’re enrolled at least half-time and for six months after you graduate. (The Department of Education pays the interest during those times.)

You’ll pay interest on the loan when monthly payments begin, but that subsidy can mean substantial savings over time.

The U.S. government also offers Direct Unsubsidized Loans, which start accruing interest immediately but carry fixed interest rates that are often lower than those from a private student loan lender.

Whichever type of federal loan you take out, you generally don’t have to start making payments until six months after you graduate. With some private student loans, payments begin right away.

To apply for federal student loans, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Many colleges will also require you to fill out the FAFSA in order to qualify for institution-specific forms of financial aid. Applying can also help qualify you for work-study programs.

💡 Quick Tip: It’s a good idea to understand the pros and cons of private student loans and federal student loans before committing to them.

Private Student Loans

Along with government-sponsored student loans, a wide variety of private student loans are available, many of which may be easier to qualify for as an adult with a more robust credit history.

While traditional-age collegians often need to enlist the help of a cosigner to apply, adult learners may not need to, and might also score better terms if they have good or excellent credit.

That said, it’s important to understand that private student loans sometimes carry higher interest rates than other forms of financial aid, and the rates can be variable.

Deferral and income-driven repayment plans are available to eligible borrowers of federal student loans, but such options may be limited for private student loan holders, depending on the lender. It’s always important to read all the fine print up front.

Fee-Free Loans

When researching loan options for going to college as an adult learner, it’s important to look not just at the interest rate but also any fees the lender is charging, since this can significantly add to your cost. Some student loans charge application or origination fees, as well as late fees or returned check fees.

All federal student loans, for example, charge an origination fee, which is calculated as a percentage of your total loan amount and then subtracted from your loan before it’s disbursed to you. As a result, the amount you receive will be less than the amount you borrowed.

You can find private lenders that offer fee-free student loans, so it’s a good idea to look at all the costs involved when comparing all of your financing options.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

SoFi private student loans offer competitive interest rates for qualifying borrowers, flexible repayment plans, and no fees.

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