You're never too old to learn—or go to college. If you're a nontraditional student (which includes older students), you may need some creativity and flexibility to pay for school. However, options are available to help you, whether you want to finish a degree or you're starting your education later in life.
As a nontraditional student, you may need to think about attending school differently.
You're probably going to work at least part time if not more. Look at options for attending class at night or programs that cater to working adults, like extension programs. These non-credit courses are designed to enhance students' knowledge in a particular subject and are taught at college level, although there are usually no restrictive requirements to enroll.
If you already have an undergraduate degree, you may want to explore graduate certificate programs. While they're not the same as graduate programs (for example, you won't receive a degree), certificate programs can help you gain competence—and professional credibility—in a particular area.
You can look at these programs as a complement to the undergraduate degree that you already have, and they provide skills that you may need to accelerate your career. Something else to consider: A certificate program may be less costly than a graduate degree.
Tuition Benefits Through Work
If you're working, check with your HR department about educational benefits. Organizations can contribute up to $5,250 a year toward an employee's educational expenses without the funds being counted as income.
Your employer might offer to reimburse you for a portion of your educational costs (in other words, you will probably need to pay your tuition yourself and get money from your employer after completing the course). If your employer offers more than $5,250, that money would be considered taxable income for you, so consult a tax professional before you accept it.
Employers often have restrictions about educational expenses; for example, you may need to pursue coursework that directly relates to your position, and you may need to obtain a minimum grade to get reimbursed. Ask your HR representative about these as well.
Senior Citizen Tuition Waivers
Some universities and colleges let state residents age 60 and older—and sometimes younger—attend classes for free or at a substantial discount. See which schools in your state may qualify.
Some schools only offer these free or reduced-price classes to seniors for auditing purposes and not for actual credit. Check with the school for more details.
CLEP, DSST, and ACE Exams
You can earn credit for what you already know to save time and money on your education. The College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) and DSST offer dozens of exams in different subject areas. If you pass an exam, you can earn actual college credits—well worth it for exam fees as low as $80! Just make sure the school you want to attend will accept the credits.
The American Council on Education (ACE) offers two distinct programs to gain credit for workplace experience. College Credit Recommendation Service (CREDIT) helps students receive academic credit for formal courses and examinations taken outside of the classroom, typically for workplace certifications or advancement. ACE's College Credit for Military Service reviews military training and experiences and recommends appropriate college credit for servicemembers and veterans.
Scholarships are available for students of all ages. And while it might be a smart strategy to focus on scholarships offered specifically to older students, you don't have to. Many traditional college scholarships have no maximum age requirement—or no age requirement at all.
If the options above don't work for you or you need to bridge a tuition gap after exhausting them, student loans are available to nontraditional students. Before borrowing these, think about how repaying them may affect your other financial goals—like retirement or helping your children with their educations.
Generally, there are no age restrictions to receive the different types of federal financial aid. However, you're not eligible for a Pell grant if you've completed an undergraduate degree (there are a few exceptions—for example, going back to school for a teacher certification or to meet state-mandated licensing requirements). You may be able to borrow federal student loans and receive federal work-study, though.
If you previously borrowed federal student loans, be aware of your aggregate loan limits (the total dollar amount of federal loans that you can borrow). If you took out federal loans that you haven't fully repaid, you may not have as much funding available as you think. In addition, know that grad students have a higher loan limit than undergrad students.
If you don't qualify for federal financial aid, you may want to look into private loans. Financial institutions or other organizations provide these loans, rather than the federal government. Compared to federal loans, these loans usually have fewer repayment options, stricter repayment terms and conditions, and rarely have forgiveness options.