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How to find college scholarships for adults 

Applying for scholarships is a rite of passage for many high school seniors looking for college funds that they won’t have to repay, like a student loan. But scholarships aren’t just for teenagers. 

Scholarships for adults are also available. Here’s what to know about getting scholarships as an adult. 

Scholarships, grants, and student loans: What’s the difference?

When it comes to financing a college or university education, several different sources of money can help pay for it all, including: 

  • Scholarships — These are essentially free money you earn through merit or financial need. You don’t have to repay the funds, and you can use them to pay for your tuition and other expenses.
  • Grants — Like scholarships, grants are also money you don’t have to pay back. Grants are typically distributed based on financial need rather than merit.
  • Student loans — Student loans can come through the federal government or from private lenders, and you do have to pay them back. Some federal loans are need-based, while private student loans generally aren’t tied to financial need. Federal loans have some unique protections and repayment plans, including income-driven repayment. Private loans typically do not, but you may qualify for a lower interest rate than rates available for federal student loans.

You can follow a similar process to apply for each type of financial assistance.

Start by filling out the FAFSA

Regardless of which form of financial assistance you’re pursuing, you’ll want to begin with the FAFSA. 

More formally known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, this form determines whether you’re eligible for federal student loans, federal grants, and work-study programs. Many states and colleges also use the FAFSA to figure out how much aid they’ll provide. 

There’s no age limit for filling out the FAFSA, and virtually everyone is eligible for some type of financial aid — even adult students.

You can fill out the FAFSA online or through the government’s myStudentAid mobile app. You can also print out or request a hard copy of the form and mail it in. The federal deadline for completing the FAFSA is June 30 after the end of the academic year, but most states require you to complete it in the spring or summer before the school year begins. 

Different states and schools have different deadlines for when you must complete the FAFSA, so be sure to talk to your college’s financial aid office to find out. The earliest you can fill out the FAFSA is Oct. 1 of the year before you begin school, and the government recommends completing the form as soon as you can after that date.

The form is fairly lengthy, about 10 pages, and asks you to provide a good deal of personal information and details about your finances. Dependent teenagers need to provide their own information as well as information about their parents’ finances — but as an adult, you’ll just provide your own. 

Save time by gathering these documents before filling out the form:

  • Driver’s license
  • Tax returns
  • Details of other sources of income, like child support or alimony
  • Bank and investment account statements

Grants for adults to go back to school

Since grants don’t need to be paid back, they’re among the first financial aid options you should explore. Be sure to accept all the grants you qualify for before taking out a student loan. Many financial aid grants are open to students of all ages, including state and federal grants, and specialty grants aimed at adults looking to switch careers.

Federal Pell Grant

Federal Pell Grants are designed for undergraduate students who haven’t earned a college degree and who can demonstrate financial need. You won’t need to repay the grant, except in a few circumstances like withdrawing early from your educational program or receiving enough outside scholarships and grants. 

The amount you can receive is based on the information on your FAFSA, especially your ability to pay for college, the cost of attendance at your school, and your status as a full- or part-time student. The maximum Pell Grant amount is currently $6,495 for the academic year. You can be eligible for the Pell Grant for up to six years.

Eligibility doesn’t depend on age or income. But the federal government will use the FAFSA to determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), or how much you can pay out of pocket for school. This number will need to be fairly low to qualify — $5,846 or less. You’ll need to meet FAFSA deadlines to be eligible for a Pell Grant.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants are based on financial need and awarded by your school, which receives a certain allotment from the government each year. Your grant can range from $100 to as much as $4,000 per year, based on financial need. You’ll need to meet FAFSA deadlines to qualify, and your school may have its own deadlines. Ask the college’s financial aid office to find out.

State-specific grants

Most states have an education agency that offers grants to current and future college students. You’ll typically need to be a state resident going to a college or university in that state. A number of these grants are aimed at adult students. Here are some examples of state-specific grants:

  • Idaho — The Idaho Opportunity Scholarship for Adult Learners grant offers up to $3,500 per year for adult students who graduated from an Idaho high school and attend an in-state college. The grant is directed to people who began college before dropping out, so you must be working on your first degree and complete 24 credits of coursework before leaving school. Award amounts are based on financial need.
  • Indiana — The “You Can. Go Back.” Adult Student Grant offers up to $2,000 per year for working adult students starting or completing a degree or certificate. The grant is open to full- and part-time students, and award amounts are based on financial need.
  • Maine — The Maine State Grant Program for Adult Learners offers $2,500 annually for people who are 24 or older in the year they begin school. The grant is based on financial need, and the FAFSA is the only form required to qualify.
  • Tennessee — The Reconnect Grant pays the remaining cost of tuition and fees for adult learners earning an associate degree or technical school degree at a Tennessee community college, after other forms of financial aid are exhausted.

Most states use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for its programs. Every state will have its own deadline for its grant programs, so contact your state education agency to find out what that is.

Colleges, universities, and technical/trade schools

Many colleges, universities, and trade schools offer their own financial aid, often in the form of scholarships and grants. As you’re selecting a school, you can visit the financial aid page on its website to see what might be available. Individual departments within a school may have their own scholarships, as well. Be sure to note deadlines for applying.

Scholarship and grant programs can vary widely from school to school, but many are competitive. You generally have to apply for admission to the school before you can find out if you’re eligible for an award. For example, Western Governors University in North Carolina offers a multitude of scholarships and grants for its distance learning online degree programs. These include a $2,500 “Years of You” Scholarship and a $4,000 Resiliency Grant.

Scholarships to go back to school

Sites like Scholarships.com or Peterson’s can help you search for programs you might qualify for. As you search, you may run into scholarships with requirements that you live in a particular state, plan to study a certain subject, or have an income below a certain threshold. Here are a few with fairly broad eligibility criteria you may consider:

Unigo $10K Scholarship

Unigo, a scholarship search portal, offers its own $10,000 Scholarship to students who best answer the question, “Would you rather be smart, funny, or rich? Why?” in 250 words or less. You must be at least 14 years old and a legal U.S. resident to apply, but there’s no maximum age limit. The deadline to apply is Dec. 31.

Return2College Scholarship

The Return2College Scholarship Program offers $1,000 for students beginning or continuing their higher education. To apply, you’ll submit a three-sentence essay answering the question, “Why are you getting your degree?” There’s no age limit for the program, and Return2College is geared toward adult students going back to school. However, high school seniors are able to apply. The deadline for applying falls on Jan. 31.

Niche $2,000 ‘No Essay’ College Scholarship

College information portal Niche offers a monthly drawing for a $2,000 “No Essay” College Scholarship, open to all high school seniors and college students. You can apply each month, with deadlines at the end of the month and winners notified by the middle of the following month. If you win, you can use the scholarship money for tuition, fees, housing, books, and other living expenses.

Imagine America Adult Skills Education Program

The Imagine America Foundation offers awards of up to $1,000 for adult learners who are pursuing vocational or career education. You’ll need to sign up for a free membership in the organization to apply for the Adult Skills Education Program, and you must be 19 or older. There’s no application deadline listed for this program.

ASIST Scholarship

Executive Women International offers scholarships between $2,000 and $10,000 to women looking to better their lives through education through its Adult Students in Scholastic Transition program. To qualify, you need to be past high school age and going to college for the first time, or a non-traditional student already enrolled in college. You’ll first apply through a local EWI chapter, then compete at the national level. The deadline to apply falls on March 18.

Working Parent College Scholarship Award Program

This program through Job-Applications.com offers $1,000 awards to parents working their way through college. To qualify for the Working Parent College Scholarship Award Program, you must be enrolled full-time or part-time in college, have worked at least 12 hours in each of the last four weeks, be at least 18 years old, and have at least one minor child. The deadline to apply is in December, and you’ll need to complete a 600- to 1,000-word essay on balancing work, school, and family.

Women In STEM Scholarship 

The BHW Group offers $3,000 awards to women pursuing a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math. Applications for the Women In STEM Scholarship open in January, with a deadline of April 15.

Carrot-Top Beacon Scholarship

Flag manufacturer Carrot-Top Industries offers $1,000 scholarships to students in rural areas. High school graduates and adult learners each qualify for the Beacon Scholarship for Rural America. You’ll need to complete a short essay about patriotism to apply. These scholarships are awarded twice per year, with deadlines falling in June and November.

Take out a student loan

If scholarships and grants aren’t enough to cover all the costs of your higher education, student loans can fill in the gap. You do need to pay this money back, but student loans can be more flexible and available to virtually any student.

Student loans come in two main varieties: federal and private. Federal student loans come through the U.S. government and charge a fixed interest rate. These loans offer some protections for borrowers, loan forgiveness in some circumstances, and a range of repayment plans, including income-based repayment that goes up or down based on how much money you make. Because of these advantages, you should always exhaust your federal student loan options before turning to private student loans.

Private loans, on the other hand, come from private lenders like banks, credit unions, and state-based organizations. Interest rates can be fixed or variable and are based on your credit profile. The rate you qualify for may be higher or lower than the rates on federal loans. Most private student loans have a traditional repayment schedule, where you make standard payments each month until the loan is repaid.

Applying for a federal student loan begins with the FAFSA. To get a private student loan, apply directly with the lender. You can get multiple rate quotes from different lenders to find the best private student loan rate you qualify for.

By Andrew Dunn

Photo by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

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