How to Pay for College as an Older Student

© (Morsa Images/Getty Images) Students who are age 25 and older are considered independent on the FAFSA.

By Farran Powell, U.S. News & World Report - Education

Before enrolling in college two years ago, 31-year-old Brian O'Malley worked a string of jobs in the Dallas restaurant industry.

"I've seen the rat race that comes with trying to make a profession out of unskilled labor, and it runs a dead-end road. I'm willing to do whatever I need to do and borrow whatever I need to borrow to pursue degrees that will allow me to find a career that I love," say O'Malley, an undergraduate at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who plans to pursue an advanced degree in global politics after he graduates in two years.

Even though O'Malley took out student loans to pay for his four-year degree, he funds his living expenses and the portion of his tuition bill not covered by financial aid with two jobs. The SJC student works full time at his college's information technology department and part time as an apprentice bartender at a craft cocktail bar in Santa Fe.

[post_ads]While students ages 18 to 24 still represent the majority of college students, the number of older students enrolled at postsecondary institutions is growing.

More than 40 percent of university and college undergraduate and graduate students are age 25 and older, according to U.S. Education Department data. The agency projects that the number of students age 25 and older enrolled in postsecondary education should increase to more than 9 million by 2024.

Despite the increase in older students seeking associate or bachelor's degrees, most information on choosing and paying for college is aimed a high school seniors, says Hudson Baird, executive director of PelotonU, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, that helps working adults pursue online higher education. The organization partners with several online nonprofit education programs, including Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University for associate and bachelor's degrees.

Baird recommends older students "be cautious of the advice that's out there that is designed for high school seniors," since it tends to emphasize a traditional college experience on campus. A distance-learning education with an online degree may be a better fit for a working adult with a family.

He says while some older students have college credits from their younger years, it's important for them to find a flexible program in completing a certification or degree so they can advance to a better career or job. Higher education policy analysts point out that student loan default rates are high among borrowers who didn't finish their program or degree.

Paying for college is also different for older students. Here are few tips to help these students finance a postsecondary certificate or college degree.

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students who are age 25 and older are considered independent on the FAFSA. While a few institutions, such as medical schools, may require parental income information for institutional aid, most schools don't ask older students for these details. Parental information for older students isn't needed to determine federal student aid eligibility.

"Since the student is now independent due to FAFSA rules, the student's aid is only based on their income – if not married – instead of family income," says Jill Rayner, director of financial aid at the University of North Georgia.

This may mean some students in their mid- to late twenties may qualify for more federal financial aid.

"We have seen where students now are eligible for Pell Grant funding or subsidized loans when they weren't eligible before," Rayner says. The Pell Grant is a federal program that awards dollars to students from low-income households.

But Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at College Coach, says this isn't always a given. "If that older student who doesn’t have children has a decent income and savings of their own, it’s possible that they could end up with less financial aid than if they had applied right out of high school with their parents’ information," she says.

Utilize programs that support older students. Experts say budgeting and balancing obligations outside the classroom is key for older students, especially if they're living independently or supporting a family. There are some institutions that offer financial literacy programs.
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UNG, for instance, has a Student Money Management Center to help its students understand and face financial challenges. There are also nonprofit organizations in other cities, such as PelotonU, that support working adults in the online higher education space. These organizations, designed to help students enroll and meet their education goals, even provide assistance with filling out the FAFSA, Baird says.

Take advantage of tax breaks. Enrolling in an institution as an independent student can lead to a tax credit. There are a couple of education tax credits at the federal level: the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit.

"Being a full-time student comes with a lot of tax breaks and credits, which only students who file independently can benefit from. These tax breaks will not be readily advertised, however, so I highly recommend using an online tax service to crunch the numbers and get you every dollar you deserve." O'Malley says.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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