FAFSA Tips to Help Nontraditional Students Pay for College

Kelsey Sheehy
February 21, 2013

Pursuing a college degree after a hiatus from academia can be intimidating, and students often face hurdles before they set foot on campus.

Challenges can include choosing whether to go full-time or part-time; attend classes in-person or online; and study business, nursing, criminal justice, computer science, or one of hundreds of other majors.

One decision that should be an automatic "Yes," even for so-called nontraditional students--those 25 and older--is whether to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The FAFSA uses a variety of data, including income and other financial assets, to determine how much money a student is expected to contribute to his or her education. For traditional students, the Department of Education uses parental income to determine eligibility for federal loans, as well as need-based grants and scholarships.

Starting at age 24, students are evaluated based on their own earnings and may be eligible for additional funding--often free money that does not need to be repaid--than those who took a more conventional collegiate path.

Here are three things older students should know about the FASFA.

1. It's not the FAFSA you remember. If it's been decades since you applied for financial aid, you're in for a treat. The free federal application no longer requires mounds of paperwork. Students can save time, and often headaches, by completing the online FAFSA application, which can import financial data directly from the IRS database.

"It's simple, safe, and the processing time is very short," says Zhanna Golster, financial aid director at Notre Dame of Maryland University.

It's also free, stresses Golster, who says some NDMU students--about 60 percent of whom are 25 or older--mistakenly go to fafsa.com, which charges a fee, instead of fafsa.gov.

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Financial aid officers can walk applicants through the online process, and students who prefer something more familiar can still file a paper FAFSA.

2. It's more than loans. Don't bypass the FAFSA, even if you have the financial resources to pay tuition without taking out loans. Financial aid awards can include federal and state-specific scholarships and grants that students don't need to pay back.

Filing your FAFSA early can help ensure you meet any scholarship deadlines. Students are not obligated to accept any of the loans, scholarships, or grants they are offered.

3. Your award is not set in stone. FAFSA awards are based on an applicant's income from the previous year, but certain life events can alter a student's financial circumstances.

"Divorce is one that comes up a lot ... or when one of their children goes to college, potentially that could change what they're awarded," says Kristine Bureau, assistant director of compliance in the financial aid office at Regis University in Colorado. "As an undergraduate student, they might qualify for more need-based funding."

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If you lost your job, went through a divorce, or were suddenly saddled with medical bills, talk to your financial aid adviser. Most colleges and universities have a process in place to handle such life changes and can adjust aid awards to reflect a student's current financial situation.

Shifts in work, family, or medical status could also prompt enrolled students to reduce their course loads, which could affect financial aid awards. Students should therefore maintain a dialogue with their financial aid advisers to understand what life changes could mean for their college funding.

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