Nontraditional students aren't so nontraditional anymore. Roughly 71 percent of all U.S. undergraduates defy the college-student stereotype, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In some cases, they work full time and attend school part time. Some are single parents, others are high school dropouts and many face a unique set of financial challenges – day care expenses, job loss and divorce, to name a few.
Students don't have to scale these obstacles alone, though. Colleges want their students to succeed, and many schools offer support to help less-traditional students earn degrees.
Financial experts and college officials weighed in on the following questions frequently asked by so-called nontraditional students.
Q. Is the FAFSA a waste of my time?
A. The short answer: no. Many students assume they won't qualify for financial aid because they work full time or only plan to enroll in a class or two, says Maureen Amos, director of financial aid at Northeastern Illinois University.
"We spend a lot of time convincing nontraditionals to apply," she says.
Close to 45 percent of Northeastern's students were over the age of 25. Not all of those students qualify for federal financial aid, but they may still be eligible for state grants or scholarships offered through the university. Students need to fill out the FAFSA to even be considered for those funds, Amos says.
The FAFSA uses a family's most recent tax returns, among other things, to determine financial need. The decision is not set in stone, though.
If the financial situation – or the family situation – has changed, schools will work with students to recalculate financial aid eligibility.
"Our goal is to provide the student who has the greatest need with whatever they are eligible for, so we want an accurate portrait of what the home situation is," Amos says.
Students need to provide documentation of the change. A termination letter or unemployment application typically will suffice in the case of job loss. In the case of divorce or separation, schools often require proof of separate addresses and a letter from their attorney, Amos says.
Q. Can I get financial aid as a part-time student?
A. Yes. While certain state and school-sponsored scholarships require full-time attendance, federal student loans only require students enroll half time. That typically works out to six credit hours, or two courses.
Part-time enrollment is often the best route for returning students, says Amos. She encourages nontraditional students to start small and be realistic about what they can handle.
"We want the transcript to be nice and clean," Amos says. Incomplete courses and dropped classes cost students money without helping them get closer to their end goal – a degree. "They only want to take what they believe they can finish."
"They may find that they can knock out 15 credit hours and be fine, or they may find they can only take one or two courses," she says.
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Students chipping away at a degree one class at a time can still get financial aid, says Jed Spencer, director of financial aid and scholarships at Weber State University in Utah.
Pell Grants – free, need-based aid doled out by the federal government – can be used to pay for just one class at a time.
Q. Does the school help with day care?
A. Take your child to work day is an event. Take your child to class day is not. But for many nontraditional students, college attendance is dependent on affordable, reliable child care.
Fortunately, some colleges have on-site day care centers for students to utilize.
Erie Community College in New York just won a $364,000 federal grant for its child care center. The award is part of the Department of Education's Child Care Access Means Parents in School program, which funds on-campus day care for low-income students.