"My 29-year-old son has an associate degree in computer science but wants to go back and get a bachelor's degree in childhood education. He works a full -time job and plans to attend college part time. His income is under $30,000 per year. He's single with no dependents. Are there any grants or loans he might qualify for? Thanks for any advice on this."
—Sharon R. Millions of unemployed and underemployed adults are thinking about going back to college to improve their job prospects in this rotten economy. One of the many strange secrets of financial aid is that the amount of money available depends on what degree students aim at. For example, government agencies, charities, and universities give very few grants to graduate students hoping for an MBA or other professional degree. They figure these students will earn enough with these degrees to be able to repay big loans.
Top students interested in doing research for a Ph.D., however, can often get assistantships or other funding. And adults like Sharon R.'s son who are looking for help to cover undergraduate tuition (to get associates' or bachelors' degrees or some kinds of professional certifications) are eligible for a surprising number of financial aid programs from three major sources:
Federal government: The single biggest source of college financial aid, the federal government, hands out money only to those who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Adults who prove they have low incomes (generally below about $12,000 a year for a single person) can qualify for need-based Pell grants of up to $5,350. Part-time students get smaller Pell grants, since their tuition bills are lower.
Adults who have recently stopped working can ask their colleges' financial aid officers if they qualify for a Pell with their current lower income, instead of the higher past income reported on their FAFSAs.
Low-income upperclassmen who get good grades and major in computer science or other tough, in-demand subjects at least half time could also qualify for $4,000-a-year SMART grants. (SMART stands for Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent.)
Students of any age preparing for a teaching career could qualify for $4,000-a-year TEACH grants. (There is quite a bit of fine print associated with these Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education grants, however. Those who don't maintain excellent grades and teach for at least four years at specially designated schools could have to repay the grants with interest.)
Pell grants cannot be used to defray the costs of a second bachelor's. The only graduate programs Pells will cover are teacher certification courses.
Grownups can also get federal student loans as long as they haven't already maxed out their student loan eligibility, aren't in default on previous student loans, and are attending school at least half time. Undergraduates can borrow up to $12,500 a year through the federal Stafford program. Graduate students can borrow the entire cost of their educations, including reasonable living expenses, by combining federal Stafford and Grad Plus loans.
Adults worried about taking on big student loans can find at least a little relief in the new income-based repayment option that will cap their monthly payments on their federal loans below 15 percent of their income. Those who work in public service and make 10 years of payments could get anything that's left of their federal loans forgiven.
State governments: A few state governments, such as Michigan's, are providing financial aid to adults hoping for retraining. Retraining grant information is usually available through one-stop career centers or community colleges.
Colleges: A growing number of colleges are offering scholarships to laid-off workers.
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of America's Best Colleges.