3 Steps Adults Returning to College Must Take

Nontraditional students can find scholarships and financial aid if they know where–and how–to look.

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For students going straight to college after high school, the path toward getting in and paying for school is well defined: take your tests, write your essays, fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and apply for scholarships. But for students who have spent some time away from the world of postsecondary education and want to return, the scholarship and financial aid process can look daunting.

Fortunately, there are some steps to find scholarship opportunities and financial assistance if you're taking a nontraditional route, whether you're coming back from a year of traveling or considering a midlife career change:

Step 1: See if you qualify as independent—and how you can benefit. One of the major differences for returning adults is a change in FAFSA status. Students who are over 24, enrolling in a post-bachelor's program, married, have children at home, or who otherwise meet the FAFSA criteria are considered "Independent Students," so the process you remember—digging through your parents' paperwork and old tax information—will be slightly different. The FAFSA for Independent Students requires reporting your own income and tax information; we'd recommend consulting with the financial aid office at your current, former or prospective college.

The benefit to reporting as an independent student, of course, is that parental assets won't be taken into consideration, and that may lead to your FAFSA demonstrating more financial need than it did when you first left home and headed off to college.

Step 2: Find out if you qualify for undergraduate aid. If you're returning to school for a bachelor's degree—either as an independent student or a dependent—your next step is to look into federal Pell Grants. These funds are overwhelmingly focused on students who have not yet earned a bachelor's degree, and independent status will help you demonstrate the appropriate level of financial need to qualify.

If you're returning to school for an advanced degree, Pell Grant funding will be a little trickier; the only post-graduate funding available through the Pell program is dedicated to students going into teaching programs.

[Read more about increased federal college grants.]

Step 3: Go scholarship hunting—with focus. While you may have dug through and filled out hundreds of applications after high school, as a returning student, you can narrow your focus. Does your workplace offer any scholarship or tuition assistance programs? Are you a member of any professional organizations that may help fund further education? Can you get a foot in the door at your chosen school, via loan or work-study funding? If so, your work and connections may lead to fellowship consideration.

[Explore 11 sexy scholarships that reward fashion, romance and humor.]

We'll explore these options in more detail in a future post. For now, you should know that even if you've spent some time off, there's plenty of help out there to further your education.

Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.