One sticky problem if you're quitting a job to go to school full time is that your expected family contribution will be based on last year's income, even though you won't have a steady paycheck once you start school. Thus, your initial aid offers are likely to be skimpy. Be prepared to appeal. Many financial aid officers are willing to adjust your aid award to reflect the level of income you expect once you're a full-time student.
If you continue working full time (or even part time), getting need-based aid is tougher because your stream of income will continue and the school will expect you to use a good chunk of it to cover college costs. At the least, you'll be eligible for Stafford loans. Even if they're unsubsidized, the interest rates are low. Many private lenders also offer loans, though the rates and fees will be a bit higher. Before you borrow, don't overlook your employer as a potential source of college funding. A majority of large and medium-sized companies offer tuition benefits, and the first $5,250 in benefits each year is tax free.
While many scholarships are reserved for traditional students, some are targeted to older students or have no age restrictions. So scholarship search engines such as FastWeb (www.fastweb.com) are worth a try. Some associations and foundations also have awards specifically for women training for careers. For instance, the Business and Professional Women's Foundation awards dozens of Career Advancement Scholarships (averaging $1,000) each year to women age 25 or older. And the Talbot Charitable Foundation awards scholarships of up to $10,000 to women who earned their high school diplomas or GEDs 10 or more years ago. Some schools also have their own scholarships for older students. At the University of Alabama, for instance, students over age 25 can apply for one of 18 endowed scholarships.
One more avenue: Some colleges that cater to adult students will award you credit toward your degree based on a "portfolio assessment" or "prior learning assessment" in which you demonstrate college-level knowledge of various subjects. Earning "life credits" saves you money by reducing the amount of time it takes to get your degree.
It can be tough for international students, especially undergraduates, to get outside funding to go to college in the United States. More than 80 percent of international undergraduate students finance their own studies with personal or family resources, according to the Institute of International Education. Foreign students don't qualify for Pell grants, Stafford loans, and other federal and state aid, and most colleges offer little or no need-based aid for students who are not citizens of the United States, Canada, or Mexico. Before you can acquire a visa to study in the United States, you generally have to show that you can afford to pay the cost of your education and living expenses here.
One bright note, however, is that a small percentage of U.S. schoolsgenerally the most selective onesare devoting a portion of their financial aid budget to the cause of attracting outstanding international students. Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, for instance, offers need-based financial aid, worth up to half tuition, to nearly all of its international students. In addition, exceptional students from China, Nepal, the Middle East and Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern and Central Europe get merit scholarships that meet any remaining need.