Financial Aid and Nontraditional Students
November 8, 2019 7:53 AM   Subscribe

My partner is in college for the first time, balancing school with work. He's not getting any financial aid outside of loans-- is there anything we should be doing differently, or is that just the norm?

My partner (age 30) dropped out of college and got his GED a decade ago. He has recently started taking college courses working toward a bachelor's, first three semesters of part time community college, then enrolling this fall full time at the local state college where the tuition is around 9k a year. His GPA is good (3.8ish).

He also works ~30 hours a week, making around 27k a year before taxes. This income seems to push him out of the running for any financial aid besides loans. Last year he got a small Pell Grant, but he just found out this year that his income was a little too high in 2018 to even get that. He recently met with the financial aid office, who told him there may or may not be more aid available next year and gave him a list of private scholarships to apply for.

So far, he has been taking out enough loans to pay for tuition and fees (some subsidized, some not) while covering all living expenses, books etc out of his income and also making small monthly payments on some of the unsubsidized loans from community college.

It's frustrating to see him working so hard to juggle school and work and know that he's still going to graduate with significant debt. Based on my own experience as a traditional student who got lots of "gift aid" along with loans I guess I thought that there would be at least some grants available to him as a nontraditional student with a relatively low income.

Does anyone have experience with this? Is it possible that it would actually make more financial sense for him to work less? Is graduating with 30k in debt just the realistic best case scenario for an adult working while they put themselves through college? Is it worth chasing private scholarships when he already has so much on his plate?

posted by geegollygosh to Education (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Oops, the first sentence should read "dropped out of high school and got his GED." *facepalm*
posted by geegollygosh at 8:09 AM on November 8, 2019

I was a traditional student, but in terms of aid, loans and a Pell grant were all I got too (full disclosure, this was back in the late 80s and early 90s). The only private funding I got was the MMA or CD or whatever it was that my grandparents started for me as a college thing back when I was a baby. I also was in a work-study program at my college.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:10 AM on November 8, 2019

I tried to work work while going to school full time and eventually stopped because of this exact reason. One thing to consider is that the unsubsidized, private loans are really the worst to deal with post graduation. I had to take out a ton of federal loans to pay for school, but income based repayment means that’s not a problem.
posted by velebita at 8:13 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, apply for scholarships (ASAP). The school may have workshops to help.
posted by wintersweet at 8:21 AM on November 8, 2019

Agree on applying for scholarships.

Check if his school uses a standard app/dashboard for these. My school uses AwardSpring. It's basically a one-stop shop to set up your basic information, and then you apply for all the scholarships you think you're eligible for*. It makes it SO MUCH easier. He may still have to chase down recommendation letters, and will probably have to do some additional tweaking to tailor his application to the scholarship.

*Believe it or not, sometimes scholarships go undistributed, because student self-select themselves out of them. So apply for all the ones he thinks he may even be the slightest bit qualified for. Some scholarships are need-based and some are merit-based, and some are a combo. Even if he thinks his income will disqualify him, apply anyway. Let the scholarship awarders make that call.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:26 AM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

velebita, would you be able to talk a little bit about how your financial aid changed when you stopped working (or worked less?)?

I suspect that the amount he's working is unsustainable as is, and he'll probably end up switching to a less demanding job with a shorter commute (making less $ per hour). It's hard to find very much info about how income changes might affect independent students, all the resources are geared toward traditional dependent students.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:39 AM on November 8, 2019

It's not clear that any of his expenses are "unusual" enough to qualify for this, but you may want to look into getting a "Professional Judgement" regarding his FAFSA. I could potentially see the community college loans/their interest at least as being worth asking about, or maybe there's something else going on you didn't mention to us.

Overall though, it is entirely possible that "work less" is the only real answer. I too was in a similar situation and ended up taking a very minimal credit load while saving hard for several years and then quitting work and doing several very intense semesters using savings for living expenses and scholarships/subsidized Federal loans for tuition. (If income is low enough, savings are protected from being considered part of the EFC.) I also deliberately did not marry my partner whom I lived with during this period, which helped to reduce expenses without having their income/assets counted against me.
posted by teremala at 8:49 AM on November 8, 2019

Financial aid offices are notorious for not revealing all the financial aid options available to students. For example, I work at a university where we have a HUGE emergency aid fund for students but when students come to financial aid in trouble, financial aid officers will deliberately not mention it. Students have to specifically ask for it and even then they have to be speaking with a senior officer. I would suggest he speak either to the director or with a senior financial aid officer because they will be able to outline more financial aid options beyond private scholarships (for example, additional institutional grants).

If he stops working or reduces his hours, he can change that information through financial aid and could *potentially* receive more aid. I only say potentially because depending on when he does this, he may not get much in terms of additional aid because most aid is first come, first serve.

I would recommend he stop by his university's Office of Adult and Continuing Education. They can help him navigate financial aid and other university resources as a returning adult student. It will also give him the opportunity to potentially connect with other returning adults, who may also have some strategies.

He may also want to reach out to his employer and see if they do any sort of tuition or textbook reimbursement.

Also, many university libraries have textbook available as ebooks or if he can't afford the textbooks, he can ask the professor if he has an older copy or if he can borrow it to make photocopies. This is a common practice and most professors will accommodate, unless that professor is just a straight up jerk.

FWIW, the national student loan debt average is well over $30K, so graduating under that would be outside the norm. Though, doesn't make it suck less.
posted by wasabifooting at 8:57 AM on November 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Definitely worth chasing private scholarships. I was also a nontraditional student (graduated last year at the age of 32), and I wish I'd pursued those more. Does his school have an index of scholarships he can apply for? A lot of them can be applied for pretty easily, and they're well worth the time, even if it's a lot to deal with in the moment.

Is there any kind of resource center on campus for nontraditional students?

Feel free to send me a memail if you have any specific questions you'd like me to answer -- I was in CA so some of my knowledge may not apply, but I'm happy to help however I may be able to.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:59 AM on November 8, 2019

I was an independent student, and after the first year in school I quit working except in the summer. The less income I had, the more financial aid/subsidized loans I got. I ended up getting enough to cover tuition and live(extremely cheaply) off of, and then make a tiny amount of money in the summer and get the earned income tax break. I can’t speak to the exact numbers, and this was a few years ago so they are probably different anyway. I don’t regret stopping work at all, it was good to be able to concentrate entirely on school and take classes full time. I do regret the private unsubsidized loan I took, because even though it was comparatively tiny I am supposed to make payments on it even if my income is super low.
It’s stupid that the system is set up so unclearly, and my financial aid office was not at all helpful- It seems kind of like how healthcare works, where no one will tell you exactly what to do but the system will steer you towards what it wants (full time student with lots of loans) by making all the other options untenable.
I did try to get scholarships but I gave up pretty quickly as it was so, so much work for no return.
posted by velebita at 9:14 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

A scholarship search firm (or individual) may be worth looking into. The guy I used came back with about 40 he thought I could apply for. I looked over the batch and tossed probably ten of fifteen because they weren't really a fit. I applied for something like 20. Ended up getting two. One for $1500, the other for $3000. (this was back in the 1990's) The applications and essays were a pain, but worth it to me in the end.
Thanks to my spouse working, I was able to quit my job to go to school full time (including summers). I don't know how the folks that had jobs (even part-time) managed it. It's a tough challenge and you and your partner have my respect.
posted by coppertop at 9:33 AM on November 8, 2019

If getting a degree and no debt is a long-term goal, he or she is still young enough to think about going into military service for the education benefits. It’s not for everyone, but I thought I’d mention it for completeness.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:39 AM on November 8, 2019

As someone who is also going to school as a non-traditional student trying to get my bachelor's, with a very small Pell Grant, I'm applying for LOTS of scholarship. I actually have an Excel spreadsheet I made with 100 scholarships that I qualify for. Surprisingly, I haven't seen a single general scholarship with an age cut off (with the exception of ones only directed at graduating high school seniors). My favorite website for finding scholarships is Relatively simple interface, though you do need to make an account. There are so many local law firms out there offering $1,000 in exchange for a (winning) 250 word essay and good GPA!

There's also Americorps- if he joins a program and completes his term of service, they will repay some of his student loan debt. My sister did this after she graduated.

Other than that, perhaps he could pick up a side gig and use all the money for that to help with tuition. I walk dogs using Rover and that's where my earnings go. I'm making enough just over the holidays to pay for my next quarter- granted, I live in a wealthy area so I can charge a lot and get away with it.
posted by mollywas at 9:54 AM on November 8, 2019

Thanks everyone, this has been really helpful. I'll pass some of this info/thoughts on to him.

FWIW, the national student loan debt average is well over $30K, so graduating under that would be outside the norm. Though, doesn't make it suck less.

Yeah, I don't mean to make light of how serious student loans are nationally, and I don't mean to act like he should be able to graduate with fewer loans than other people. I guess my question is more about whether he should continue trying to hold down near full-time hours with an hour commute to his job.

Seems like if he reduces his income by half or 2/3rds by working fewer hours or at a less stressful lower paying job, he might get tuition mostly covered by the pell grant and other scholarships, could take out 8k/year in loans for living expenses and end up with a similar loan burden and a lot less stress.
posted by geegollygosh at 10:21 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

“There are so many local law firms out there offering $1,000 in exchange for a (winning) 250 word essay and good GPA!”

These are done by companies to increase their search rankings. (“Harvard linked to this scholarship page so this company is great!”). They often get half a dozen applications a year so they are worth applying for.
posted by Monday at 1:08 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

They probably already know this, but be sure to take any available deduction on state and federal taxes.
posted by dum spiro spero at 9:37 PM on November 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Since financial aid is by default based on past income, he should double check with the financial aid office, to make sure that any reductions in current income will affect financial aid as intended.

I assume he was not a member of phi theta kappa?
posted by oceano at 1:13 PM on November 9, 2019

I’m a financial aid advisor (I Am Not Your Partner’s Financial Aid Advisor), although I work with a specialized program with some unique characteristics so I’m not as well versed in traditional-structure program borrowing, so the grain of salt applies.

Since someone else brought up the possibility of employer based tuition assistance, keep in mind that tuition assistance from an employer is considered when awarding federal aid, and if your partner has this available to them and opts into it, it will affect eligibility for federal aid. The benefits can outweigh the the negatives, but also has some short term drawbacks—for example employers may not reimburse you until you’ve completed a term and submitted grades, and they may not reimburse for courses they deem not relevant to your job even when they’re required for the overall degree, AND they may want to see proof that the term was fully paid for before they reimburse. Few employers offer this to non-full time employees so this may not be relevant at all, but in the event that it becomes relevant, I’m throwing it in here as a data point.

If their income is drastically different than it was in the prior-prior tax year for the relevant federal aid year, they could be eligible for a Special Circumstance review (it may be called something different at their institution). Fair warning, it’s a drawn out process that requires presenting a lot of details about their income including pay stubs, expenses, etc and can take at least a month to fully resolve. I find that even preparing students in advance for the nature of the process doesn’t alleviate the frustration of it. The Department of Education really works hard to, shall we say, make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely (*snort*).

Pell and federal subsidized loan eligibility is based on the EFC, which is pretty much straight up based on income and household demographic information. It won’t take into account your rent, or your debt. So you’re right that temporarily making less money could help (again, due to the prior-prior tax year that the FAFSA works from they’d potentially still have to go through a Special Circumstance process to adjust for the change in income versus the relevant tax year) but only you and your partner can decide what the effect on your day to day life might be.

I don’t know what their college grade level is, but while Pell Grant eligibility is static from year to year (the amount itself changes slightly, but you’re only ever allowed up to 100% of that amount), loan eligibility increases in stages. It’s up to $9500 for first year students, $10500 for second year, and $12500 for third year and beyond, for undergraduates. There’s a limit to how much of that is subsidized (the government pays the interest while you’re working on the degree) but for federal unsubsidized loans it can be right up to those limits. And while federal unsubsidized loans do accrue interest to the student while you’re enrolled, they are still the cheapest game in town and vastly preferable to private loans (i.e. Sallie Mae).

Ultimately their situation sounds pretty close to what I’d expect at their income level, based on your loose details. If they opt to work less going forward, they may find it worth the effort to have their EFC reviewed in a subsequent aid year to hopefully take advantage of some federal grant opportunities or at least increase the ratio of subsidized federal loans. If nothing else it might free them up to power through more terms without a break and finish up more quickly. It certainly sounds like eliminating the commute could contribute to that and it is worth examining.
posted by padraigin at 9:42 PM on November 9, 2019

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