Scholarships for Adult Students

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If you’re planning to go back to school in order to advance your career or transition into a new one, you probably already know that a college degree is going to cost you. But you’re not on your own!

Scholarships for Adult Students

Yes, just as there are scholarships for sophomores in high school, there are also billions of dollars in adult learner scholarships and other forms of financial aid available to all types of learners if you know where to look.

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We’re here to help you determine how you can get free money for college even as an adult, so let’s get started.

Non-Traditional Student

Let’s clear something up right off the bat. You’ve probably encountered the term “non-traditional student,” and you may have wondered if it applies to you. In short, yes it does.

A non-traditional student is anyone who is not attending college in the typical way. This may apply to:

  1. Students who are not entering college directly from high school. This student may have gone into the workforce, joined the military, traveled, started a family or taken a break from education for any number of other reasons.
  2. Students who live off campus and commute.
  3. Students who are enrolled online.
  4. Students who attend part-time, rather than full-time.

As you can see, all sorts of students fall into this category! A nontraditional student may be 20 years old or 80 years old, may be unfamiliar with their chosen field of study or may have worked in the field professionally for years.

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But as you start to search for colleges for working adults, it’s important to know that the term does include you and so you are eligible for non-traditional scholarships and aid opportunities.

Need-based Aid for Adults

college student jotting down notes

Let’s begin our financial aid discussion by covering need-based aid, which includes grants, student loans and work-study opportunities. Need-based aid is available all students, including adult learners.

In terms of need-based aid, grants are your best bet because they do not have to be repaid. Some grants are aimed at specific populations. There are grants for single mothers, for example. Grants for adults returning to college may come from:

  • The federal government (Example: Pell Grant)
  • Your state (Example: New Jersey’s Disengaged Adults Returning to College Grant Program)
  • Your college
  • Businesses and nonprofits
  • Various organizations and associations, professional or otherwise

In addition to grants, you may be eligible for low interest loans or work-study opportunities that can help cover college expenses.

One of the best and easiest ways to access need-based aid by filling out Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA opens the door to federal and other types of aid, and all students are eligible, regardless of age.

Each year billions of dollars of federal funds go unused simply because college students fail to submit their FAFSA, believing they won’t qualify for any assistance. But the truth is, most students do qualify for aid. And the application is free and easy, so there’s nothing to lose.

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You can submit the FAFSA beginning October 1st of the year before you plan to attend college, and it’s a good idea to apply early because some funds are awarded on a first come, first served basis. Don’t miss out on this opportunity for free money for college!

Types of Scholarships for Adult Students

woman searching for scholarships online

Some students believe scholarships are only available to straight-A students attending college right after high school, but that’s far from the truth!

Most scholarships do not have age restrictions, so generally adult learners are eligible for the same scholarships as traditional students. On top of that, there are many additional opportunities geared toward adult learners’ unique circumstances. And scholarships aren’t only awarded for academic achievement.

You can find….

  • Scholarships by Major
  • Scholarships by State, City or Region
  • Scholarships by Age
  • Scholarships by Gender
  • Scholarships by Ethnicity
  • Scholarships by Religion
  • Scholarships by Sexual Orientation or Lifestyle
  • Scholarships for Working Adults
  • Scholarships for Single Parents
  • Scholarships for Seniors
  • Scholarships for Adults with Disabilities
  • Scholarships for Women
  • Scholarships for Specific Talents
  • Scholarships for Athletes
  • Scholarships for Artists
  • Scholarships for Community Involvement
  • Scholarships for Certain Hobbies and Interests

No matter who you are, where you are or what you’re studying – there are most certainly scholarships available to you!

Where Does Scholarship Money Come From?

group of students discussing lesson in class

“Scholarships are typically awarded on an annual basis,” explains Sally Wriston, director of college bound outreach at Sallie Mae. “While the federal and state governments award some scholarships, the majority of funds are awarded by the institution in which students enroll and by private organizations.”

Dr. Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, an internationally recognized college admissions counseling company, explains, “Heritage and professional organizations, corporations, community businesses, churches and civic groups all offer scholarships, too.

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Each scholarship fund has different criteria and uses a different evaluation process. Often they will look at your GPA and test scores and many may require an activities resume essay recommendation letters and an interview.” Cohen advises students to apply to as many “good fit” scholarships as possible. “Remember every little bit counts,” she says “and it all adds up!”

How to Find Scholarships for Adults

This free money won’t just fall into your lap. You will have to go find it!

Here are a few places to start your search for adult learner scholarships:

  • Search Engines: Look for free scholarship search sites. Wriston says that online search tools like Sallie Mae’s free Scholarship Search are some of the easiest ways to find scholarships. “Find one that’s free” she says “and never pay anyone to find them for you. It takes some of your time but a paid service will not locate scholarships that you aren’t able to do yourself so never pay to find free money.” We also recommend College Board and
  • Employer: Ask about scholarships or tuition reimbursement programs at your workplace.
  • Clubs / Organizations / Associations: Check with any groups you belong to see if they sponsor scholarships for members.
  • College: Look for scholarship and aid information on your college’s website, and contact the Financial Aid Office to see what’s available for adult learners in your field.

How to Apply for Scholarships

two college students applying for scholarship

As you discover scholarships, it’s always a good idea to use a calendar or planner to keep track of all the important deadlines. Be sure to devote ample time to each application. Review the details of each scholarship carefully and tailor your application to meet the specific criteria.

“Don’t use the same essays for all your applications,” advises Cohen. “And be sure to submit all components of the application. Read the fine print and follow directions carefully and meet all deadlines. Ask someone to proofread the application.”

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To increase your chances of winning a scholarship Cohen recommends applying to a greater number of scholarships that offer less money (rather than fewer scholarships with big awards). Although the amounts may be less, a smaller applicant pool will increase your chances. Your best bet? “Local scholarships,” says Cohen, “or scholarships that have a number of unique requirements.”

In most cases when you apply to colleges with financial aid you will automatically be eligible for scholarships offered through that school.

When to Apply for Scholarships

college guy looking for scholarships online

When students ask when they should apply for scholarships, our response is always the same: early and often. As soon as you have made the decision to go back to school, even if you have not yet chosen a school or an area of study, it’s a good idea to start looking for scholarships for adult students.

Start checking online search sites and see what you find. Visit the sites regularly, as scholarships are added to the databases every day. It’s very important to keep on top of new scholarships and approaching deadlines. While scholarship deadlines are scattered throughout the year, October and March are especially busy so be prepared and get an early start whenever possible.

How To Avoid Scholarship Scams

Beware! It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of people giving you free money, but there are also people looking to TAKE your money and/or steal your identity. Unfortunately, scam artists often target unsuspecting students with promises of guaranteed money.

To avoid scholarship scams:

  • Never pay to apply for a scholarship
  • Watch for phrases like “redemption fee,” “disbursement fee,” or “processing fee”
  • Don’t speak to individuals who call or email you regarding a scholarship for which you never applied
  • Don’t attend free financial aid seminars that aren’t associated with a school

What To Do Once You Get a Scholarship

two adult students studying in library

It’s important to make sure you understand the limitations of each scholarship you receive. “Don’t assume the scholarship will be awarded for all four years of college,” says Cohen. “Many scholarships require you to reapply each year and satisfy certain criteria like maintaining a certain GPA.”

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It’s up to you to make sure you’re meeting the requirements and re-applying when it’s time. If you fail to do so, you could miss out on the scholarship money altogether. And finally, be sure to thank the business or organization that sponsored the scholarship. A phone call, a personal email or a letter will go a long way in letting them know you appreciate their financial support.

Scholarships for Adult Learners and Non-Traditional Students

group of students working together at a computer

There are a number of scholarships for adults and other non-traditional students. Some are dedicated to these types of students, while others are simply open to any college student regardless of age.

Here are a few scholarships that are not school-specific:

    1. Return2College
      Amount: $1000
      Renewable: January 31, April 30, September 30
      Essay: 3 sentences
      Criteria: Age 17 or older; Must be attending a college or graduate school full or part time, or planning to attend within the next 12 months
    2. Imagine America Adult College Grants
      Amount: $1000
      Deadline: December 31
      Essay: N/A
      Criteria: Age 19 or older; Never received an Imagine America scholarship/award; Must be enrolled in participating college; Must complete assessment
    3. Unigo $10k Scholarship
      Amount: $10,000
      Deadline: December 31
      Essay: 250 words or less
      Criteria: Age 14 or older; Must a US Citizen
    4. American Legion Non-Traditional Student Scholarship
      Amount: $2000
      Deadline: March 1 every year
      Essay: N/A
      Criteria: One award per division; Must be a current member of The American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary or Sons of The American Legion; Must be a non-traditional student returning to education later in life
    5. AfterCollege Succurro Scholarship
      Amount: $500
      Deadline: March 31
      Essay: 200-word personal statement
      Criteria: Must be enrolled in an accredited program with a minimum GPA of 2.5
    6. Alpha Sigma Lambda Scholarships
      Amount: (14) $3600
      Deadline: April 30
      Essay: No longer than 2 typed pages
      Criteria: Must be an adult learner enrolled in an associate’s or bachelor’s program and have completed 24 semester hours with a minimum GPA of 3.2; Must demonstrate financial need
    7. College JumpStart Scholarship
      Amount: $1000
      Deadline: April 15
      Essay: 250 words or less
      Criteria: Open to 10-12th graders, college students and non-traditional students
    8. Scholarship Detective Launch Scholarship
      Amount: (2) $1000
      Deadline: December 31
      Essay: 140 characters or less
    9. Angela E. Grant Memorial Scholarship
      Amount: Up to $5000
      Deadline: May 1
      Essay:  1-2 pages
      Criteria: Open to cancer survivors and/or applicants with an immediate family member who has been diagnosed with cancer
    10. Get Educated Online College Scholarship
      Amount:  (2) $1000
      Deadline: October 15 or March 15
      Essay: 500 words
      Criteria: For students enrolled in accredited online degree programs in the U.S; minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0
    11. Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship
      Amount: Up to $40,000
      Deadline: December
      Criteria: Must attend a fully accredited four-year institution to pursue a baccalaureate degree; Must have a minimum GPA of 3.5; Must demonstrate financial need
    12. Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund
      Amount: Varies
      Deadline: February 26
      Criteria: Must be a women age 35 or older; Must demonstrate financial need
Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.