Three Tips for Non-Traditional Students Seeking Financial Assistance
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Three Tips for Non-Traditional Students Seeking Financial Assistance

Non-traditional students should do their research and work with an advisor to ensure they understand the financial assistance options available to them.

At the Nontraditional Student Center at Weber State University (WSU) there is a question I expect from students weekly: “Are you offering any scholarships?”

I’ll usually ask how they learned about the center, and they will tell me they were referred by someone at the financial aid office. Usually, I have to break the bad news to them, saying we have already given our scholarships away. Unfortunately, often before I can explain to them how funding works, students leave our center.

I would like to use some of my own experiences with financial aid and scholarships to illuminate for my fellow non-traditional students some of the ins and outs of funding their schooling. Though this is by no means all-encompassing, I hope my mistakes shed some light on how to deal with the issue of funding postsecondary education. Just remember, with scholarships, you get out of the process what you put into it.

1. Learn how the financial aid system works each year

When I started college in Fall 2005, I didn’t have a clue of how lucky I was. Had I started any earlier I might not have received federal financial aid because students are counted under their parents’ income until the age of 24. I got my grant money and loans thinking that once it had been dispersed to me, the money was mine. I had a great surprise when I applied for work-study money during Spring 2006 and the school told me I owed the money that had already been dispersed to me. It turns out when you get work- study money, it changes how much the government offers you in loans.

I hear multiple stories like this every year. The solution is to get informed about financial aid. Don’t expect anyone to hold your hand through the process. Ask questions such as, “If I accept this work-study money, will it affect other funding I am receiving or will receive?”

Speak to a counselor or attend an information session each year about how financial aid has changed. By doing this, you can avoid the stress of realizing you owe the school extra money.

2. Learn how scholarships function and what your campus offers each year

I received my first cash stipends for work with the CARES program and our WSU Diversity Board during the 2006-07 school year. I expected those programs to stay the same after I came back from a deployment to Iraq and also took time off to work for a year. However, when I came back to campus to serve as a student senator for the 2010-11 academic year I was in for a rude shock when I discovered my tuition waiver (which had replaced my stipend) didn’t give me cash. It only waived my tuition, which the military was already paying for. For most non-traditional students, this could be a problem.

Each campus has different programs to help students and it is in your best interest to learn about as many of them as you can. Some campuses offer cash stipends to students while others waive tuition. For example, the scholarship I received for this school year does not give me cash; rather, it covers my tuition and school fees. However websites such as Fastweb.com or Scholarships.com can help you find cash scholarships. Just be aware the scholarship season tends to run from September to April, with the most scholarships offered during the months of December and January. Many of those scholarships require you to apply a year before you intend to receive the money. However, you can find scholarships year round if you are willing to do the work to find them.

3. Multiple forms of funding can mean trouble

The worst experience I had with financial assistance came when I received money from the Post 9/11 GI Bill for school as well as a tuition waiver. The financial aid office told me the waiver was a cash scholarship, so I went on my merry way, thinking I would soon be a little richer. A couple of weeks later, the school told me I owed them money. I had done my footwork to make sure I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I still got stuck with the bill.

Always speak with a financial aid professional when you are eligible for multiple, concurrent forms of funding. They can guide you through the process of getting your funding so you won’t be surprised by an unexpected bill.

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3 Responses to Three Tips for Non-Traditional Students Seeking Financial Assistance

  1. Ellen D Reply

    2013/09/18 at 12:47 pm

    Good advice from someone who clearly has experience with the financial aid system at his institution. I work in the financial aid office at my institution and can certainly relate to the issues Garrett raised. The most common complaint I hear from students is they weren’t aware either their scholarship eligibility or the scholarship criteria changed. As much as I would like to notify my students each time a change is made, my caseload and the number of scholarships available make it impossible for me to do so. Thus, students need to take the initiative to stay current on financial assistance issues.

  2. James Branden Reply

    2013/09/18 at 1:57 pm

    It’s true that concurrent funding from multiple sources can become an issue if you’re not careful. It’s unfortunate Garrett had to go through what he did, but his painful learning experience should serve as an example for all students.

    As soon as there’s a change in your income or overall financial status, you should make an appointment with your financial advisor to see if you’re still eligible for the same level of financial assistance.

  3. Jennifer Reply

    2013/09/19 at 11:55 pm

    I wish I had someone with your knowledge when I was a young freshman at MIC. I somehow only ended up with a $500 Pell Grant even though I had a meager income of about 15 grand a year. Even after receiving over $10,000 in scholarships, because I choose an expensive private school I am left with large amounts of student loan debt. I find it both unfair and unrealistic that financial aid assumes that all students under 23 years of age are financially supported by their parents. This was not the case for me, and not the case for many other students I know. I was forced to claim one of my parents incomes on my FAFSA, even though I was financially independent of them. And my estranged father is a physician, imagine if I had to claim his six-figure income on the FAFSA even though I hadn’t seen him for 7 years.

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