In the second of our series on financial aid issues, Brittany Hackett of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Officers (NASFAA), gives us a look at aid for non-traditional students. She also highlights some of NASFAA’s tip sheets for different types of students, such as adults or military/veterans. Join us our webcast on June 22 covering financial aid fraud in distance education.
– Russ Poulin, WCET 

When you think of college students, who are you picturing? Probably someone who just graduated from high school and is headed off to an ivy-covered campus, living away from home for the first time. While that’s still the reality for some, financial aid administrators know that today’s average college student is anything but traditional.

Non-traditional students are “students who, by choice or by life circumstances, haven’t lived life in a straight line from high school to undergrad to graduate or professional school,” Mendy Schmerer, assistant director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center explains.

And the non-traditional student population is quickly becoming the largest cohort of college students in America. In fact, 2015 data from the National Center on Education Statistics showed that 74 percent of all 2011-12 undergraduates had at least one characteristic that labeled them as a non-traditional student.

But non-traditional students face barriers and obstacles that other students may not.  The way many financial aid programs are designed typically addresses the need and characteristics of traditional college students, and do not often take into consideration the needs of the non-traditional student population.

As the population of non-traditional students grows on campuses around the country, here are some important things you should keep in mind to make their educational path a little easier, particularly when it comes to financial aid.

Be Aware of What Their Lives May Look Like Outside of School and Be Flexible.

shutterstock_262131680For many non-traditional students, school is not their only, or even their biggest, priority. Bearing this in mind can help you tailor your communications and messaging to better assist this group.

Non-traditional students most often are older and have families, work experience, and are independent financially. It is more accurate to consider that non-traditional students are any students who have unique circumstances or who did not matriculate directly to postsecondary education after completing high school or its equivalent. So, while this group often includes older, working adults, it also can include veterans, homeless and foster youth, and undocumented students, among other groups.

“Their characteristics vary just as widely as their circumstances do,” Schmerer said. “Some have a sharp sense of focus because they’ve spent several years figuring out what they don’t want to do, but others are still wandering, which may be the very reason they have started, stopped, and restarted their educational pursuits.”

Explore New Ways and Tools to Serve Students

Between work, families, and other obligations, it can even be difficult for them to find a way to attend classes or complete assignments, let alone interact with campus offices like the financial aid office or academic advisors. By devoting some time and resources to thinking of new ways to reach students who are often not on campus during the day can make it a bit easier for these students and help set them up for success

For example, consider changing your office hours to accommodate those who work during business hours, or extending your hours into the evening or weekend. Or you could leveraging technology to make your office and services more accessible, such as video conferencing or live chatting with students who are unable to be on campus when they need assistance.

The internet also makes it easier than ever to host forms, documents, and other information in a way that is more accessible than having to visit an on-campus office, either on a website or in a portal students can access. Some schools are even beginning to experiment with using online payment systems to collect tuition and fees electronically. This is an excellent way to reduce yet another burden on already busy students.

And while email continues to rule when it comes to campus communications, leveraging other mediums to get your messages where students are most likely to see them can go a long way.illustration of an email “We recognize that email is not where everybody is,” Angela Johnson, vice president of enrollment management at Cuyahoga Community College, said. “We use an integrated perspective so that same content and branding is provided in multiple mediums,” including email, robocalls, social media, and text messaging, she said.

Consider Their Need to Quickly Complete Their Degree and Re-enter the Workforce

It is not unusual for college students to want to complete their degrees quickly, not only so they can enter the workforce, but so they can leave school with as little student debt as possible. This is particularly true for non-traditional students who may, in Mendy Schmerer’s words, “have household expenses that made perfect sense before returning to school, but now are awfully difficult to deal with when trying to also budget for tuition and books.” They may turn to you for guidance on what can help them to graduate quickly with the least amount of debt or what course load makes the most sense for them, both based on their personal time constraints and financially.

When it comes to financial aid, the entire process – from filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to entering student loan repayment – can be a challenge for non-traditional students. Because many non-traditional students are considered “independents,” many assume they are not eligible for federal financial aid programs such as the Pell Grant or student loans. Avoiding jargon when discussing their financing options is key, Schmerer recommends, adding that any digital communication efforts should be clear, concise, and proactive, especially for programs that enroll high populations of adult learners.

It’s also important to consider how non-education expenses can affect non-traditional students. As mentioned before, these are students who often have families, household expenses, and other financial obligations that can be challenging to meet when they are working and attending school. One way to help students, especially low-income students, is to connect them with community resources and public benefits that may alleviate the financial strain of attending college.

Seek Advice When Faced with Special Circumstances

While it is easy to offer general advice and tipNASFAA logos, anyone working in higher education knows that students have specific questions about their individual circumstances.Over the years, NASFAA has developed and maintained several tip sheets that are designed to help unique student populations overcome challenges to successfully navigate the financial aid process and access higher education. Tip sheets are available for military/veterans, undocumented students, adult learners, and homeless and foster youth, highlighting specific questions they will have to answer on the FAFSA.

Some tips that are useful to administrators who may get questions from these students include:

  • Knowing the definition of what a “ward” of the court is, and how it impacts a student’s financial aid applications;
  • Under which circumstances an undocumented student may be eligible for non-federal student aid or in-state tuition;
  • How bankruptcy or student loan default may impact an adult learner’s financial aid prospects; and
  • What financial information an active-duty servicemember must include on his or her FAFSA.

Check out NASFAA’s tip sheet for unique student populations and other financial aid information and resources for students and families by visiting our Students, Parents, and Counselor’s resource pages.


Author headshot


Brittany Hackett
NASFAA Reporter & Multimedia Coordinator





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