Financial Aid for Lifelong Learners

“I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”

Abraham Lincoln offers this encouraging thought for lifelong learners, who make it a priority to seek out education as a source of enjoyment and constant improvement. With resources like open courseware (OCW) and online certificate programs, lifelong learners are able to find more opportunities for education than ever before. But what they’re not finding is money to pay for them.

The Rise of the Certificate Learner

Certificate programs are increasingly popular, especially online, and offer good opportunity to students who are short on time, money, or both. Last year, 1 million certificates were earned, more than 1/5 of all post-secondary credentials awarded. That’s more than triple the number of certificates awarded in 1994 (300,000).

And it’s no wonder: certificates are a great way to upgrade skills without having to go through an entire traditional degree program. Adult full time workers often use lifelong learning or certificate programs to advance at work, or even adopt a new career.

Lifelong learning has a positive impact on earnings and employability, which can also lead to positive effects on health and well being. Some students are even using certificates as a stepping stone between bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Lifelong learners are finding great ways to put their newly acquired knowledge to work, but they’re not finding a wealth of financial resources, which more traditional students may find more straightforward.

The Challenge of Federal Financial Aid

Despite the value and growth of certificate programs, it can be difficult for students to find the money needed to complete these programs. Federal funding in particular can be a challenge.

To receive federal funding, students must be enrolled at least half-time. This is usually not a problem for college students, who typically take 12 hours or more, but with certificate programs that have a less demanding load, students may not reach the required level. Not all certificate programs have enough hours available, so even accredited colleges and universities may have certificates that aren’t eligible for federal funding. That makes it tough for students who want to take a few courses here and there, or who have decided to pursue a certificate program that doesn’t require many hours.

“If you have less than half-time enrollment, you’re not going to get full (financial) need,” explains college financial aid advisor Jodi Okun. “And that’s discouraging, especially if you’re a lifelong learner and you’re working full time, 40-60 hours a week, and you’re taking an online class, and you need help.”.

Okun adds that the half-time requirement can be especially discouraging for full-time workers who need the certificate to continue working in their current job.

Students seeking grants, loans, and other federal financial aid must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as FAFSA. When filling out the FAFSA, Okun recommends that students indicate the kind of program they’re pursuing, as there may be another criterion for funding, even if it’s not through the federal government.

Even for students who technically might not qualify based on class time alone, Okun says there’s still a possibility you can qualify based on work hours. “Some of the off-site work that you do in your certification programs can become part of your hours, so then you can be considered a full-time student,” she says. “If you’re doing online work, and then doing the field work, then those hours accumulated would make you considered a full-time student, and then you would be eligible for federal need.”

Adult learners with college-aged children should be especially willing to take advantage of federal or state resources. “Adult learners who might be continuing their education are probably more available for Pell Grants or state grants,” says Okun. “And if they have other dependents who are going to college, they will be more need eligible.”

But keep in mind that federal aid is not your only option.

Tuition Reimbursement

Often, lifelong learning and certificate students are working adults, many of them going back to school for a career change or to maintain skills and knowledge for their current position. So it’s a smart move for employed students to explore company-sponsored tuition reimbursement benefits as a financial aid option.

Tuition reimbursement is very common among employers. Even in 2009, as the U.S. struggled with recession, 87% of organizations offered tuition assistance to their employees. Even now, Okun is seeing an encouraging trend of students who benefit from this resource. During a recent speaking engagement with students, she took an informal show-of-hands survey to find out how many students were utilizing tuition reimbursement from their employer. In this particular audience, 50% of students were taking advantage of the benefit.

But in a recovering economy, some employees may find that this benefit has its limitations. Facing tough financial decisions, some companies have cut or reduced their tuition reimbursement programs. Still, companies recognize that tuition assistance for employees is a smart investment, and have held on to their programs, or chosen to bring them back as the company’s financial situation has improved. Employers may, however, be cutting back on the generosity of this benefit. Where some companies may have offered 100% reimbursement in the past, they now have annual caps between $6,000 or $10,000.

There are likely to be other limitations, as well. You may need to choose a certificate program that is “preferred” by the company, or approved through a formal process. You may also be reimbursed on a scale of your performance, with full reimbursement for an “A” average, with less paid back for less-than-perfect grades.

Even with such restrictions, the benefit of tuition reimbursement is worth the hoops you may have to jump through.

Your Financial Aid Options

While financial aid can be tougher for nontraditional students, don’t let that discourage you. There are plenty of ways to get help from financial aid professionals, and still even more ways to receive financial aid, even if it’s not from the federal government.

To find out what works for your particular situation, Okun recommends that students talk to their school’s financial aid office. “They’re probably not approached enough,” she says. “They have seen many students in your situation who have been doing the same thing, and they can recommend what is going to work.” The trend of adults going back to school for certification programs is very common today, and financial aid departments who help lifelong learners on a regular basis are likely to understand and be able to offer useful resources.

State grants

Investments in vocational and adult education grants total approximately $1.9 billion annually. That’s a lot of money up for grabs, and often, the best way to get to it is through your state. Contact your state’s grant office to find out what grant programs are available to you, including the Perkins program, and even grants for child care that can make it possible for you to study.


There are nearly 700 different scholarships available right now for community college, professional development, or vocational/occupational students. These scholarships and more can be found with the Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool, as well as other great sources including FastWeb and the College Board.

In addition to general online resources, Okun encourages students to talk to their school for scholarship programs that may be unique to their campus, program, or nontraditional students. Talk to your financial aid office, as well as your department for research within the program.

Internships and work study

If you’re not working, or working but willing to take on a few extra hours, paid internships and work study programs are also an option. They can not only help you pay for school, but also give you resources for experience in your field of study. The federal work study program offers part time employment for students with financial need.

Paid internships are rare, but available. You’re most likely to find paid internships in industries like communications and social media, IT, and the financial sector.

Tax benefits

An often overlooked source of financial support for students are tax benefits. While they’re not the same as a check written out to you or your school, they can soften the blow when it comes to paying for your education. With breaks like the Lifetime Learning Credit, you can get a credit for up to $2,000 of educational expenses each year.

Student loans

Once you’ve tapped out all other options, if you still need help making your pursuit of learning a financial reality, there are student loans available. Federally subsidized loans will have the most favorable rates and terms, but if you don’t qualify, there are private student loans as well.

Although student loans are available, they should be used sparingly. Student loan debt can follow you around for 10 years, or more. Even bankruptcy can’t wash student loan debt away. So if you’re going to borrow, be sure you can handle it.

Whatever your situation, know that there are options out there for you. Okun encourages lifelong learners to avoid letting the financial aid process or the fear of financial burden stop them from continuing their education. Her best advice for lifelong learning students? “Keep going, keep being a lifelong learner, and uncover the little gems that are out there,” she says. “There’s money to help.”

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