“Can I Afford It?” Adults Financing Their Higher EducationKim Wagner | Executive Director of Student Financial Services and Auxiliary Enterprises at Elgin Community College
Adult students often juggle many roles: parent, employee, caretaker for aging parents and even sole financial provider to their families. The stress of everyday life can be difficult to handle, but when you add the financial decision to go back to school on top of that, it can be overwhelming. As they make important decisions about going back to school, adult students need to understand their current financial picture and how the financial assistance process works in the world of higher education. As adult students prepare to finance their higher education, there are many potential advantages and disadvantages to their situation. Many adult students bring life experiences that help them to know which questions to ask a college professional; however, the unfamiliar terminology in financial aid might frustrate and discourage some. Additionally, adult students may be more motivated to pay off student loan debts as it joins any of their existing financial obligations, but poor budgeting may not allow them to pay back their loans as quickly as they have planned.
At Elgin Community College (ECC), financial outreach and counseling are key components to the services provided within the financial services department. There are many steps an adult student should take before beginning coursework at a higher education institution. The following are a few key steps to include:
1. Create a personal budget
Students need to understand how their income will change as they begin their commitment to coursework. Will they continue to work and perhaps attend school part-time? What are their fixed and variable expenses? Are there any savings that can contribute to their cost of education? ECC provides workshops for community members to learn budgeting skills, and financial aid advisors review a budget worksheet with every student who requests a federal student loan. Budgeting is a lifelong tool.
2. Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and pursue scholarships
Many adult students believe they are ineligible for federal student financial assistance because they are at a non-traditional age or have attended another institution. This is not true. All students who desire financial assistance need to complete the FAFSA for access to federal grants and loans. There are many financial assistance programs and scholarships that require the FAFSA to be completed. ECC has free FAFSA workshops throughout the year, presented by financial aid experts who walk students step-by-step through the application. This is a valuable support to our community and one that all higher education institutions should consider performing.
3. Monitor how much you borrow in student loans
Every college awards student loans differently, which can be very confusing to students. Adult students may have savings or employment wages to assist in paying for college. Therefore, adult students need to understand how much they actually need to borrow while they attend college and what their responsibilities are as a borrower. All students should receive personal counseling on interest rates and repayment options before and after they receive their student loans. ECC requires all students who wish to take out a federal student loan to attend a one-on-one counseling session with an advisor to discuss their specific financial situation. Additionally, as students graduate from ECC, the financial aid office contacts them to discuss their total loan, repayment options and important contact information about their lenders. This concentration on loan counseling is crucial to all students and should be required by all institutions of higher education.
Adult students need to understand that it is not impossible to finance their education. It is never too late to advance your education. Making wise financial decisions by turning to the experts within the institution is important to any student’s success.