Three Tips for Non-Traditional Students Seeking Financial Assistance
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.
Author Perspective: Student