Going to college after taking time off is a huge decision, especially for those who have not been in school for a while. Like first-time college students, people choosing to continue their education may have concerns about how to pay for tuition. But these concerns don't have to keep nontraditional students from their goals. This page outlines how those who want to go back to college can defray the cost of tuition.

1) Fill out your FAFSA!

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is an important step for all students who are concerned about how they will pay for their education — and students who are going back to school are no exception. By filling out this paperwork, students can determine what types of financial aid they are eligible for — such as loans, scholarships, and grants — and how much funding they can receive for their degree program.

Those who originally went to college right after completing high school may remember filling out the FAFSA with their parents because their aid was based on how much their parents earned. However, this is not a concern for students over the age of 24, as they are considered independent. This is helpful for these students because they no longer have to worry about their parents' income and assets making them ineligible for different types of financial aid.

Students returning to school may also be pleasantly surprised to learn that the application process is not as cumbersome as they remember. In fact, the online FAFSA allows prospective students to populate their financial information directly from the IRS database.

2) Talk to your school

There are many funding opportunities available that returning students may not be aware of. However, schools are aware of these opportunities. Students can speak to the financial aid office at the schools they're considering, whether in person or by phone, to find out what is being offered. In some cases, students may actually be able to negotiate a higher amount of financial aid by communicating directly with a financial aid officer. This personal contact is a great way for students to really sell themselves above and beyond what they may have been able to do on their admissions applications — which can go a long way toward increasing their financial aid package.

3) Credits already completed are money in the bank

Students who are returning to college after several years may think they need to start their degree over from scratch — even if that means taking courses they completed when they were previously enrolled in school. However, this is not necessarily the case. Generally, schools will allow students to transfer some of the credits they earned at another school, even if they were completed several years ago. This is especially true of certain general education courses, which many schools consider evergreen in nature.

Taking the time to find out which credits can and cannot count toward a current degree program is well worth students' time. Not only does it save them the time and effort they would need to put into redoing coursework they already completed, it will help them save money on their degrees.

4) There are scholarships specifically for returning students

Scholarships are not just for first-time college students. In fact, some scholarships are only available to returning students or students over a certain age. By applying for such scholarships, returning students can avoid competing with the flood of new students coming right out of high school. And of course, with less competition, chances of earning a scholarship award increase.

In order to find scholarships that are tailored specifically to nontraditional students, applicants can search sites like Fastweb, Scholarships.com, and Unigo.

5) Look for colleges that offer credit for life or work experience

Colleges don't just award credits for previously completed coursework. In some cases, students returning to school can get credits toward their programs based on their work or life experiences. On a professional level, students come to the table with a myriad of valuable skills they gained through the work they've done. As a result, they have the opportunity to earn college credits by demonstrating that their professional experience and knowledge is relevant to the degree program they're enrolling in. But that doesn't mean students' experience must be directly related to their major; in some cases, students may be able to use their work experience to earn elective class credits as well.

Outside of the workplace, students may also be able to earn credits for volunteer activities, as well as personal projects like writing a book or independently learning a language. Students can do this by discussing their experiences with the schools they're interested in attending or by taking a test through a national testing program.

Prospective students who want to earn credit for their life and work experience can review the table below to find high-ranking schools that provide these credits. In order to earn credits, students may be asked to describe their activities and the knowledge, skills, and abilities they learned while participating in them.

6) The Yellow Ribbon Program can help if you or your family are military

Many schools are eager to attract military families, so in order to increase the enrollment of these types of students, they participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Part of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon Program allows schools to waive part or all of the tuition costs for eligible students. In order to be eligible for this funding, students must have been active in the military for a minimum of 36 months after September 10, 2001 or honorably discharged with a service-related disability subsequent to serving at least 30 continuous days after September 10, 2001. In addition, eligible veterans can choose to transfer their benefits to pay for the education of their dependents.

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