I returned to college when I was 40 years old. I had been out of school for over 20 years. Luckily, my younger sister had just graduated from the same community college I wanted to attend, so she was able to guide me in the process. It is not as easy as one would think and can get a little complicated, especially if you do not know the financial aid process. Many people I know have considered returning to college and have asked me where to start and what the process is like. The following tips should help those interested in taking the plunge into the educational waters once again. This has been my experience with the Financial Aid process from the community college level through my last year as a senior in a university.
Community College or University?
Decide where you would like to attend college. Most cities have community colleges which offer a less expensive way of obtaining either an Associate in Arts, Associate in Science, or Associate in Applied Science degree as opposed to beginning at the university level. Sometimes the tuition is more than twice as much at the university level as the community college level for the exact same classes.
Applying for Financial Aid
If you need financial aid to attend college, the first thing you should do is fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application is easily completed online and takes approximately one hour or less. Beware of the many websites purporting to be the official government website for this FREE application. There is only one website that is the government website for the FAFSA and the address is www.fafsa.ed.gov. If you are asked to pay a fee to complete this application, you have reached the wrong website. There are no related fees either, such as processing, for this application.
The basic information you need to have to complete your application is the previous year’s tax return and associated W-2s. If you wish to complete your FAFSA for the 2011-2012 school year but do not yet have your tax returns, you can estimate your income and whether you think you will complete a 1040 (short version), or 1040A. The application will ask you to list all schools being considered so your financial information can be provided to the appropriate financial aid department in the college(s) of your choice. You will also be assigned a personal PIN number. You can re-access the website at any time to check the status of your application. If you lose your PIN, it can take up to 3 days to receive a duplicate PIN, so it is wise to write it down in a safe place.
After you’ve completed the FAFSA, an estimate of your EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) will be sent to the schools listed in your application. It usually takes 3-5 days depending on when the school you choose to attend downloads the information. I attended a community college in Florida and they downloaded information once a week on Tuesdays. If I went in on Wednesday they would have the information they needed to get the process started, or any new information from an amendment. At the community college level, they will most likely require students to bring in their financial information, which includes all W-2s and the tax form filed to prove the information provided was accurate and truthful. Once at the University level, there is not so much paperwork and you generally do not have to visit your school’s financial aid office.
Choosing the Type of Degree and Major
Once you have started the financial aid process, choose what type of degree you would like to study for. There are aptitude tests offered and advising counselors to help you decide. I really had no clue – even at my age – what I wanted to do “when I grow up.” So I studied and received an Associate in Arts because I did know that I eventually wanted a Bachelor’s degree in something and to transfer to the University level. In the process of studying for the Associates in Art, I studied many different subjects that are required, such as math, English, humanities, biology, and science. Being forced to take certain classes in all these areas helped me choose my major. I discovered an interest in liberal arts and social sciences, but also a passion for writing.
Once you decide which type of degree you want to study for, the school of your choice will have certain admission and testing requirements. Generally the application process takes some time as you maneuver through the different tests and wait on school records to arrive from other colleges or secondary schools attended. During the application process, I took different types of tests to determine my placement level for Math and English. Because I had been out of school for quite awhile, I had to take a few remedial math classes first.
Once you’ve made it through the maze of the financial aid and admission process, you are on your way to becoming a college student again and deciding which classes to take and your course of study. That has been my experience and what I learned in the process of returning to college and applying for financial aid, a journey which began almost 5 years ago. I’ll be graduating next August and look forward to becoming a graduate student next.