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Articles / Applying to College / Financial Aid for Single Mom Returning to College

Financial Aid for Single Mom Returning to College

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | Oct. 28, 2010

Question: I am a 39-year-old single mom who wants to go back to college for a second degree. I graduated in 1994 with a bachelor of science degree from a state college. I had a solid work history until this economic downturn. I am almost out of Unemployment benefits and really want to go to college for a bachelor of arts. The college I want to attend is a private college. I filled out my FAFSAand my EFC is 0. But I also understand that because I have a degree, I can't get any grants. I already don't know how to pay my rent once my Unemployment runs out and I am very concerned that my dreams of have a career I love may be impossible. Are there any other resources available to someone in my position?

Unfortunately, you are correct when you say that you are not eligible for grants … at least not for grants that come from the U.S. government. You may, however, be eligible for Federal loans … depending on how much money (if any) you borrowed when you were in college two decades ago. Of course, you might be reluctant to take on a lot of debt, and I can't blame you.


If the college you hope to attend is well endowed, and if you are a strong applicant there, it's possible that this school may be able to offer you institutional grants (i.e., money that comes from their own coffers, not from the government.

You can also try sites like www.fastweb.com that can direct you to scholarships for which you may qualify. However, the best money typically comes from the colleges themselves and not from outside sources. In addition, as an older returning student, you will have more limited private scholarship options than your “competition"—the high school seniors—do. However, FastWeb has several dozen scholarships in the database that are earmarked specifically for students over 30. J

Also aimed at “older" students is the Talbots Women's Scholarship Fund. See: https://www.scholarshipamerica.org/talbotswomen/instructions.php

Another Web site to try is www.meritaid.com. If you're flexible about where you enroll and you don't have your heart set on just one school, you might be able to hone in on colleges that offer merit aid to non-traditional applicants.

Two more think-outside-the-box ideas:

--Start off at a community college. Your costs will be lower and, if you do well there and qualify for Phi Theta Kappa (the community college honor society) you'll be eligible for transfer scholarships at 700+ participating 4-year schools. See: http://www.ptk.org/schol/newscholdir/list.php

--Apply for a job at the private college you'd like to attend. Most colleges offer tuition waivers for employees. You may have to start out just taking one course at a time, and you may have to settle for work that doesn't especially excite you. But this could be a good way to generate some income while you return to school and to graduate loan-free. When I worked at Smith College, I knew several women who were employed full-time at the college and who also were enrolled in Smith's Ada Comstock Scholars Program (for non-traditional students). One friend of mine needed 10 years to earn her B.A. (she was a single mom, too), but one of the beauties of getting older is that time does go fast! Years ago I read a quotation in “Dear Abby" that I really liked. I don't remember it exactly, and I'll probably butcher it here, but it went something like this:

A woman wrote to Abby and said, “I'm 48 years old and I've never been to college. I've always wanted to be a doctor, but, even if I start right now, I won't finish for ten years, and by then I'll be 58."

Abby replied: “Regardless of what you decide to do, you will still be 58 in ten years. So you might as well be a doctor, too!"

So, as you look down the road ahead, keep in mind that the years will pass more swiftly than you might like (even when certain days can seem endless), so pursue your dream, no matter how long it takes.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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