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The Importance of Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students 

  • 5 Min Read

Get a better understanding of the financial barriers faced by nontraditional learners and how they can be overcome.


The top reason working adults aren’t taking courses or earning micro-credentials is because they can’t afford it

Skill gaps exist in the working world, and organizations and higher education institutions are working to bridge these gaps. But the fruits of this labor may not be as bountiful if the target audience—nontraditional learners—can’t afford to reach their learning goals. 

And it’s not just the cost of the course. As discussed in D2L’s white paper Enabling Learning for Life: New Realities for Work and Education, it can sometimes be the hidden or forgotten costs of education that break the bank.  

In this blog post, we’ll talk about the importance of financial aid for nontraditional students, and do so through the lens of the following areas: 

  • the hidden costs of education 
  • comparing program and course offerings 
  • financial aid 

Keep reading to get a better understanding of the barriers faced by nontraditional learners and how they can be overcome. 

Enabling Learning for Life: New Realities for Work and Education

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The Hidden Costs of Nontraditional Education

When you’re thinking about the cost of a program or course, the first price tag that comes to mind is usually the tuition fee. While this might be the largest cost, there are other fees that can add up and put pursuing education out of reach for nontraditional students.  

Thirty-six percent of U.S. and Canadian adult learners said finances were the top barrier stopping them from pursuing education. 

As discussed in Enabling Learning for Life: New Realities for Work and Education, some of these costs can include: 

  • losing income by taking time off for a course or training 
  • required textbooks and tech tools 
  • transportation to or housing for in-person courses 
  • child care 

Another factor that ties into these hidden fees is the return on investment when taking continuing education. Learners want the security of knowing that if they do decide to invest in education, it will be a smart investment that pays off.  

These fees are considered wraparound supports and are critical to the success of these students. That’s where financial aid for nontraditional students enters the picture. 

Nontraditional Learners Want Ways to Compare Programs

Nontraditional students across North America also want to be able to compare programs across disciplines, institutions and organizations.  

In fact, 58% of U.S. and 54% of Canadian adults said that having an online platform to compare offerings is important to them. 

Being able to see how programs stack up in terms of cost, modality and credibility (from where it’s being offered to whether it will actually get you hired) makes committing to education easier. 

Some of this work is already starting to be done. Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) has made progress on creating a credential registry. Its goal is to help students better see what programs are available and understand which programs or courses will work best for them.  

Colleges and universities in New Brunswick, Canada, have also teamed up to build the Study NB website. The goal of this site is to provide one place for interested scholars to search and compare schools and programs. This shared resource makes it easier for students to find what education works best for them while also promoting the east coast of Canada and the institutions nestled within its borders. 

Even though institutions are in competition for student enrollment, it’s important for them to recognize the wants and needs of their prospects and put them first. As long as the institutions are putting their best foot forward, banding together to promote offerings has the potential to help all ships rise with the tide of nontraditional students. 

Examples of Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional learners deserve access to financial aid like any other students would. One way to accomplish this is by rethinking how and when students pay for their tuition. 

One unique example of providing financial support for students is showcased through Jobs for the Future (JFF). This nonprofit is looking into the possibility of income share agreements (ISAs) as a way for learners to finance their education. Instead of students being responsible for paying the full tuition upfront, they pay back fees based on their income after they complete a program. Students also wouldn’t be required to start making contributions until they reach a certain income threshold.  

ISAs would not only ensure that students aren’t being deterred by the cost of education, but also that institutions and organizations are offering quality programming that meets projected ROIs. 

Financial aid for nontraditional students can also come from their employers. Education benefits are a selling feature for job applicants and practical for adult learners looking to afford the expansion of their skills. Research has shown that 65% of employees rank education benefits among their top perks, and over 50% said a tuition reimbursement program is one of the best benefits their employer offers. 

Another recommendation, as explored in D2L’s white paper, is for governments to extend financial aid to encompass nontraditional students. 

In Canada, the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) is looking to promote micro-credentials and is doing so by highlighting programs where funding is available. The eCampus Ontario Micro-Credentials Portal is another searchable database that compares programs and offerings eligible for OSAP funding. 

The Future of Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students

As continuing education and nondegree courses start to share the spotlight with traditional postsecondary programming, more prospective students will become interested. 

If we already know the pain points of these students, such as not being able to afford education, solutions should be sought. To give these students the best opportunity possible and help close skill gaps, proper funding needs to be in place to lead to success. 

To help nontraditional students account for tuition and hidden educational fees, education providers need to place the spotlight on providing proper financial aid. Adult learners can be given the support they need to achieve their goals through government funding or organizational benefits. 

Curious about the other key findings explored in Enabling Learning for Life: New Realities for Work and Education? Download a free copy of the white paper to check them out: 

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Table of Contents
  1. The Hidden Costs of Nontraditional Education
  2. Nontraditional Learners Want Ways to Compare Programs
  3. Examples of Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students
  4. The Future of Financial Aid for Nontraditional Students