Analyzes the extent to which state financial aid policies are accessible to nontraditional adult college students; and provides new, more equitable, approaches to state financial aid, and a model state aid policy that better addresses the needs of nontraditional adult college students.

The report presents an image of “today’s college student” (p.3), reviews “the state of state financial aid” (p.4), and discusses why nontraditional adult students matter and where state policies fall short. It also presents new approaches to state financial aid, and provides “recommendations for a model state aid policy” (p.14).

“A wide range of state-funded programs offer student financial aid for postsecondary education and related costs. If designed carefully and funded adequately, these state programs can be an important complement to federally funded student aid. Some state programs offer aid based on merit, while others base it on student financial need. Still others are based on a combination…and/or other factors. However, these state programs generally favor traditional-age college students and are often not fully accessible to adult students, particularly those with low incomes. Today, low-income adult students, or nontraditional adult students…represent a significant and growing share of the college population. They are often concentrated in open access institutions, such as community colleges; are enrolled part-time; and have jobs and families. They are also more likely to be first-generation college students, have limited job skills, and have limited resources to maneuver postsecondary education systems” (p.1).

At the same time, “rising college costs are largely driven by declining state investment in public postsecondary educational institutions over the past decade. State financial aid programs have also received fewer resources….. [S]ome programs have also reengineered the way state aid is allocated, resulting in shifts in eligibility requirements, reduced awards, and technical changes that present barriers for nontraditional students. Some of these program changes include award term limits, inflexible deadlines and disbursement schedules, post-high school eligibility time windows, enrollment intensity requirements, reduced priority on need-based aid, and inequitable support for students attending different types of institutions” (p.1).

“By explicitly focusing on nontraditional adult students, states can help meet their completion and attainment goals while also improving equity by more adequately addressing the complexity of these students’…lives” (p.2).

(Abstractor: Author and Website Staff)

Full publication title: Redesigning State Financial Aid to Better Serve Nontraditional Adult Students: Practical Policy Steps for Decision Makers

Major Findings & Recommendations

“Key reforms to financial aid policies at the state level can offer a solution to promoting inclusive and targeted financial aid strategies that support students with the greatest needs, helping boost state completion and attainment goals. In particular…states can prioritize need-based aid over merit aid; establish inclusive eligibility rules to ensure access to nontraditional students; target state aid as a strategic supplement that helps fill in the gaps for nontraditional students with unmet financial need; and institute flexible processes and schedules for state aid applications and disbursement. These supportive policies can make an important difference in enabling these individuals to earn the postsecondary credentials needed to succeed in the labor market. Although this paper makes the case for policies that would increase aid for nontraditional students, such initiatives should not reduce access to postsecondary education for other needy traditional students. Rather than a zero-sum-game approach, [the authors] suggest that state policymakers change policies and prioritize resources and investments based on their state’s entire student population and scale of need. An assessment of state population demographics can help inform these tradeoffs. Likewise, given the myriad state aid statutes, allocation policies, and legislative environments surrounding state financial aid and higher education finance, states should assess the gaps in their programs and work to align policy in the best interests of those who are currently underserved” (p.2). “A model state aid policy has to be multidimensional and informed by an adequate assessment of real-time student need and demographics. As policymakers strive to increase the levels of postsecondary degree attainment…they must put in place the necessary financial and systemic supports to make that a reality, particularly for nontraditional students. As state programs and policies vary greatly, the context for these model reforms will look different in each state” (p.14). Select recommendations for a model state aid policy include: • “Ensure that state financial aid programs are based on need and equally accessible to all students” (p.14). • “Align state aid eligibility requirements with real time needs and demographics” (p.15). • “Design state aid programs as comprehensive system that holistically supplements unmet needs and complements other aid sources” (p.15). (Abstractor: Author and Website Staff)