Editor’s note: This article is part of a feature series on the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Fingertips fly over the phone she pulls from her pocket. The instant smile is involuntary as she turns it my way. From the screen, long-lashed, enormous brown eyes twinkle at me from atop chubby cheeks. “He’s the reason I’m doing this,” she says. “I’ve started school so many times before, but he’s the reason that this time I’m going to finish!”
Welcome to the landscape of adult degree completion programs, a world of unique financial aid and debt-management quandaries and one of the fastest-growing sectors in higher education. In the adult degree program at Warner Pacific College, many students arrive at our door with confidence deflated and their loan and grant eligibility nearly depleted. They are disillusioned with education, carefully guarding the faint spark of hope that spurred them to give learning one last shot. And we aim to get them to graduation with their heads held high and their debt under control.
When a student arrives in our office, eager for success but jaded by past experience, our goal is always to help them own their financial aid decisions and feel a sense of pride in the way they manage their student debt. Our strategy is a three-pronged approach: financial education, eligibility maximization, and exploring alternatives.
From the first enrollment appointment, students connect with financial aid in a partnership that lasts throughout their program. We review their current debt levels and percentage of grant eligibility used compared with lifetime maximums available. Many students are shocked to learn lifetime maximums exist; this information provides a powerful framework for how they use their remaining financial aid.
Once classes begin, we check in with students frequently, offering comparisons of their awarded financial aid with anticipated costs and answering questions. We connect them with SALT, a value-added benefit for students, providing tools, articles, and support for budgeting, financing education, loan repayment, and more. We also provide reminders as students approach lifetime maximums, preventing surprises that could become barriers to completion.
Because most people like the idea of “free money,” we constantly review grant lists and award students as they have eligibility. We also encourage undocumented students to apply for state grants in Oregon. Rather than discount adult degree program tuition with institutional scholarships, we keep costs low – about half the cost of our traditional program – but we publish scholarship opportunities on a student blog and offer frequently vetted lists of available scholarships. We help with searches, recommendation letters, and applications, working to empower students for future success.
We also frequently discover that adult learners come to our program after a major life event – job loss, family change – that has prompted them to develop new skill sets. We actively listen to our students’ stories as we meet with them. Certain students are candidates for a special conditions appeal, a Pell Grant eligibility review process for students whose current situation is very different from the tax year data on which their Pell Grant is based. This process has provided additional funding for some of our students, allowing them to stay in school.
Cutting costs and reducing student debt requires creative thinking and a willingness to look outside ourselves for solutions. We encourage students to submit curriculum from work training programs they have attended and seminars in which they have participated to see if credit can be earned. We also encourage students to earn credits for familiar subjects through DSST and CLEP exams.
In addition, we help students think about funding options they may not have previously considered. Some of our students tap into employer reimbursement programs, while others access funding through AmeriCorps or organizations where they’ve volunteered. For students who have served in the military, we provide guidance and accommodation for accessing and coordinating payment through their G.I. Bill and other Veterans Administration programs.
In the end, we offer the same financial aid awards as larger, public universities, but the intangible awards set us apart: hope, service, and personalized attention that flow out of the love we know in Christ. Here they find a second chance, belief in their dreams, and recognition of their potential. Here they are more than just a name or ID number. That is what makes Christian higher education so meaningful and so necessary. That is what makes all the difference.
Nancy Drummond is a financial aid counselor for the adult degree program at Warner Pacific College in Portland, Oregon.