Scholarships for Midlifers

Look in the right places, and yes, there is money to go back to school.

Leo Geraci, Ph.D., was a pharmaceutical R&D scientist with a background in organic chemistry when industry-wide downsizing took his job in 2009. Geraci, 52, looked for a job for almost three years before he heard about a fellowship that would help him change direction, offered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to help recruit recent grads and career changers with science and math backgrounds become teachers. It provided a $30,000 stipend for classes toward teaching certification and a master’s degree and help with living expenses.

Geraci is about to graduate and will likely be teaching high school chemistry come fall. “If it wasn't for that fellowship program, I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” he said. “It’s a major boost.”

Thousands of scholarships are available for people looking to change or renew their careers, if you know where to look. Though the best-known federal loan programs are fairly restrictive – Pell Grants and campus-based loan programs are for undergraduates -- there are many other options.

     See also: The Right Certificate Can Land You a Great Job

“The vast majority of awards don’t have any restrictions. [Scholarships for nontraditional students] are not as rare as most people assume,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, a network of more than a dozen websites about planning and paying for college. Only about 10% of awards have a restriction to first baccalaureate degrees, he says. Many scholarships can be applied to undergraduate or graduate education at any age.

Such aid is not for people looking for quick fixes or easy outs from unhappy jobs. Even the most generous programs, like the Woodrow Wilson Fellowships, are only helpmates along a path that you will need to determine and finance largely on your own. So set your goal first, then seek scholarship aid. “You can see winning something like that as confirmation that you’ve picked the right path,” says Nicole Williams, a career expert for LinkedIn and the author of several bestselling books on careers.

Here’s how to use scholarships to drive your career change:

Know where to look: Most sites that offer information about financial aid cover a wide range of awards. Among the best are StudentScholarshipSearch and a site maintained by UCLA. You can find information on federal student aid for graduate education at a site run by the Department of Education. Also check out sites offering information for nontraditional students and information about second bachelor’s degrees.

Don’t overlook smaller programs: Not every scholarship is online, in the big databases or particularly obvious. Local clubs and organizations, such as Rotary and Kiwanis, are good resources. Kantrowitz mentioned three organizations that offer scholarships aimed at women returning to the workforce: the Talbot’s Woman’s Network, the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation and the Displaced Homemaker’s Network.

     See also: Downsize Your Life Without Pain

Don't assume you’ll be a shoo-in: You probably have a resume chock-full of experience, but so does everyone else. Geraci went up against several thousand applicants for about 100 positions. “They definitely asked a lot of questions,” he said. “That’s like a 4.5% acceptance rate.” Be prepared to put your heart and soul into the application and interview process.

Here are 4 tips for standing out: 1. Write and talk about what interests you. If you’re passionate about the topic, it will shine through in an essay or interview. 2. To frame what you write or say, illustrate how you’ve had an impact on others, as well as how they’ve affected you, advises Kantrowitz. 3. If you’ve received feedback from previous applications for scholarships, schools and career advancement programs, use it to improve your pitch this time around. 4. Remember, the organization is not there to help you. It’s there to help a cause. The more you show how you can advance that cause, the likelier you are to win an award.

Know where the jobs are: Go after scholarships and aid for careers that have a future. Unemployment rates are relatively low for recent graduates in education (5.0%), engineering (7.0%) and health and the sciences (4.8%), according to a recent report from Georgetown University. Those careers are tied to stable or growing industry sectors and occupations. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking for a scholarship that leads to the career of your dreams, even if the odds of getting a job in that field are long. But do so with your eyes wide open.

Be prepared to work hard: After the pressures of a career or the working world, returning to school might sound easy. That is not typically the case. “There were many nights I got only five and a half hours of sleep,” Geraci says.

Expect tradeoffs: After years of upheaval in the highly paid drug research business, a steady job was important to Geraci. As a teacher, he’ll earn only about half what he used to make, a tradeoff he is willing to make. He’s had the full support of his wife, an emergency room RN. They have two kids, one in high school and one in college, and their savings helped them keep up with the tuition payments while Geraci was in school.

Given that few scholarships cover the full cost of tuition and a lost salary, you need the support of your family. “We don’t do these things in a vacuum,” Williams says, noting that an important part of the process is gathering information and consulting with those around you about how they will be affected by the change. Many couples trade off returning to school, says Kantrowitz.

Elizabeth MacBride is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer, a site focused on helping independent professionals make a good living.

Photo credit: Curve/Getty Images