Traditional college students get scholarships and financial aid, not to mention help from mom and dad. So where does that leave you – the adult, nontraditional learner – especially if you plan to take the very nontraditional route of online education?

Tuition reimbursement is not a myth!

It’s time to dig out that employee handbook and uncover the hidden treasure of tuition reimbursement like Zachary Randles, a vice president for the Office of General Counsel for a financial services company headquartered in New York City, did. He enrolled in a multimedia design and production class at New York University (New York, NY) to enhance his skills, but it didn’t come cheap. By earning an A in the course, though, his company paid 100 percent of the tuition.

Ultimately, says Randles, businesses hope to receive a return on investment for their educational monetary input. “They want people to go out and better themselves,” he explains. “And, eventually, it will help their departments.”

The concept is catching on at large corporations and even small businesses that encourage their employees to keep their training up-to-date and add to their knowledge base. What’s more is that employers are updating hiring policies and tuition reimbursement rules to include online degree programs, according to Eduventures Inc., a research and consulting company in the education industry.

In addition to ensuring your degree pursuit is at an accredited school, an employer may also demand to see job relevancy, and -as in Randles’ case – your academic performance may affect the amount of reimbursement. Some corporations require you stay with the company for a period of time following your education completion; otherwise expenses may revert to your responsibility.

Financial aid is not just for teens

You may qualify for federal financial aid for many online programs, especially those affiliated with accredited brick-and-mortar institutions. Research Web sites and contact a school’s financial aid department to inquire about your eligibility for federal aid. If so, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); this will determine your financial need based on your income and school expenses, and may qualify you for federal Pell Grants and/or federal loan programs such as the Stafford loan.

In addition to this general federal aid, there is also money earmarked for adult, nontraditional students. For instance the Lifetime Learning Credit is a tax break that applies to most higher education, including non-degree courses, with a maximum credit of $2,000 per return.

Financial aid rules are going the online way.

Lucky for you, the rules are changing. The growth and popularity of distance learning has prompted the Department of Education to take a closer look at amending the Higher Education Act of 1965, which requires students to be present in a classroom more than half the time in order to be eligible for federal student aid. Since 1999, however, a trial run of sorts called the Distance Education Demonstration Project has been ongoing to test the quality and viability of expanded distance education.

What does that mean for you? By enrolling in one of the schools involved in the project, all distance learning financial aid restrictions will be lifted. That means if you meet the normal aid eligibility requirements (credit hours needed, etc.) you have the same chance of receiving aid as you would if you attended a local community college.

Educational loans have been designed just for you.

Beyond federal aid, there are alternative financing options for online learners. In fact, many financial institutions are offering special educational loans for adult students. One is the Key CareerLoan for undergraduate and graduate students attending school on a part-time to full-time basis, including weekend, evening, distance learning, and continuing education programs. Another is Chela’s AcademicEdge loan, designed to cover any education-related expense.