Of all the memories of my journey back to college as an adult with two children, the one that will stay with me forever is this: It’s 5 p.m., time to leave for my first night class, and my youngest daughter stands on the porch, tiny arms outstretched, tears coursing down her face.
“Noooooooooo,” she screams, ending with a spectacular wail. “Mommy, don’t leave me.”
How can I do this? I wonder as I speed off down the road, hands shaking on the wheel. How will it ever work?
And yet it did. And it can for you, too. With careful planning and some proven strategies, millions of parents are making college work.
Should you go?
Deciding whether to return to college, and when, is a complex choice. Sometimes, the need is clear: You want to pivot into a new career, or climb the ladder in an industry you’re currently in and need new training or certification to be able to do so.
In other situations, the cost-benefit analysis might not be as clear.
“Conventional wisdom is that you only go back to school and get a degree to achieve a specific goal. But, college does more than that,” says Andrea James, founder of Solve for X Coaching.
“The structure [of college] can be helpful to parents, because they don’t have to design their own personal transformation curriculum. It also creates accountability, which many of us need for motivation,” James says. “It breaks you out of your current environment, stretches you and puts you in new contact circles — and those new people in your life can expand your sense of possibility. These are fantastic reasons to go — even if there’s no end goal in mind.”
So, let’s say you decide college is right for you. How will you make it work?
Accept what you cannot change
To succeed as a student parent, you need to first accept that you won’t be like other students — unless they’re parents, too. And some of them will be: Increasingly, college classrooms, physical and virtual, are populated by adult learners, many of whom are parents. A 2014 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that 26 percent of all undergraduates, 4.8 million students, are raising dependent children.
So you likely won’t be alone. Yet it may still feel like you are sometimes — when class assignments and the kiddie carpool are competing for your time; when you need to be studying and your child wants help with her homework.
“The number-one challenge we hear, in terms of what prevents someone from starting school, has to do with time management and balancing life with school,” says Claire Lewis, director of Enrollment Services for the University of Washington (UW) Professional & Continuing Education program.
That was the case for Becky Sander, mother of four children now ages 8, 10, 12 and 14, who completed her Bachelor of Arts in integrated social sciences through an online UW program. As if that doesn’t sound complicated enough, Sander also home-schools her children.
“How can I possibly have any more time?” Sander says she wondered as she considered adding school commitments to her already full plate. “Isn’t that what all parents think?” she asks.
Financial stability is another issue that, while not unique to parents, affects student parents differently.
“Even if you begin making tuition, there can be unforeseen circumstances that come up. The car breaks, and the student has to cover that; they have to get their child to care,” Lewis says. Additionally, many student parents are paying for child care for young children or financing their child’s college education.
Fortunately, most schools have financial coaches who can help parents navigate the hurdles and build a plan that works for their family.
Optimize your strengths
While becoming a student parent can feel like the hardest choice in the world, or the stupidest, there are many ways that being a parent makes you stronger as a student.
The first minute I set foot in a college classroom as a grown-up and mother, I knew I would never take the time I spent there for granted. I never missed a single class, an attendance record that put my first college experience, as a teenage undergraduate, to shame. I simply valued the opportunity too much to not take full advantage.
“Older students often see things in perspective and are more efficient in their use of time,” says Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of Wise-Minded Parenting and other books. “Their life experience contributes to the depth of their academic work.”
I found this to be true, first when I returned to school for two writing certificates, and then when I returned to UW Bothell to earn my MFA. At first, I was jealous of the extra time the unencumbered 20-somethings in my cohort seemed to have.
Then I noticed that they weren’t necessarily getting more done.
It turns out we parents are really good at multitasking and staying focused, skills we sharpened by rearing children.
“One of our enrollment coaches recently made a call to a prospective student, and as the student answered the phone, our coach heard all kinds of noise in the background,” Lewis says. “You could hear a child, you could hear a guitar, and the woman said ‘Hi. I’m teaching my 4-year-old their guitar lesson right now, but I’m still available to speak if you are.’ She went on, breaking from a ‘Honey, that’s good, next string’ to ‘OK, what’s the tuition?’ She was plowing right through her life’s circumstances, because this is her goal.”
Plan, prepare: strategies for survival
The key to survival as a student parent is the same key to surviving parenting itself: Plan. You wouldn’t go on a daylong outing to the zoo without snacks and Band-Aids in your bag, would you? Preparing for success at college is much the same.
As a student parent, I learned quickly to separate my time and space devoted to school from that devoted to my family.
Each week, I calculated how much time I needed to complete assignments and study; then, I plotted on the calendar when I would do it and where. Marking the calendar committed me to it. Saturdays and several nights per week were set aside for studying (coffee shops were a location of choice), while my husband shuttled the kids from soccer games to park play.
A related tip: Fit in studying everywhere you can! Online programs are particularly flexible. “[Students] can watch lectures while their kids are at a playdate, off at soccer practice or while mom is nursing or their baby is napping,” says Aimee Kelly, assistant director of academic services for the UW Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Social Sciences program.
The idea of optimizing your time works for many types of programs and students, even those who also work full-time. “Maybe you have an hour lunch break every day at work and you can commit that,” Kelly says. Or you might use your bus-commute time to do some reading for class.
Of course, you need to accept that for a short time while you are a student, you won’t be able to do everything. I had to miss soccer games, a science fair and even one child’s much-rehearsed role in a play.
“What surprised me the most,” Sander says, “was the guilt of not being able to do everything with my kids that I wanted to. I kept reminding myself that it wasn’t going to last forever.”
And speaking of guilt: Don’t give in to it.
“Validate your family’s hardship,” Kastner says. Apologize when you miss a big moment. But don’t give up your dream or your own self-care.
Another tip: Involve the kids. My kids got a kick out of the fact that now Mommy had homework, and after dinner, as a ritual, we worked on our assignments together. For a younger child who remains in your care when you need to study, try creating a box of toys, books and activities that’s only brought out when you are doing schoolwork. The novelty will buy you some time, as will the occasional screen time. Remember: No guilt!
Keep your eye on the prize
Sander says she always knew that she needed to go back to finish her bachelor’s degree for her children.
“I tell my kids every day that education, and finishing what you start, is important and to always better themselves. I wanted to teach them perseverance when it gets tough. There’s no better way to teach that than demonstrating it.”
Lewis, who is in a doctorate program herself, is expecting a baby. “It’s daunting,” she says. “I want my child to go to college, and I want to pay for that, and it helps to remember my own education will help me do that down the road.”
And for me, there was no better feeling (besides hitting that final “Send” to deliver my 50,000-word thesis) than to see the faces of my daughters, so proud of their mom, at my graduation.