Freelance writer and stay-at-home mom Heather Eades was plenty busy homeschooling her daughters and running her household in Golden when she decided to return to school in 2010. Between teaching her children and helping edit her husband’s papers as he was finishing his bachelor’s degree, and despite her hectic schedule, she couldn’t fight the urge to be a student again.
“I missed learning,” Eades says. “I needed something to just keep me growing personally.” That decision launched her five-year journey toward receiving a master’s in early childhood education from the University of Colorado Denver (UCD).
“I did all of my schooling online through UCD, except for the summer practicums, which makes such a wonderful option for moms who need to be home with their kids,” she says. “The flexibility to continue your education while being at home with your children is priceless.”
Eades is one of an increasing number of nontraditional students in the U.S. enrolling in two- or four-year colleges, and more and more educational institutions are striving to accommodate them. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of students has increased roughly 34 percent from fall 2000 to fall 2016. Nearly 60 percent of those 20.5 million students are women, and 28 percent of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions have dependents. For parents going back to school, here are some points to consider.
“We find that working parents, both moms and dads, need flexibility and the ability to fit in coursework according to their schedules, not the other way around,” says Jennifer Fletcher, program dean at the University of Phoenix College of Humanities and Sciences. University of Phoenix offers both online and in-the-classroom options.
Likewise, Arapahoe Community College offers many degrees that can be completed entirely online, such as accounting and health information technology. Students completing online degrees must log in to their virtual classrooms each day, but they get to choose the time they do it. “This allows students to complete coursework while the children are napping, at gymnastics, away for a play date or asleep for the evening,” says Julie Nicholson, academic advisor at Arapahoe Community College.
Longmont mom Christine Kjeell obtained an online, professional master’s in business administration from Colorado State University (CSU) in just over two years. The wife, mom of two and hospital director at a veterinary referral hospital admits she hasn’t slept much since returning to school last year. And she’s often preoccupied by educational demands, whether at work or with her family. But she says the sacrifices—she routinely crams in five-hour nightly homework and study sessions while husband Sean picks up the household slack—are worth the struggle. “I feel that I”ve improved in my job already, and my boss has already commented on this as well,” Kjeell says.
A Model for the Kids
Kjeell says it’s also been good for her kids to see her working hard and understanding education is important for success in their own lives. “One of the things that keeps me going is the thought of my kids watching me graduate,” she says. “They”re going to see that I’m working my booty off. And look what I got!”
Eades also wanted to achieve personal goals while modeling a lifelong love for learning for her two daughters, now 9 and 13. “It definitely expanded my mind. I really felt like I grew in a whole new way, and that alone was worth it,” she says. “And I wanted to show my girls that learning doesn’t ever end.”
“As a society, we not only recognize the importance of a college degree, but we”ve accepted that people are no longer likely to remain in one career path their entire lives,” Fletcher says. “Parents, in particular, are concerned about providing better opportunities for their children, and are able to do so by continuing to grow as professionals and finding more satisfying jobs. With the variety of education options out there, adults don’t have to stay stagnate in a career they don’t love.”
Advice for School-Bound Parents
- Keep the goal in front of you. When you’re in the midst of school, Eades says, the “big picture” can get lost. Her hopes in attaining a master’s in early childhood education, for example, was to become a better teacher for her daughters while enhancing her writing career. “Before beginning (a program), have the goal in front of you because that’s what’s going to keep you going the whole time,” she says.
- Ask your employer about tuition reimbursement programs, says Howard Fukaye, Arapahoe Community College director of student recruitment and outreach. Some workplaces both allow and encourage this, especially if the degree or certificate being earned could be useful in one’s current job. In addition, Fukaye advises that nontraditional students should consider the affordability of college and inquire about financial aid before making the decision to go back to school. “Beginning—or resuming—your education at an accredited, public community college will likely be your most affordable option,” Fukaye says.
- Get your significant other on board. Kjeell says she feels lucky to have a supportive, easy-going husband, because he’s readily taken on extra household and child-rearing duties without resentment, including laundry. “I think he realized we were all going to be naked pretty soon if he didn’t,” she says. And while it’s a challenge to have little quality time as a couple, she says, they both know it’s only temporary. “The only thing he ever asks of me is, ‘Do you have homework tonight?” He’s quietly supportive, which I appreciate.”
- Consider the time commitment. On average, most students will need to set aside six to nine hours per class each week to attend class, study and complete homework. “Take time to plan out your schedule including school, work and other commitments before registering for—and beginning—your classes,” says Nicholson. “The fewer conflicts there are in your daily routine, the easier it will be to focus on earning your degree.”
- Use school services. It’s important for parents—moms or dads—to recognize that they are not alone in this new adventure, Fletcher says. “They should establish a support network of classmates, faculty and other (staff) members,” she says. “Parents should also utilize the resources available to them, including academic counselors, faculty and administration.”
- Commit to quality time. There’s no getting around the fact that family, friends and free time will routinely take a backseat to your studies. So Kjeell makes a conscious effort to be present when she’s spending time with her son, 8, and daughter, 3, instead of worrying about schoolwork. She schedules “fun” time in her calendar—like an upcoming evening cycling event—and plans studying around activities so she can occasionally spend unencumbered time with her husband and friends.
- Go at your own pace. Eades quickly discovered she wouldn’t be able to follow the school’s suggested timeline in attaining her degree. So she picked classes at a pace that worked for her lifestyle. The tradeoff took more time, but helped her maintain sanity. “Know what you can handle personally because I think that”ll look different for everybody’s situation,” she says.