Parents, It’s Not Impossible to Go Back to College (It’s Actually Affordable)

national work and family month

October is National Work and Family Month. It’s an initiative from human resources nonprofit WorldatWork that focus on the challenges working families face every day.

Flexibility and work-life balance are often the job benefits parents with school-age children look for most, even more than salary, according to a recent study from FlexJobs.com. Both can be essential ingredients for maintaining personal and family health, especially for parents.

So how can parents find jobs with greater flexibility and work-life balance? One way is to receive more education.

“The more education or transferable skill sets a person has provides more individual choices to select an industry, career, and/or specific company that would provide work-life effectiveness,” says Leonard Sanicola, WorldatWork Senior Practice Leader.

3 benefits of going back to school as a parent

College is more complicated and costly for parents than for other students without the same family responsibilities.

However, the pros for going back to college (even with a family to take care of) usually outweigh any cons. Here are a few to keep in mind.

1. Better employment opportunities

Parents can seek more education to stay competitive in the workplace and boost earning potential.

“With globalization, changing technologies at record speed, increased automation, and the changing workforce, it is always a good idea to either enhance your current skills or work on developing new skills,” Sanicola says.

2. Meeting the family’s needs

Often parents go back to school out of necessity.

Collette Pearson Shaw, a financial aid counselor for student athletes at Brigham Young University, made the decision to return to school after going through a divorce with young children.

“I knew I wouldn’t receive much financial support from my ex and that the only way to truly provide financially for my family was to get a degree,” Shaw says. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Utah Valley University debt-free, and today earns enough to support her family.

3. Personal fulfillment

Many students find the pursuit of an education to be fulfilling. Going back to school can also be an effective way to switch to a more satisfying career path.

Tiffany Stubbs, a mother, and student of finance and agribusiness at Utah State University says she returned to school because she loves learning and wants to set a good example for her kids.

“They get to see their parent accomplishing their dreams and realize they too can have it all,” Stubbs says. “Family, school, dreams, everything is achievable.”

5 ways parents can finance college (for themselves)

Parents often have financial responsibilities that many traditional students don’t face. Returning to school means figuring out how to cover college costs on a budget that might already be stretched to cover a family’s needs.

Fortunately, parents have several financial resources they can take advantage of. Here are some tools and tips for parents as they plan for the costs of going back to school.

1. Get employer education benefits

Check with your employer to see if you qualify for any educational assistance or tuition reimbursement.

“Many organizations today still offer tuition reimbursement programs [and] other learning and professional development opportunities,” Sanicola explains.

“Employees should speak with their supervisors or managers on what types of development opportunities might be most valued in their current role or a future potential role,” Sanicola adds.

Even if your current employer doesn’t offer such benefits, you might be able to get some help if a future employer provides student loan repayment assistance. Currently, just four percent of employers provide this benefit, but it’s becoming more common, Sanicola says.

2. Apply for federal aid

Another important resource for financing a return to college: federal financial aid.

Unlike recent high school graduates or other young adults, parents are seen as independents and also responsible for their own children. Because of this, their ability to contribute to the costs of their own education are more limited and they often qualify for greater financial aid.

To apply for federal aid, complete FAFSA for the school year you’ll be attending and file it by the deadline. This will be used to determine your eligibility and need for federal aid to cover schooling costs.

Knowing what federal aid to expect can help you make key decisions when choosing a program or considering financing options.

3. Choose an affordable program

Perhaps the biggest decision is choosing an affordable program. As a financial aid advisor, Shaw says, “I strongly advise [parents] to go to a state school or affordable, reputable private school.”

Avoid for-profit schools if possible. These can be more expensive and have a high rate of students funding their education through student loans.

Pay attention to each program’s cost of attendance and financial aid offered. Some schools even provide aid or scholarships specifically for parents and other nontraditional students looking to go back to school.

If you have previous college credits, you should also see how these credits will transfer to each program.

4. Plan for child care

Unlike their child-free classmates, parents must plan around the needs of their children. Child care can be a unique and high cost for a parent’s college costs.Choosing a child-friendly program can help ease this expense.

Stubbs, for instance, looked at online programs offered by brick-and-mortar schools to avoid paying for child care on top of tuition. She schedules time for classwork around caring for her children.

“I probably end up spending less time on schoolwork than maybe a more traditional student does, but I make the most of it,” Stubbs says.

In addition to online classes, check out on-campus childcare and ask whether needs-based or other types of aid is offered.

A major reason Shaw says she decided on UVU is because “they have an awesome daycare that’s based on financial need, and I had two kids in daycare so this was a necessity.”

5. Limit student loans

You may still have a portion of costs that still need to be covered. Student loans can be an effective way to cover these. However, parents should limit what they borrow.

“Don’t take out all the loans you can just because they are offered,” Shaw says.

If you are taking out student loans, take full advantage of subsidized federal loans before considering other options.

Interest on these loans is paid for by the government as long as you’re enrolled in school at least half-time. That means after graduation, you’ll only owe what you’ve borrowed.

“Not all people are fortunate enough to get their degrees debt free, but they can be smart with their money and only go into necessary debt,” Shaw adds.

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