Going to College as A Working Parent: Your How-To Guide

Tips and tricks for getting your degree as a parent and working adult


Going to College as A Working Parent: Your How-To Guide

Tips and tricks for getting your degree as a parent and working adult

Are you a working parent considering going back to school? Here’s your definitive guide to making it happen - on your terms, your schedule, and your budget.

Returning to school to earn your college degree can be daunting, and even more so as a working parent. But, making the decision to invest in a degree paves the way to new job opportunities, higher salaries, and better benefits  — it can be one of the best investments you can make for you, your family, and your future. 

While returning to school may feel scary, the first thing to know is that you’re not alone. According to this report from the Harvard Kennedy School of Education, today over 70% of students are:

  • Older than 25
  • A Parent
  • Working one or more full-time jobs
  • The first in their family to attend college

More than one in five college students—or 22 percent of all undergraduates—are parents, says a new analysis from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. In response, an increasing number of schools are adapting to provide the right kind of resources and support to facilitate academic success for parents. 

As the options grow, it’s important to do your research, weed through the clutter, and find a college degree program that works best for you. Equipped with the right tools, it’s possible to balance your personal responsibilities as a parent with your educational pursuits. 

Ready to take the leap? We’ve talked to an array of parent-learners and educators whose advice will help you get the most out of your educational journey. Here’s what you need to know:

Know Your “Why”

First, take the time to get clear about your goals and priorities for going to school. Consider the following questions, which will help you figure out what degree program is right for you: 

  • Are you seeking a job with a higher salary? If so, what is your ideal salary?
  • What kind of industries would you most like to work in?
  • What hours do you prefer to work? 
  • What is the timespan within which you’d like to finish your degree? 

Do your research to understand the job and salary outcomes of different degree programs. Once you’ve narrowed down your list to a few options, then you can make a plan. 

Research and Understand Your Options

You will want a degree and a school that meets you where you’re at. Search for colleges where working parents and adult learners are a considerable portion of the student body. You’ll be able to tell based on the website and whether they highlight the benefits to parents and full-time workers. You can also ask to talk to an admissions counselor or a current student who is also a parent. 

In addition, there are a growing number of "competency-based education programs," which are a great fit for working parent learners. Competency-based education programs are an emerging education model that focus on assessing skills and learning rather than hours in a classroom. With this focus on skills rather than hours, it’s possible to finish coursework more quickly if you already know the material. As former President Obama put it, the approach ''gives students credit for how well they master the material…if you are learning the material faster, you can finish faster, which means you pay less.'' It also means you earn your degree in less time. Competency-based degree programs are a great option to consider as a working parent.

As you research programs, consider the following: 

  • What is the school’s graduation rate? The graduation rate will help you assess how likely it is that you finish the program, and might be an indicator of whether the school offers the right resources and support to see students through to graduation. 
  • What is the school’s accreditation? Make sure the school is accredited through a verifiable third party agency. These organizations examine schools’ curricular offerings to ensure they are meeting certain quality standards. Accreditation is key to accessing financial aid, transferring credits, and applying to jobs. 
  • What is the network of people, jobs, and community that the school can connect you with? Building your career is not just about what you know, but who you know. Ask questions about the school’s career services, organizational partners, and networking opportunities in the field you want to work in. 

Remember that school's are looking for you to attend, so ask a lot of questions before choosing a college. Once you’ve narrowed down your list, it’s time to get some clarity on the cost of going back to school, especially as a working parent. 

Create a Financial Plan

Let’s be real, college is expensive! This reality is partly because of policies in the last 40 years that have made education, long seen as a “ladder” of mobility, into a potential debt-trap. A growing number of programs exist to reduce costs and mitigate the chance of debt.

For example, Gateway U helps students earn their degree at an affordable cost. Gateway U understands the financial barriers well: the program is located in the state of New Jersey, which has among the highest student debt levels in the nation and the third highest cost of attendance in the nation for in-state, full-time students. Furthermore, the impact of student loan debt on New Jersey borrowers disproportionately harms borrowers of color, according to a new report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. 

But New Jersey students shouldn’t have to wait for policies to change to make their college dreams come true. 

“No- to low-cost tuition equates to better economic footing and the ability for Newark residents to start their careers with a clean financial slate. Debt-free graduates will have more money to build an emergency fund, save, and invest. We believe that college programs like Gateway U, which minimizes the cost of tuition and increases access to post-secondary education, play a vital role in urban communities.” - Della Walker, Jr., Director of Hire Newark

Finding the right college, and the right support to make a strong financial plan, can make college accessible — and set you up for long term economic stability. 

We suggest searching for a college access program or nonprofit in your local area. Find an organization or person that can review your expenses with you and help you come up with a financial plan for going back to school. For example: 

  • At Gateway U, we offer free financial aid advising and support, which you can schedule via electing to “Talk with An Advisor” on our Cost & Aid page.  
  • UAspire is another helpful resource, which provides a free College Cost Calculator 
  • South Ward Promise Neighborhood offers free college advising service for Newark residents 

These resources can help you assess your current expenses, the cost of school, and your long term goals. Below are additional steps to help you prepare a college financial plan. 

Budgeting current expenses: 

  • Review your current expenses: what can you expect to spend while you're in school? Consider food, rent, home and shopping needs, medical bills, leisure activities, childcare costs, and a reserve/emergency fund.
  • Use a spreadsheet or free budgeting tool to write out your list of monthly expenses. Write the expense in one column and the amount in the next column. Then, create a column to consider cheaper options, resources, and programs to cut down those expenses. Are there any opportunities to decrease expenses? Are there any public or nonprofit programs that will help reduce costs? Look into programs that provide free food and childcare (SNAP, WIC, free childcare assistance etc.). Be meticulous as you go through each line item! 

Ultimately, remember that your budget is a “band-aid” solution. Getting your college degree is a pathway to more financial freedom in the future. As Saymah Nah, Gateway U’s ED notes, you are trying to make a school plan and financial plan that moves you from a job to a career and from surviving to thriving. 

Evaluating the cost of school: 

Now that you’ve reviewed how to minimize your life expenses, figure out how to make school itself as inexpensive as possible. 

  • Start by researching scholarships and fellowships. Know that many do not have age restrictions. As a working parent and adult learner, there are scholarship opportunities tailored specifically to you. If you’re a student of color, check out this comprehensive list of scholarships.
  • If you’re currently employed, ask your employer about tuition assistance. Many companies have tuition reimbursement programs that cover all or some of an employee’s education as long as the program of study fits within the company’s specific policy. As your manager or supervisor, HR representative, or look in your employee handbook. Know that Federal tax law allows employees to get up to $5,250 in tuition reimbursement tax free from their employer every year and this can cover tuition, fees, books, and some supplies and equipment. There’s a tax incentive for your employer as well: your company can take up to $5,250 per year as a tax deduction. For more info on asking your employer about tuition coverage, check out this Harvard Extension School resource
  • Finally, complete the application for federal student aid. Note that there are no age restrictions on eligibility for federal student financial aid. Completing the FAFSA forms can also be confusing and time consuming. Look up local nonprofit and college access programs for support in completing all the necessary paperwork. At Gateway U, college coaches help students through the process of applying for federal financial aid. 

Playing the long game: financial planning and career outlook 

As you consider what you are going to spend while in school, don’t forget that the goal is to eventually make that money back, plus more! Keep the long game in mind. Factor in what you hope to be earning after you receive your degree and the timeframe for paying off any loans. You might consider how much you hope to earn with your college degree and how much you will make over time. 

Plan your Study Time 

Making the time to study can be one of the most difficult and important components of getting your degree, especially as a working parent. But it’s possible, and worth it! Online, distance learning, and self-paced degree programs offer a variety of formats that make it easier to both study and raise kids. You can take classes in the evenings, mornings, weekends, or even during your lunch break. While the flexibility and choice in when and where to study is helpful for you as a working parent, it can also mean you feel the weight of responsibility to create the routines, habits, and structure that works best for you. But, it shouldn’t be all on you. Here are a few tips to manage your time: 

  • Spend two weeks tracking exactly how you spend your time. Write it down in a spreadsheet, word document, or journal. Once you’ve assessed how you spend your time currently, evaluate your priorities and how you can reduce and reorganize your commitments in order to make more time for studying.
  • One of the most important parts of planning your study time is communicating with friends, family members, colleagues etc. about your new schedule and priorities. People will be able to accommodate your schedule and support your study goals better if you communicate with them in advance. If they know your goals and plans, they’re better empowered to help you. In particular, talk to your employer or supervisor about your schedule. Is your work structured consistently from week to week or can you adjust it based on your school schedule? If possible, ask your employer to work with you to design a schedule that will fit best.  
  • Some other basic time management techniques that can go a long way: 
  • Schedule study time and mark deadlines in a calendar. Set reminders for yourself. 
  • Create a study space that is quiet and comfortable. What helps you focus? Light a candle, make some tea, play music, or whatever else might help create physical and emotional comfort. 
  • Take breaks. Use the pomodoro technique, which breaks down tasks into 25-minute increments. 
  • It may sound simple, but don’t forget to drink water, sleep, and get outside. Exercise, sleep, and healthy eating will help keep energy levels high and your mind engaged - saving time, reducing stress, and allowing you to more efficiently and effectively get your work done. 
  • Share your study plan with someone: by creating a schedule and sharing it, you are creating accountability for yourself so that you actually make the time to study. 
  • Plan online (or in-person) group study sessions with your peers. 
  • Some college programs offer 1:1 coaching to help you set and stick to your academic and personal goals, access school and community resources, get support on academic assignments, and more. For example, Gateway U offers up to three hours per week with a dedicated personal coach. 

While the tips above will help you plan your study time, the larger point is this: it’s not on you to do it alone! Asking for help, setting expectations, sharing your schedule with someone, planning group study sessions, and finding fellow parents in college who are going through the same experience will help you manage your time and reduce stress. 

Find out about Childcare Options 

If you’re not careful, paying for childcare costs while also paying for school can quickly double your expenses. To avoid this predicament, research and plan your childcare routine before you decide on your program. 

  • Look for schools that offer childcare services: public colleges and historically Black colleges are more likely to do so. In particular, search for schools that have applied for and received the CCAMPIS grant. CCAMPIS is a federal grant program that provides money to schools to help low-income parents afford childcare while in school, usually through the provision of campus-based child care programs. 
  • If schools don’t have their own child care program, they often partner with a larger childcare partner or service. For example, Gateway U sets up a partnership with a local childcare service provider, Programs For Parents. When Gateway U students need childcare, we connect the student with this program and help facilitate the necessary communication, support and scheduling. 
  • You can also apply for the Child Care Assistance program in the state of New Jersey, which will cover a portion of childcare fees. 
  • Look for childcare programs with expanded and flexible hours. You might end up needing evening, early morning, or weekend childcare help so that you can make time to study. 

Reach out to your community: It takes a village

  • Know who’s in your community and remember to reach out to them for support. 
  • Connect with other parents who are also in school. Finding other students with shared experience as a working parent - juggling studying, work and raising a child - will help you stay grounded and focused and feel less alone and overwhelmed. This mental and emotional support is extremely important for studying effectively and efficiently. 

Be realistic

And don’t forget to be realistic about your goals. As one Gateway U student, Mone’t Amos, emphasized, 

“When I applied to Gateway U, I kept asking myself if this was the right time and the right program. I went over how much time I actually had and how much time I had to sacrifice. I was honest about what I wanted from Gateway U, my coaches, my family, and myself. By being honest about my wants and needs, I was able to create a schedule and boundaries to focus on my bigger goal of getting my degree.”  

By getting clear on what your goals are, creating a plan to accomplish your goals, and communicating your plan with others, it’s possible to make earning a college degree work for you, even as a working parent. 

It’s no secret that going to college, especially as a parent, is hard work. It takes time, money, and a dedication to your long term goals. But as Mone't and other students learned, the hard work and sacrifice pays off. You'll earn your college degree, access new job opportunities, and learn more about yourself, your dreams, and your community along the way.

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