When Mom Goes Back to School

Middle-aged students are going to college in record numbers, and inspiring younger classmates, including their own kids, to hit the books harder than ever.
Schools for Moms

Vicki Smith stands in line with the other students at the University of Northern Iowa's bookstore, waiting to purchase class materials for her Humanities I and Personal Wellness classes. The petite blond is a sophomore majoring in art education who dreams of one day teaching at the college level. But this undergraduate is a little different from the other coeds: She's 44 years old and the single mother of five children. Her oldest son, Jared, is actually enrolled at the same university.

Returning students like Vicki were for years referred to as "nontraditional," but according to recent studies that phrase may no longer apply. Adult students are in fact the fastest growing educational demographic in the United States. Between 1970 and 1993, the number of students 40 and older increased a whopping 235 percent, according to statistics gathered by the Education Resource Institute. Attendance is on the rise among students with dependents, as well as among single parents, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Being a student can be difficult enough in terms of balancing hectic class schedules, homework, tests, employment, and social life. Add being a mother and homemaker to the mix, and the thought of going back to school may seem overwhelming at best. And yet each year thousands of these women strap on their backpacks and head off to class.

Jared admits he doesn't know how his mother handles it all. "I take a lot more classes than her, but I don't have as many responsibilities like raising a family and all the things a single mom has to do," he says. "And she spends so much time studying! I like good grades, too, but I would never push myself that hard."

But Vicki, who says she runs "a pretty tight ship" at home, feels studying is a great example she can set for her children. "Seeing Mom studying is a positive thing for kids."

That certainly was the case with Denise Alexander. The 43-year-old single mother went to college for the first time at the encouragement of a supervisor at her full-time job in New Carrollton, Maryland, where she works as a product analyst. At the same time her daughter, Sheina, had decided to take time off from school and wasn't sure when or if she'd go back.

"I really felt she needed me. I thought that if I could go to college, Sheina might be inspired to go too, get some incentive to go back," says Denise. She was right. Not only was she able to encourage her daughter to go back to school, but Sheina enrolled at her mom's school, Prince George's Community College. What's more, the two even took a couple of classes together. Denise graduated in May 2004. Sheina, who currently has a 4.0 grade point average, will graduate next year.

Continued on page 2:  Back to School