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.

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. 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. 

Back to School

There's no one reason why women return to school. But divorce, widowhood, and wanting to improve career options number among the most typical motivators. According to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, going back to school provides private and public benefits. College graduates generally enjoy higher salaries and benefits, are employed more consistently, and work in nicer conditions. College-educated people vote more, give more to charity, rely less on government support, and have lower incarceration rates.

Making the switch from being supported to supporting oneself can be a challenge, but often a necessary one. Financial independence for women is key, says Nancy Schlossberg, professor emerita at University of Maryland and author of Overwhelmed: Coping with Life's Ups and Downs (Free Press, 1994). "I think it's important for women to do some direct achievement, because chances are women will live alone in later life, either divorced, widowed, or never married."

To Schlossberg, who developed a framework of questions that may assist women in deciding if the time is right to go back to school, education is critical in the long run. "There are times when you have to work, when you will work," she says. "You are going to do much better if you have an education, and you're going to be happier if you have the education that enables you to do what you have to do in life. The question is if you are ready at this time to go for it."

Answering that question may bring into play a whole host of worries, like how to balance the homework with the work at home, how to pay the bills, and how to muster the confidence needed to succeed alongside often years younger peers. Yet time after time women around the country rise to meet these challenges head on. Here are a few of the tips that help women go back to school and to keep their personal lives balanced as they do it.

Back-to-School Tips

Set up a daily study time. Time management is an essential issue for all students, and returning women in particular are usually balancing a heavy load of other commitments. Having an assigned time to study in your daily schedule, and making sure everyone in your family knows when that time is, is crucial to keeping up with class expectations.

Redistribute housework and chores whenever possible. Any extra assistance a spouse, partner, or child can contribute is an added benefit. If the family recognizes that Mom is adding on some responsibilities and challenges to her life, they can help by pitching in. Everything won't happen the same way it did before you went to school. The bathroom might not get cleaned as often, and the meals might not be as elaborate. Family support is key, but each woman needs to recognize her own limits in her daily duties.

Don't overcommit. Being overcommitted is a big trap for women returning to school. Something will have to give, whether it's cutting back on work hours or volunteering at a child's school. Don't feel you have to sign up for the same number of courses as a full-time student. It may take you a couple of years longer to get through a traditional four-year program, but you'll be more likely to succeed and you'll be able to work at a pace that won't grind you down. Cutting back on other responsibilities will help a woman succeed in the path to getting a degree.

Consider doing homework together with children. Clean off the dining room table and sit down together with your books. Children need to see that their parents are in school and are also responsible for doing well at their studies. Share with the children what it's like to be in school. Show them your campus too.

"My daughter and I have study habits that are too different for us to be able to study together," says Denise Alexander. "But we can still talk about our classes and our experiences. Sharing that has been really important, for both of us."

Plan ahead. Schedule your week ahead of time. Hang the family calendar on the refrigerator so everyone can be aware of each other's schedules, including study times, exams, work hours, and extracurricular activities. Use weekends to plan meals and do grocery shopping for the next week.

Get technical. Cell phones and e-mail will help keep you connected. Don't worry if you don't have a computer, but be prepared to spend more time away from home in labs or libraries using their equipment for assignments. Schools should be able to help the less technically savvy get up to speed.

Ask for help! Coping with the transition back to school can be quite daunting, and many schools have systems or personnel in place to help returning women face the new challenges. Norma Kent, a vice president at the American Association of Community Colleges, suggests women ask schools about special programs tailored for either single or returning adult mothers, pointing out that some programs may assist with childcare and transportation needs. "For some of them, this is a very courageous thing to go back to college," she says. "In community colleges, women find a real team spirit to help each other succeed. This will make a difference."

Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, September 2004.


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