Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong
For most people, the words college student conjure an image of an 18-year old in a dorm or pulling all-nighters at the campus library. But for Michael and Chad Rendon-Thofson, of Denver, college is two dads finishing up bachelor's degrees after more than a decade in the workforce—while juggling two kids under age 2. For Diana Vargas, of Brentwood, California, returning to school means logging on to an online coding boot camp at 6 a.m. while her 4-year-old sleeps. And for Mary A. Hansen Smith, M.D., of Tucson, returning to college—med school, actually—meant jumping from more than a decade of playdates and school pickups as a stay-at-home mom of five to taking organic chemistry courses.
Students who are not of typical age have long been known as "nontraditional," but about one-third of U.S. college undergraduates are over age 25, and more than 20 percent of undergrads are parents. Some return to school to boost qualifications or enter a new field, some seek degrees to ensure job security, while others crave personal growth or want to set an example for their kids, says Rebecca Klein-Collins, vice president of impact at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and author of Never Too Late: The Adult Student's Guide to College. Still others are determined to finish what they started: According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's Some College, No Degree (SCND) report, more than 36 million Americans have left college without completing their studies.
However, for many parents, the idea of going back to school can be daunting: Cramming for tests while potty training and juggling work may feel impossible. (And then there's the cost …) But there are ways to make it work, according to the parents and experts we spoke to for this story. Consider this your required reading (a prerequisite, if you will) before taking the leap.
There's no time like the present.
In 2016, Chad Rendon-Thofson graduated at age 44 with a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance. One year later, his husband, Michael, earned his bachelor's in organizational leadership. They opted to return to school when their kids were 1 and 2; Michael, who'd recently been laid off, had two years of undergrad, and Chad, a stay-at-home dad, had left college in 1998 one credit shy of a degree. Rather than both returning to work just as their family was growing, "we decided, 'Let's show our kids that it's never too late to put your mind to something,' " Michael says.
Chad and Michael, now 49 and 37, are two of the 1 million SCND students to return to school and earn a degree between 2014 and 2019. Whether your goal is to complete a bachelor's degree or embark on a new one, your first step is to explore nearby schools (unless you're open to relocating) and admissions requirements. Some schools are open admission, meaning all applicants are accepted (i.e., community colleges and some state schools). Other schools are more selective. Many no longer require the SAT or ACT, but some do, so make sure to do your research.
If you're applying to selective schools, Klein-Collins suggests starting the process at least nine months before you hope to begin, and longer if testing is required. Also, find out if the schools accept previous credits or if they conduct prior learning assessments, evaluations of your life experience that will hopefully allow some of it to count as college credit. Some schools offer credit for on-the-job experience, military service, or volunteer activities.
The logistics may be more manageable than you think.
Many institutions offer flexible course schedules; accelerated, self-paced, or part-time degree tracks; and rolling admissions. Online classes are widely available. Many certificate programs can be completed in less than a year. (However, beware of suspicious promises. Per the Federal Trade Commission, if a program says, "no studying or exams required," or promises a degree in just a few days or weeks, it's probably a scam.)
When applying, "think carefully about what you need to make college work for you, approaching it like a consumer," Klein-Collins says. "You want a school that meets you where you are." Zero in on colleges where adult learners compose a sizable chunk of the student body. If a school is trying to attract adult learners, it will highlight the benefits it provides to parents and full-time workers on its website. Reach out to the admissions office and ask how its staff can help with fitting in classes around your schedule. And remember, Klein-Collins adds: You're an asset to them, and they should "offer ways to help students like you get to the finish line."
Be realistic about the time required.
Many students (of all ages) commonly underestimate the time or effort involved in a college course or program. The school should be able to give you an estimate of the amount of time you should expect to devote to your course(s), both in and out of the classroom. "Many colleges will allow you to consider full- or part-time enrollment," says Elaine Rubin, a senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors. "If you aren't attending school full-time, it will take you longer to complete your program or degree, but it may make it manageable. It's best to talk about this with an admission counselor. If you are looking for financial aid to help you cover the costs, you may need to enroll for a certain amount of credits every term."
It really does take a village.
Joycelyn Keller, 30, a fourth-year medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine, in Atlanta, says that to make her studies work, her partner had to become what she calls Super Househusband Dad. "During my first two years, sometimes I'd be gone before our son woke up and home after he was asleep." For the Rendon-Thofsons, the division of labor shifted over time. Michael's classes were online, while Chad's were in person, which meant Michael handled child-care drop-off and pickup and studied at night and on weekends. (Grandparents helped too.)
For single parents or families where help will be needed, tap extended family, friends, and neighbors: Can someone babysit for a few hours while you study? If your school has an organization for student parents, try to connect with people there. Switch off hosting playdates to give one another time to tackle assignments, suggests Elizabeth Preovolos, a 39-year-old mother of two at the University of California, Berkeley. Mid-pandemic, she and other student parents took turns reading books over FaceTime to each other's kids.
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And while only 15 percent of colleges offer on-campus child care (public colleges are most likely to do so, as are historically Black colleges and universities), this resource can be game changing. When Autumn Green, Ph.D.,transferred from community college, she was a 19-year-old mom with a 2-year-old and an infant. She chose the University of Oregon, in Eugene, because it offered on-campus childcare and family housing. Now a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, she created the Campus Family Housing Database, a nationwide list of about 250 colleges and universities offering college affiliated family housing. (Search it here.)
Find out what (if any) financial aid may be available.
This will depend on several factors, including the school/program you choose, and whether you've already gotten a degree in the past. "Parents returning to school need to be aware that if they already have a bachelor's degree, they are not eligible for federal loans, grants, or the American opportunity [tax] credit," says Joseph Orsolini, CFP, of College Aid Planners. "If returning to graduate school, they can get graduate PLUS loans. I often run into this with folks seeking nursing or teaching degrees or a career change."
Still, you might be surprised to learn there is money available to help with school, especially if you haven't yet earned a degree. "Just because you are going to college a little later in life, or returning after taking some time off, you could still be eligible for federal financial aid," says Rubin. "Many adult learners don't think this is an option for them, but there is no age limit to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). I would recommend you complete your FAFSA as soon as you make your decision to return to school. The FAFSA will not only help you apply for federal aid, but it's used by states and school to award their aid as well."
Many states also have their own grant and scholarship programs, so check out the list of state college scholarship programs Edvisors has compiled.
Advanced-degree programs may be less flexible, but they're still doable.
Master's, law, and doctoral programs are typically tied to traditional academic schedules with fall start dates, involving two, three, and six years of full-time study, respectively. Admissions criteria are institution dependent, Klein-Collins says; some schools have dropped the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) requirement, but the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is still required to apply to the vast majority of law schools. Most programs require transcripts, recommendation letters, and personal statements as part of the application materials.
If you want to pursue a career in medicine, like Dr. Hansen Smith, scour the websites of schools that interest you, and make a list of courses needed to apply. (For most, this will include physics, biology, organic chemistry, and possibly genetics.) Geoffrey Young, Ph.D., senior director of student affairs and programs for the Association of American Medical Colleges, recommends consulting the school's admissions office to review your undergraduate record to assess if additional coursework might be needed. Dr. Hansen Smith took the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and was accepted at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Tucson when her oldest was 12; she graduated in 2019. Now 43 and a third-year pathology resident, she says she "decided to brush up on basic science courses at the local community college" before the big test.
Certificate programs are a quicker option.
Noncredit education is exploding in popularity, particularly in fields like project and program management and content development. The classes are typically flexible, brief (months, not years), and field-specific. A 2020 poll conducted by the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights found that two out of three adults considering enrolling in education preferred a non-degree pathway, as compared with just one in two in 2019.
Certificate programs typically start in the fall or on demand. Some require a bachelor's degree, but they're increasingly designed for SCND students or those with a master's degree looking to switch fields or feel more confident in a certain skill set (like fund-raising or human resources management).
When researching certificate programs, note whether the institution is accredited. Accredited certificate programs are taught by faculty and may come in handy if you choose to pursue a degree later on, whereas nonaccredited programs are typically taught by experts in the field, keeping the cost lower, and are "intended to help you take the next step in your career," says Rovy Branon, Ph.D., vice provost for the University of Washington Continuum College, in Seattle.
If you're hoping to break into computer programming or tech, you might try one of the popular coding boot camps. That's the route Diana Vargas, 33, coding-whiz mom of one, took after her military spouse was stationed abroad for several years. "I had a bachelor's degree in graphic design and had worked at Microsoft, but there was a gap in my résumé," she says."I needed something I could add on to my existing skills." Vargas attended online classes full time from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. for four months, though many programs allow you to move at a slower pace.
Good organization is essential.
Review your course syllabus during the first week of class. Note all deadlines and due dates, and any tests or exams. Then plot out your calendar for the semester, giving yourself plenty of time to study and complete assignments. One of the biggest pitfalls is procrastination. It can help to recruit a friend or family member—or better yet, a classmate—to be your accountability partner, ensuring you are sticking to your schedule and even gently nagging you if necessary.
The right study space (and schedule) can be a lifesaver.
We all work differently. Some need total silence in order to concentrate, while others are uncomfortable if it's too quiet. Likewise, everyone has their own biological rhythm that tends to make them more productive at certain times of day. Identify the environment and schedule that works best for you, and then establish a routine that will support that. Ideally, you can set up a dedicated study space in your home, but if that's not an option, scout out potential options at the library, bookstore, or other locations. It's also important to establish a consistent routine, so you have time to study and complete assignments.
There will be sacrifices ahead.
You may feel guilty if your midterm conflicts with your daughter's softball game or question the wisdom of paying for your own degree instead of funding your kid's 529. "My kids didn't get fancy Pinterest birthday parties because there just wasn't time to plan something elaborate," Dr. Hansen Smith says. But don't beat yourself up, because the bottom line is clear: Your going back to school benefits the whole family. "My kids have a better life because I made this decision," says Dr. Green.
In order for the Rendon-Thofsons to make school work, they cashed out their 401(k)s, downgraded from a four bedroom house to one half the size, and sold their cars. But, says Chad, "it was one of the greatest gifts. We were home for the first years of our kids' lives." And when they found Sophie and Maximus jumping in bed, giggling in their dads' blue mortarboards after Michael's graduation, "we thought, 'This is why we worked so hard.'"
Says Preovolos, the mom of two at UC Berkeley, "I'd always told my kids they could be anything, an done day my daughter asked, 'Well, what about you?' It felt so good to go back. I did it for me as much as for them."