A Single Parent’s Financial Guide to Returning to School

As a single parent, going back to school can seem like an impossible and daunting process. You need that higher education to snag a high-paying and solid career, but at the same time, it’s necessary to keep working to pay for your schooling. Throw in that you need to support your family and household throughout the process, and the struggle gets even more difficult.

This push-and-pull conundrum is likely behind the latest findings from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, which show that while the number of single mothers in college more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, only a very small minority of those students actually graduated.

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And single moms aren’t the only non-traditional students struggling to gain a valuable, yet costly, education. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, only a mere 15% of college students are in the traditional 18-22 range. Students over 25? They make up the fastest-growing cohort in all of higher education, predicted to increase 18% by 2025 alone.

How will these students and single parents pay for their schooling, while still covering all the costs that come with adulthood (not to mention parenthood)? That takes proactive research and preparation — both to understand the costs of higher education and to ensure the funds to cover them.

In this article

    How to Pay for Your Higher Education

    Obtaining a degree can help you secure a reliable, well-paying job or move you up the corporate ladder at your current one. But paying for that degree — and all the extra costs and fees that come with it — can be a struggle, especially when you’re busy supporting yourself, your children and all the other costs that come with adult life.

    The key here is effective household budgeting. No matter how much you make or how many financial responsibilities you may have, proper budgeting can ensure you have the funds necessary to meet your long-term goals.

    This means:

    • Not spending more than you make. It seems easy enough, but most people don’t have a great handle on how much (post-tax) they actually take home and how that aligns with their financial obligations.
    • Understanding your financial responsibilities. Identify all your financial obligations, as well as when they’re due each month. This should include rent, mortgage, utilities, child care, school payments, groceries and any other cost your family incurs on a regular basis.
    • Setting goals. Establish savings and spending goals and set timelines for each. You need to hold yourself accountable when it comes to your spending habits.
    •  Knowing what you make. Have a good handle on exactly what your income looks like and when it hits your bank account. This makes it easier to manage your cash flow while still staying ahead of financial obligations.
    • Writing it all down. Keep a ledger of all your expenses and expenditures. Sometimes, this makes it easier to spot bad habits or spending trends, as well as areas for potential savings.
    • Using a budget calculator. A good budget calculator can help you set financial boundaries, save toward a goal, pay down debts or do all of these things simultaneously. Budgeting apps like Mint and Clarity can help you keep stay on track with your goals on the fly.

    Having a solid budget in place can help you understand what you can and can’t spend on education, in addition to how much aid, financing or other financial assistance you will need to meet your goals.

    Paying for Childcare

    You’ll likely need help with the kids while attending school (or even just studying for it), so do your research early on. Look into child care and daycare grants and see if there’s a child care facility on-site at your school. You can also research Head Start programs, state child care options and other nonprofit programs and resources.

    Financial and Federal Aid Resources:

    If those don’t help — and a family member, friend or loved one is unable to assist — consider night school or online coursework instead.

    Minimizing Your Debt as a Student

    If you know you won’t have the aid or cash to cover your entire education, then a loan, credit card or some other type of financing might be necessary.

    To minimize this debt (and its impact on your future cash flow), keep these tips in mind:

    • Borrow only what you need. Don’t borrow money just because you *might* need it in the future. Stick to what expenses you know you will have and borrow only what you absolutely must. Overborrowing will only mean more in interest costs over time.
    • Look into zero-interest balance transfer credit cards. Credit cards that allow you to transfer balances at zero interest (even for a short amount of time) can help you save thousands in interest costs — especially if you’re spreading your schooling expenses across various cards and high-interest accounts. They can also allow you to refinance your student loans and pay them off with zero interest as well.
    • Price shop for your program. Not all programs — even ones that offer the same degree or certification — cost the same. This is especially true if you look at the full breakdown of costs, including things like supplies, books, fees and other expenses. Make sure you compare the costs of several programs before choosing which school to attend. You can also look to trade school as well, which is often more affordable than a traditional college or university.
    • Look for free money. Always look for potential scholarships or grants at the federal, state and school level. Your employer might also have programs you can utilize, as well as your city, county or even local community. Do your research and exhaust all options.
    • Utilize free in-school services. Many schools offer free services for students. They may have an on-site health center or gym, which could cut down on your medical and physical fitness costs, and they will likely have a library, so you can rent textbooks instead of buying them.
    • Leverage student discounts. Many companies give discounts to students and teachers with .edu email addresses. There’s a multitude of options for discounts in the areas of technology, entertainment and even food. Make sure to do your research to get the most out of discounts available to you as a student.

    Most importantly, make all your payments on time. Late fees and added interest can get costly, only adding to your financial burden and stress. Set up reminders or enable autopayments to prevent missing a due date.

    Seeking Financial Aid

    You might be used to doing it all on your own — especially as a single parent — but when it comes to higher education, you don’t have to foot the bill solo. In fact, many non-traditional students qualify for scholarships, grants and other forms of financial aid that can help them on their educational journey. There are also student loans that can help, though these ultimately mean more long-term debt and a longer financial struggle than is necessary.

    If you’re interested in receiving financial aid for your educational goals, here’s where to start:

    1. Do a quick web search. There are dozens of scholarship programs designed for adult and non-traditional students, as well as degree- and training-specific scholarships. Look to resources like Scholarships.com and Fastweb for scholarships you might be eligible for.
    2.  Fill out and submit your FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is an application for federal grant funding and student loans. Awards are based on income, educational costs and assets. Many adult students may find themselves eligible for valuable awards like the Pell Grant or a William Ford Federal Direct Loan. Just make sure you avoid these detrimental mistakes when filling out your application, and heed the annual June 30 deadline.
    3. Contact your school’s financial aid office. If you’ve already chosen a program — or even if you just have a short list of potential schools — contact their respective financial aid office and ask about grants and scholarship programs. They may even have no-interest payment plans you can take advantage of.
    4. Talk to your employer or HR department. Many employers — particularly large corporations — offer scholarships and other incentives for workers seeking to continue their educations. Go to your human resources department to ask about any sort of aid your company might offer. Though they may not cover your full tuition, they could have programs that give you paid time off for school or even money for books, supplies or other fees. Some companies also have relationships with local colleges and can offer you reduced tuition rates.
    5. Look into state-provided aid. Many states offer financial aid — both for traditional and non-traditional students. To see if your state has any financial assistance you might be eligible for, contact the education department for information. You will likely need to have an already-filed FAFSA in order to qualify.

    You can always stack aid, too, combining several grant programs, scholarships and your own money to cover the costs. This is where having a budget — as well as fully understanding the financial obligations of your education — can really come in handy.

    Maximizing Your Investment

    Naturally, if you’re going to be spending your hard-earned money and valuable time earning a degree, you want to make sure it’s worth it — that it means solid career prospects, good money and a reliable stream of income with which to support your family.

    Want to maximize your educational investment as a single parent? Here’s how:

    • Anticipate your future income. Choose your major, degree or certification program wisely. Do your research, and determine which programs will offer you the most earning-capacity upon graduation.
    • Put in the effort. Make a commitment to studying, staying on top of your assignments and doing well in your program, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. For one, poor grades can impact your financial aid prospects — or even disqualify you from grants and scholarships you’re already taking advantage of. Failing a class also means re-taking it (and re-paying for it). In short: doing poorly in school will only cost more in the long run.

    You should also maximize the value of your certification or degree. Choose a recognized, accredited program, optimize your LinkedIn presence to show off your skills and knowledge, and network with your teachers, advisors and fellow students while in school. Making great connections can lead to ample career opportunities and referrals upon graduation.

    The moral of the story? You’re going to work hard for that higher education. Make sure it will work for you, too.


    Child Care Resources by State

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