A single parent’s financial guide to going back to school

Going back to school as a single parent can seem like a daunting process.

You may need a degree to get a well-paid and solid career, but at the same time, it is necessary to keep working to pay for your education. Throw in supporting your household throughout the process, and the battle gets even more challenging.

And single parents aren’t the only non-traditional college students struggling to get a valuable yet costly education. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, students over the age of 25 make up the fastest-growing cohort in all of higher education.

How will these students and single parents pay for their school fees while still covering all the costs associated with adulthood (not to mention parenthood)? That requires proactive research and preparation — both to understand the costs of higher education and to make sure you have the money to cover them.

The key here is effective household budgeting. No matter how much you earn or how many financial responsibilities you have, proper budgeting can ensure that you have the money you need to achieve your long-term goals. This means you don’t spend more than you earn. Budgeting apps like Mint and Clarity Money can help you stay on track.

If you have a solid budget, you can see how much help, funding, or other financial aid you need to achieve your educational goals.

Paying for childcare

You’ll probably need help with the kids while you’re going to school (or even just studying for it), so do your research early. Look into childcare and childcare grants and see if there is an on-site daycare facility if you attend classes in person. You can also research Head Start programs, childcare options, and other nonprofit programs and resources.

Childcare resources:

Minimize your debt as a student

If you know you don’t have the support or money to pay for your entire education, you may need a loan, credit card, or other form of financing. Keep these tips in mind to minimize this debt (and its impact on your future cash flow):

  • Only borrow what you need: Don’t borrow money just because you power need it in the future. Stick to the expenses you know you will have and borrow only what you absolutely need to reduce interest costs over time.
  • Look at credit cards with zero interest balance: These credit cards allow you to transfer funds without interest (even for a short time) and save thousands in interest costs, especially if you spread your school fees across several high-interest cards and accounts. They can also allow you to refinance your student loans and also pay them off without interest. These are the best card options available right now.
  • Price shop for your program: Not all programs — not even those with the same degree or certification — cost the same. This is especially true when you consider the full breakdown of costs, including things like supplies, books, fees, and other expenses. Be sure to compare the costs of different programs before choosing which school to attend. You can also look at vocational schools, which are often cheaper.
  • Look for free money: Always look for potential scholarships or grants at the federal, state, and school levels. Your employer may also have programs for you to use, as well as your city, county, or even local community. Do your research and exhaust all options (more on that below).
  • Take advantage of free services at school (if you attend in person): Many schools offer free services for students. They may have their own health center or gym, which can lower your medical and physical fitness costs. They probably have a library, so you can borrow textbooks instead of buying them.
  • Take advantage of student discounts: Many companies give discounts to students and teachers with .edu email addresses. There are a multitude of options for discounts on technology, entertainment and even food. Be sure to do your research to get the most out of the discounts available to you as a student.

The most important thing is that you make all your payments on time. Late fees and additional interest can become costly, adding to your financial burden and stress. Set reminders or enable automatic payments to avoid missing a due date.

Looking for financial help

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

If you are interested in receiving financial aid for your educational goals, you can start here:

  • Quick search on the internet: There are dozens of scholarship programs designed for mature and non-traditional students, as well as study and degree-specific scholarships. Look to resources such as Scholarships.com and Fastweb for scholarships you may be eligible for.
  • Contact your school’s financial department: If you’ve already chosen a program – or even if you only have a shortlist of potential schools – contact their respective financial aid office and ask about grants and scholarship programs. They may even have interest-free payment plans that you can take advantage of.
  • Talk to your employer or HR department: Many employers – especially large companies – offer scholarships and other incentives for employees who want to further their education. Go to your human resources department to inquire about any kind of assistance your company can provide. While they may not cover your full tuition, they may have programs that will give you paid time off from school or even money for books and fees. Some companies also have relationships with local colleges and can offer you reduced tuition rates.
  • Look at state aid: Many states offer financial aid – both for traditional and non-traditional students. Contact the education department for information to see if your state has financial aid for which you may qualify. You will probably need to have a FAFSA already filed to be eligible.

You can also always stack the aid by combining various grant programs, grants, and your own money to help cover the costs. This is where having a budget – and fully understanding the financial commitments of your education – can really come in handy.

Maximize your investment

If you’re going to spend your hard-earned money and precious time getting a degree, you obviously want to make sure it’s worth it; that means it offers solid career prospects, good money and a reliable income stream that will help you support your family going forward. As a single parent, do you want to maximize this educational investment? Here’s how:

  • Anticipate your future income: Choose your major, diploma or certification program wisely. Do your research and determine which programs will offer you the most earning capacity after graduation.
  • Make the effort. Make a commitment to study, stay on top of your assignments, and do well in your program. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. For starters, bad grades can affect your financial aid prospects — or even disqualify you from exchanges and exchanges that already benefit you. Not passing a lesson also means that you have to retake the lesson (and pay for it again). In brief: Underachievement in school only costs more in the long run.

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

The moral of the story? You’re going to work hard for that degree. Make sure it works for you too.

[This article was first published on The Simple Dollar in 2020. It was updated in March 2022.]

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