Monday, June 15, 2009

Are You Ready to Go Back to School?

With the economy being... what it is... many moms have told me that they are thinking about going back to school. Granted, it is almost a guaranteed way of increasing your income as well as your ability to compete successfully for work-at-home jobs. Nor is it un-doable; you would be joining me and probably millions of other mothers on the same path. However, there are a few things you should consider before enrolling for classes.

1. Do you have time? A full time student takes at least twelve, but more realistically, 15 units. That translates roughly into fifteen hours per week in class. Well, I can carve that out of my schedule... you think. However, don't forget studying (3 hours per week for every unit, so 45 hours per week on average), transportation, the inevitable gaps between classes, and time spent in financial aid and registration lines. Don't kid yourself; going to school is a full time job and then some.

2. Do you have your house in order? If you are leading a disorganized life, you should focus on that before moving any of your energies outside the home. Do you have a reasonably organized home? Are your kids happy, healthy, and on some semblance of a schedule? Is your life as streamlined as possible (ie, you aren't grocery shopping three times a week to grab things you forgot)? Your household will need to function on autopilot occasionally to accommodate finals week or research projects, so don't head back to school before your family is ready.

3. Are your spouse and children supportive? Mind you, supportive can have different definitions for different people. My husband thinks it's super cool to have a smart wife and even cooler that we'll be able to retire comfortably thanks to my future income. However, I began to get annoyed a month or so into my first quarter when he didn't pick up a little more of the housework and childcare. It doesn't take Mother Teresa to help with the dishes when your wife has been in a lab for four hours. And a lot of my friends have husbands who help out around the house. It took me several months to get over myself. I have always done those things, and it isn't fair to change the rules a decade into our marriage. On the other hand, my kids have been more than eager to do a few extra chores, especially since this leaves more time for me to spend with them. Before you go back to school, make sure your kids are on board and your husband is at least going to tolerate the upheaval.

4. Do you know what you will do with your kids? If you are a homeschooler, do not assume your kids can homeschool themselves or each other while you go to class. And don't forget the little ones; they need not just a babysitter, but a situation where they are nurtured and loved. I am not against high quality childcare, but anything less will not be good enough. Many colleges have childcare programs that are top-notch and made to accommodate a student's schedule, but they still cost money (lots of it). If you live in a highly rated school district, as I do, dealing with older children may be a little easier, but don't expect them to get the education they would receive at home. In our case, the younger kids go to the college center and the older kids go to school, then homeschool to "fill in the gaps" on weekends and over the summer.

5. Do you have the money? Even community college has a staggering cost, and you will be spending roughly twice the tuition when you add in books, supplies, fees, transportation, and the occasional lunch. Apply for scholarships and financial aid early and then see if you can swing the difference. I do not recommend getting a student loan for your bachelor's degree. The amount you make with a bachelor's degree is low enough that your family will not come out ahead for several decades once you add in childcare, work costs, and a higher tax bracket. If you plan to work through your master's or doctorate--which is the only way going back to school would financially worth it in this job market--save the loans for graduate school, which is more expensive and has much less financial help available.

6. Do you have a plan? I would love to major in linguistics, but my passion for language will not pay the bills. Instead of thinking about what you like to study, think about what you like to do. I would love to be a doctor, so I am majoring in Biology, which will give me the solid foundation I need to get into medical school and excel there. After all, I'm not getting a degree for bragging rights; I am being purely practical. The only way college will be worth it for a mom is if a highly paid and flexible profession is waiting at the end of the long, hard road. Do yourself and your kids a favor by making a realistic plan.

7. Internet or traditional? Most employers and graduate programs consider a degree from one of the internet colleges advertised on television worth far less than one from a traditional brick and mortar university. Plus, the online ones cost more. However, many traditional universities offer internet courses and even entire internet degrees. Your degree won't show what format you chose for your classes, so this is the best of both worlds. In my case, although my major requires time in the classroom, I am learning to work my schedule around so I do at least one and maybe even two quarters per year on the internet.

I don't mean for this to be discouraging, not at all. I am glad I made this huge decision, and I think my family is stronger for it. However, I wish someone had told me a year ago what I was getting into. My advice: do the research, crunch the numbers, work out the cost/benefit analysis, and figure out a realistic plan before jumping in.