Colleges Offer Programs, Aid for Returning Moms

School bells are ringing for mothers who want to finish their undergraduate degrees or take courses that will advance their careers. And increasingly colleges are offering special programs, flexibility and financial aid for women going back to school.

(WOMENSENEWS)-For Paula White, a 35-year-old Texas widow with two children, excitement is in the air as she gets ready this month to begin an MBA program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

But going back to school doesn't come easy. She will have to pay for extra child care for her kids, ages 7 and 4, and ask friends to help out as well. She also is worried about being back in the classroom after so many years. Money was also a concern, but through state grants and academic scholarship, most of her tuition for the two-year program has been covered.

“I almost had a panic attack the other night thinking about all this,” said White, who has a background in medical equipment sales. “It's going to take a lot of work, balancing, and energy, but I know this will help me and my children in the long run,” said White, a resident of McKinney, Texas.

As adult women like White continue to be faced with numerous bills and ongoing job competition, more and more of them are returning to school in order to further their careers with better-paying jobs. They are pursuing undergraduate degrees never completed or seeking graduate degrees. In fact, 58 percent of students attending community colleges are women with an average age of 29, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

And, adult students account for nearly half of all four-year college enrollments, according to a 1999 report by the educational foundation of the American Association of University Women.

Colleges Offering Special Programs, Aid to Returning Women

Given women's time management issues-balancing children, households and jobs-more and more colleges around the country are creating programs and offering financial aid to help adult students. They also are helping them adjust to being back in the classroom after many years' absence.

“Going back to school when you have kids and a job adds a huge chunk to your life, and universities are recognizing how difficult this can be, especially for women,” said Baldwin, N.Y., personal coach Eileen Lichtenstein. “They are offering more support programs, guidance, and flexibility to help in this area. Lichtenstein is also an adjunct faculty member at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Hofstra is leading the pack in accommodating adult students with a new division, called Saturday College, that will debut in January. This separate college will offer full-time undergraduate degrees in four years, with classes every Saturday from 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. and one Sunday a month, For now, the concentrations will be in computer technology and organization and leadership studies.

Each year, Hofstra sees a 10 percent to 20 percent increase in the number of female students in their 30s and 40s, and the new college will be particularly appealing to them, said Ellen DaVolio, student services coordinator. She said she hopes in the next few years to see a weekend day care program where these mothers can drop off their children.

“Schools have to become more adult student-friendly to accommodate the growing need of people returning to the classroom in their 30s and 40s,” DaVolio said.

Indiana University Offers Pilot Program of Evening Child Care

Indiana University in Bloomington is even testing the waters with a pilot evening child care program for children ages 3 to 11. Launched in August, the program is geared toward the needs of student parents. In addition, the university's Returning Women Students program offers a support network and a chance for women to gain guidance from peer advisors.

The University of Maryland in College Park last year began a formal orientation program for new adult students, 25 and older, of whom 90 percent are women, said Marcy Fallon, director of the Learning Assistance Service. The program assists adult students with study skills, sets them up with mentors and advices them on financial aid.

“There is an overall understanding of the issues that women have when they return to school later in life and have other commitments,” Fallon said. “For instance, professors will understand and not hold it against a woman if she has to skip class because her child is home sick with the flu.”

In Utah, about one-third of all college students in most classrooms are single mothers, and some universities even have specific scholarships for them, said Karen Mecham, executive director of the Bringing Hope to Single Moms Foundation. The four-year-old Salt Lake City nonprofit organization teaches job and life skills to single mothers statewide.

Similarly, at Portland State University in Oregon, some financial aid is geared just toward adult females, said Mary Ann Barham, coordinator for the Returning Program for Women Students. The Nancy Ryles Scholarship each year offers four women $5,000 in university money. This covers the cost of the $3,500 annual tuition and books. Selection for the scholarship is based on financial need.

Advice: Teach Your Kids to Cook, Clean While You Hit the Books

But, help doesn't come only from the institutions of higher education. In addition to looking to schools for assistance, returning women students need to enlist the assistance of friends and family, and even their children to help out at home whenever possible.

“Turn to your friends and ask for a favor and tell them you'll help them in return,” said Eileen Lichtenstein at Hofstra University on Long Island. “Or, have your children learn to do their own laundry and prepare dinner, if they are a little older.”

This is exactly what Karen Mecham, 55, did in Salt Lake City. As a divorced mother of five, she returned to school 12 years ago and earned a bachelor's degree in communications and a master's in executive administration. At the time she went back, her children were between 10 and 18 years old. The older ones took care of the younger ones, and they all learned to do cooking, laundry and cleaning while Mecham was in school or at home hitting the books. She said her going back to school for six years was very beneficial for her children and made them more independent and appreciative of education.

“Their grades all went up when I was back in school; they didn't have the money nor time to do anything but study,” Mecham said. “They also felt that if mom could get A's in school, then why couldn't they do the same?”

Laura Koss-Feder is a free-lance writer in Oceanside, N.Y., who specializes in workplace and career issues.