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How to Graduate (Almost) On Time, As a Working Mom

Think the Fifth Year Senior Syndrome is becoming all too common these days? Without proper planning, it can take even longer for working parents to finish a degree or certificate program. It’s no secret that a baby has a way of throwing a wrench (even if a joyful one) into one’s plans. This is especially true when it comes to educational attainment.


According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., about 25 percent of undergraduate students have dependents. Of those, about half are single parents. But don’t fret, for the latest Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Bureau data about mothers with infant children is encouraging:

In 2011, more than six-in-ten (66%) had at least some college education, while 34% had a high school diploma or less and just 14% lacked a high school diploma.

These are record-breaking numbers of maternal education attainment. The Pew research did not specify how long it took these student moms to graduate, but the message is clear: Despite the extraordinary demands imposed by babies, it is certainly possible to reach the finish line.

So, how do student moms do it? Here are a few tips:

Be steadfast about your choice of major

“You can be whatever you want to be,” the optimistic adage tells us since we were young girls. But more often than not, life tells us otherwise. Perhaps a traumatizing Organic Chemistry class caused you to drop your pre-med plans as a sophomore. Or you caved to parental pressure to major in business, when your heart said otherwise.

Luckily, parenthood imbues an unwavering commitment to our children’s future. That means picking a reasonably attainable major … and sticking with it. Consider regular visits to your academic advisor a part of your homework, to evaluate and re-evaluate your plans.


Assemble a childcare team – including backups

Can’t type your thesis with a squirming baby in your lap? It’s time to study smarter, and that includes coming up with creative childcare.

You might want to research “parent-friendly” campuses. For example, Misericordia University offers the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program to single moms. For nursing mothers, the University of Iowa takes it one step further: It has not one, not two, but 35 lactation rooms. Need a quick few hours to study? Other postsecondary schools offer free short-term drop-off centers.


Getting financial aid or childcare subsidies? Enroll full-time if possible.

Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race, when unexpected detours throw your academic schedule off-course. It could be daycare providers who suddenly quit, illnesses in the family, or (surprise, surprise) another baby on the way. There is also the opportunity cost of delaying your return to the job market for a higher-paying career.

Financial aid rules also favor the full-time course load: For example, Pell Grants require recipients to be enrolled at least part-time (6-12 credit hours).

Certainly, going full-time will equate to more sleep-deprived nights than you are already accustomed to … but you’ll be holding your degree a lot faster than your other sleep-deprived counterparts!


Take online, or hybrid, courses whenever possible

Between commuting to campus and ponying up money for childcare providers, it is often simply more efficient for busy moms to take an online degree.


Utilize tutors, study sessions, and office hours

Two heads are better than one, especially when you are stuck on a difficult computer science problem or facing writer’s block. Inertia robs you of valuable time (not to mention the confidence to graduate), so don’t hesitate to reach out to your academic support system for extra help. Many schools offer free tutoring as part of their tuition.

While most campus policies forbid bringing your children to class, it is really up to teachers and tutors whether you can bring a well-behaved child to office hours or tutoring groups. It never hurts to ask; after all, many teachers are parents as well!

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