Making it through college can be a challenge for any of us—add to that the responsibility of being a single parent and college can be especially demanding. Dr. Bill Burns, director of the North Dakota State University Counseling Center, and Maggie Pearl, admissions manager at Rasmussen College—Fargo campus, share some of their tips for helping single parents be successful students and parents.
1. Identify your support network. The first thing Pearl tells students is to think about who supports them in going back to school. “Who is your biggest cheerleader?” she says. Tell that person you’ll be counting on them for encouragement when times get tough. There will be days when you feel like graduating from college is an impossible goal and you’ll need someone to both listen and cheer you on.
Also check out the support services available at the college you have chosen. Burns says, “If you’ve been out of school for a while, knowing how to work through the systems of the university can be daunting. Make sure you have a good connection with an academic advisor to help you through the process.” ‘
2. Secure consistent child care. Burns said not having consistent child care is one of the biggest barriers parents face in going back to school. “You need someone to watch the kids so you can go to class and do your work outside of class.” Some schools have child care centers on campus. If they don’t, the student affairs office will probably be able to give you references for local providers.
3. Make a schedule. Time management is a must when single parents go back to school. “Block off your class and work schedule. Block out time for homework,” she says. “Put it on your fridge so your kids will know where you are, what you are doing and when you’ll be available.” Pearl also suggests that having a consistent bedtime for your children is very important so you have time after they go to bed to do chores or homework.
Burns said the ratio of class time to homework and reading vary depending on the class and/or the professor, but a good rule of thumb is that to do well you’ll need to spend 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour you spend in class. “I tell students to think of school as their full time job—if you are in class 15 hours a week that leaves you about 25 hours a week to study. You can still have a life outside of school. People who work 40 hours a week and have children do it all the time.”
4. Communicate. We are all human and things come up. This is especially true for single parents. You can never predict when your kids will get sick or hurt and need you to be home with them. Burns says to introduce yourself to your professors at the beginning of the semester and tell them your situation. “Be someone the professor knows. Even in a big lecture class, that can go a long way.” Then, if something comes up, let them know right away.
5. Don’t overload yourself with work and class. Burns suggests limiting your work hours as much as possible. “Anything more than 17 hours a week starts to interfere with a student’s academic success,” he says. If you have to work more than 17 hours a week to make ends meet, consider taking fewer credits. It may take you longer to complete your education, but you’ll be less likely to burn out and quit along the way.
6. Do your homework with your children. Depending on the age of your children, you may be able to do homework with them. If they aren’t in school, have them sit at the table with you coloring or practicing their ABCs. “Your kids will feel like you are doing something together but you are also getting studying done,” says Pearl
7. Let go of parental guilt. Pearl says, “The time that you’ll be in college is a very short period of time in your child’s life.” Explain to your children why you are going back to school—tell them it’s to give them a better life and that you need their support as much as possible. They might complain because that’s what kids do—but in the long run most children not only understand why their parent went back to school, but respect them for doing so.
8. Take care of yourself. Eat right, exercise, get enough sleep and build a social support network. Burns says, “Taking care of yourself will make it all more manageable.”
9. And we would add a ninth tip to the list: Have a financial road map. Stop by for a quick visit with a financial professional (like those at The Village Financial Resource Center) and have a plan for controlling your finances while your in school and make sure that you'll be able to deal with debt you may incur while in school.
Going back to school as a single parent won’t be easy, but when you are standing on stage at graduation receiving your diploma, with your children watching you with pride, you’ll know it was worth it.