Considering going back to school at 30? 40? Experts—and parents who've done it—share their tips for success when it comes to continuing your education when you have kids in school, too.

By Bobbi Dempsey
February 05, 2020
illustration of rear view of mother and daughter standing on college campus
Credit: Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

I was terrified when I first walked into the classroom at our local community college. I was 40 years old, and hadn't been inside a classroom since the 1980s. Back then, I had dropped out in my second year of college to care for my infant son, who had medical problems. Later, medical bills and household expenses meant I needed a paycheck more than a degree, and college was a luxury I couldn't afford.

Fast forward to a few years ago. My oldest son had started college, which prompted me to think about finally trying to achieve that goal I had put on hold for so long. But I hesitated as I stood outside that classroom door, starting to have second thoughts. For one thing, I was certain I'd be the oldest one in the room by several decades (except maybe for the teacher). I also worried that it would be too difficult for me to handle, especially since I had limited computer skills at that point and was also working full-time.

Not to mention, we parents are already busy people. The prospect of adding something else to your schedule—and your budget—can be scary. Yet the potential rewards could make the sacrifices worth it. Here are some tips, based on my own experience.

Be realistic about the time required.

Many students (of all ages) commonly underestimate the time or effort involved in a college course or program. The school should be able to give you an estimate of the amount of time you should expect to devote to your course(s), both in and out of the classroom. "Many colleges will allow you to consider full- or part-time enrollment," says Elaine Rubin, a senior contributor and communications specialist at Edvisors. "If you aren't attending school full-time, it will take you longer to complete your program or degree, but it may make it manageable. It's best to talk about this with an admission counselor. If you are looking for financial aid to help you cover the costs, you may need to enroll for a certain amount of credits every term."

Find out what (if any) financial aid may be available.

This will depend on several factors, including the school/program you choose, and whether you've already gotten a degree in the past. "Parents returning to school need to be aware that if they already have a bachelor's degree, they are not eligible for federal loans, grants, or the American opportunity [tax] credit," says Joseph Orsolini, CFP, of College Aid Planners. "If returning to graduate school, they can get graduate PLUS loans. I often run into this with folks seeking nursing or teaching degrees or a career change."

Still, you might be surprised to learn there is money available to help with school, especially if you haven't yet earned a degree. "Just because you are going to college a little later in life, or returning after taking some time off, you could still be eligible for federal financial aid," says Rubin. "Many adult learners don't think this is an option for them, but there is no age limit to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). I would recommend you complete your FAFSA as soon as you make your decision to return to school. The FAFSA will not only help you apply for federal aid, but it's used by states and school to award their aid as well."

Many states also have their own grant and scholarship programs, so check out the list of state college scholarship programs Edvisors has compiled.

There may be other ways to earn credit.

This is one situation where you could have an advantage over traditionally-aged students. You may be able to get credit for work experience, volunteer activities, or military service, if you can demonstrate the knowledge and skills you have acquired. I earned credits equivalent to five courses by assembling a portfolio that showed I had already mastered the material in those courses through my professional roles. I also earned credits by taking the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program—or CLEP—exams. These tactics saved me a lot of money, and also helped me graduate more quickly.

Do your research.

Certain schools and programs are friendlier to adult students than others. Look for programs that offer options like attending part-time, taking classes at night or on weekends, or taking classes online. The more flexibility there is, the less likely you are to run into issues with other competing commitments or schedule conflicts. Look for programs that welcome adult students or are able to accommodate students with non-traditional schedules.

You will need to prioritize—and delegate.

Juggling school, family obligations, and perhaps work or community responsibilities is a challenge. There often doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day. Be prepared for the possibility that you may need to put some of your current activities or obligations on hold, at least temporarily. This includes your social life and hobbies. Friends and family are usually eager to support you, so think about what things they can take off your plate while you focus on school.

Take baby steps—and focus on small wins.

Trying to accomplish overly ambitious goals is a surefire road to disaster. Instead, start off with a small, manageable goal. Maybe take just one class, or start by earning a certificate before you jump into a degree program. Instead of obsessing over perfect grades, focus on learning at least one practical skill or getting better at something you find challenging.

Good organization is essential.

Review your course syllabus during the first week of class. Note all deadlines and due dates, and any tests or exams. Then plot out your calendar for the semester, giving yourself plenty of time to study and complete assignments. One of the biggest pitfalls is procrastination. It can help to recruit a friend or family member—or better yet, a classmate—to be your accountability partner, ensuring you are sticking to your schedule and even gently nagging you if necessary.

The right study space (and schedule) can be a lifesaver.

We all work differently. Some need total silence in order to concentrate, while others are uncomfortable if it's too quiet. Likewise, everyone has their own biological rhythm that tends to make them more productive at certain times of day. Identify the environment and schedule that works best for you, and then establish a routine that will support that. Ideally, you can set up a dedicated study space in your home, but if that's not an option, scout out potential options at the library, bookstore, or other locations. It's also important to establish a consistent routine, so you have time to study and complete assignments.

You will feel guilty—but don't let that stop you.

Many parents feel guilty about devoting time to school, since that's less time they have for family and friends. That's natural, but shouldn't distract you from pursuing your goals. Remember, your loved ones want you to succeed. They understand that this is important to you. And keep in mind, furthering your education will help you advance your career or accomplish other goals that will likely benefit your entire family. Also, by overcoming challenges to achieve your goals you are setting a great example for your kids!

Remember: You can do it!

Trust me, if I can do it, you can, too. I almost gave up a few times, but hung in there and earned my diploma a few months before my first son earned his, which was the goal I had set for myself.