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A single parent's financial guide to returning to school

We've listed tips and resources you can use to make the process easier and cheaper.
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Written by Aly Yale on
Reviewed by Marc Wojno

Going back to school can seem like a daunting process as a single parent. 

You might need a degree to get a high-paying and solid career, but at the same time, it's necessary to keep working to pay for your schooling. Throw in supporting your household throughout the process, and the struggle gets even more challenging.

And single parents aren't the only non-traditional students struggling to gain a valuable yet costly education. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, students over age 25 make up the fastest-growing cohort in all of higher education.

How will these students and single parents pay for their schooling while still covering all the costs that come with adulthood (not to mention parenthood)? That takes proactive research and preparation -- both to understand the costs of higher education and to ensure you have the funds to cover them.

The key here is effective household budgeting. No matter how much you make or how many financial responsibilities you may have, proper budgeting can ensure you have the funds necessary to meet your long-term goals. This means not spending more than you make. Budgeting apps like Mint and Clarity Money can help you stay on track.

Having a solid budget in place can show you how much aid, financing, or other financial assistance you will need to meet your educational goals.

Paying for childcare

You'll likely need help with the kids while attending school (or even just studying for it), so do your research early on. Look into child care and daycare grants, and see if there's a child care facility on-site if you attend classes in person. You can also research Head Start programs, state child care options, and other nonprofit programs and resources.

Childcare resources:

Minimizing your debt as a student

If you know you won't have the aid or cash to cover your entire education, then a loan, credit card, or some other type of financing might be necessary. To minimize this debt (and its impact on your future cash flow), keep these tips in mind:

  • Borrow only what you need: Don't borrow money just because you might need it in the future. Stick to what expenses you know you will have, and borrow only what you absolutely must to reduce interest costs over time.
  • Look into zero-interest balance transfer credit cards: These credit cards allow you to transfer balances at zero interest (even for a short amount of time) and can help you save thousands in interest costs -- especially if you're spreading your schooling expenses across various cards and high-interest accounts. They can also allow you to refinance your student loans and pay them off with zero interest as well. Here are the best card options available now.
  • Price shop for your program: Not all programs -- even ones that offer the same degree or certification -- cost the same. This is especially true if you look at the full breakdown of costs, including things like supplies, books, fees, and other expenses. Make sure you compare the costs of several programs before choosing which school to attend. You can also look at trade schools, which are often more affordable.
  • Look for free money: Always look for potential scholarships or grants at the federal, state, and school level. Your employer might also have programs you can utilize, as well as your city, county, or even local community. Do your research and exhaust all options (more on that below).
  • Utilize free in-school services (if you're attending in person): Many schools offer free services for students. They may have an on-site health center or gym, which could cut down on your medical and physical fitness costs. They will likely have a library, so you might be able to borrow textbooks instead of buying them.
  • Leverage student discounts: Many companies give discounts to students and teachers with .edu email addresses. There's a multitude of options for discounts in the areas of technology, entertainment, and even food. Make sure to do your research to get the most out of discounts available to you as a student.

Most importantly, make all your payments on time. Late fees and added interest can get costly, only adding to your financial burden and stress. Set up reminders or enable auto-payments to prevent missing a due date.

Seeking financial aid

You might be used to doing it all on your own -- especially as a single parent -- but you don't have to foot the bill solo when it comes to higher education. In fact, many non-traditional students qualify for scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid that can help them on their educational journey. There are also student loans that can help, though these ultimately mean more long-term debt and a longer financial struggle than is necessary.

If you're interested in receiving financial aid for your educational goals, here's where to start:

  • Do a quick web search: There are dozens of scholarship programs designed for adult and non-traditional students, as well as degree- and training-specific scholarships. Look to resources like Scholarships.com and Fastweb for scholarships you might be eligible for.
  • Contact your school's financial aid office: If you've already chosen a program -- or even if you just have a shortlist of potential schools -- contact their respective financial aid office and ask about grants and scholarship programs. They may even have no-interest payment plans you can take advantage of.
  • Talk to your employer or HR department: Many employers -- particularly large corporations -- offer scholarships and other incentives for workers seeking to continue their educations. Go to your human resources department to ask about any sort of aid your company might offer. Though they may not cover your full tuition, they could have programs that give you paid time off for school or even money for books and fees. Some companies also have relationships with local colleges and can offer you reduced tuition rates.
  • Look into state-provided aid: Many states offer financial aid -- both for traditional and non-traditional students. To see if your state has any financial assistance you might be eligible for, contact the education department for information. You will likely need to have an already-filed FAFSA in order to qualify.

You can always stack aid, too, combining several grant programs, scholarships, and your own money to cover the costs. This is where having a budget -- as well as fully understanding the financial obligations of your education -- can really come in handy.

Maximizing your investment

Naturally, if you're going to be spending your hard-earned money and valuable time earning a degree, you want to make sure it's worth it; that means it offers solid career prospects, good money, and a reliable stream of income with which to support your family in the future. Want to maximize this educational investment as a single parent? Here's how:

  • Anticipate your future income: Choose your major, degree, or certification program wisely. Do your research and determine which programs will offer you the most earning capacity upon graduation.
  • Put in the effort. Make a commitment to studying, staying on top of your assignments, and doing well in your program. Don't bite off more than you can chew. For one thing, poor grades can impact your financial aid prospects -- or even disqualify you from grants and scholarships you're already taking advantage of. Failing a class also means re-taking it (and re-paying for it). In short: Doing poorly in school will only cost more in the long run.

You should also maximize the value of your certification or degree. Choose a recognized, accredited program, optimize your LinkedIn presence to show off your skills and knowledge, and network with your teachers, advisors, and fellow students while in school. Making great connections can lead to ample career opportunities and referrals upon graduation.

The moral of the story? You're going to work hard for that degree. Make sure it will work for you, too.

[This article was first published on The Simple Dollar in 2020. It was updated in March 2022.]

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