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Parents: When's the Right Time to Go Back to School?

Anyone who has children can attest that they're a giant investment of time, money, patience and occasionally sanity. But just because your kids are the biggest part of your life doesn't mean they need be all of it. After awhile, some parents start to hear the Siren's call of higher education, and that's no surprise - college degrees typically improve job prospects, to say nothing of your feeling of self-worth! But as a parent, when can you take the plunge back into school?

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by Eric Garneau

studious parent

Diff'rent Strokes

Let's start with a somewhat anticlimactic answer: when it comes to parents going back to pursue an education, there is no one right time to do it. One's ability to return to school hinges on a number of factors, not the least of which is the time and money you have to dedicate to earning a degree.

There are, however, some general guidelines you can look to if this question's on your mind. Begin by visualizing all the time you have as a pie chart or something similar. Now think about all the time you absolutely have to devote to your child or children and see how much of your time pie's been devoured. After that, add on any other obligations you may have, which will be different for every person. Do you work? Do you have to? How involved are you with other family members (sick parents, live-in brothers or sisters, etc.)? After you've taken away everything you must do on a day-to-day basis, how much time does that leave you to pursue your education? If it's little or none, the time may not be right for you at the moment. And we haven't even talked about money yet.

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Some Helpful Strategies

What this means is that parents of incredibly young children may have to bench their higher ed aspirations for the time being. Think of it as an extended maternity leave. However, the older children get, the less you need to be at their side 24/7 (hopefully). That's why, according to a September 2011 BusinessWire posting, more and more adults return to college every year. BusinessWire has a piece of practical advice for lifelong learners who want to do so: talk with your family about the decision - not just your child-raising partner, but also your kids. Come to a consensus. That's further fuel for the idea that returning to school should probably wait until your child can at least understand the decision you're making.

And speaking of your partner, it should be noted that returning to school is completely within the power of single parents, too - although of course that becomes a much more difficult enterprise. However, in both cases you'll want to employ some similar strategies to make the transition back into school life as smooth as possible. Multiple sources consulted agree that the key here is creating a concrete support network for yourself and your child. Line up babysitters, and have back-ups handy too. Set schedules in stone so you know where your child will be and who'll be taking care of him or her at all times, but also build in the ability to be flexible, because you never know what emergencies will arise. Basically, plan out everything you can anticipate, and then plan for how you'll deal with the stuff you can't.

All of that sounds really difficult, and it is, but the website Type-A Parent.com extracts a positive lesson from that. After all, most parents are already masters at juggling seemingly impossibly conflicting schedules and needs; they're professional time managers through and through. School's just adding one more ball (albeit a weighty one) into the mix. If anyone's equipped to handle extra responsibility, it's parents. If it doesn't make things easier, it should at least provide a little reassurance.

The Future is a Wonderful Thing

Here's some more good news: the education landscape's changing, and it's getting easier for you to do what you want. Parents, you are 'non-traditional' learners, and there are a lot more of you than that appellation might indicate. Tons of online schools are designed for people who can't fit into traditional student schedules to still gain a respectable education. If Web school's not your bag, many colleges offer night, weekend and remote classes designed to better fit your needs. Basically, not many schools will expect you to devote your entire day to learning and studying. You've got other things on your mind, after all.

And even if returning to school in a non-traditional capacity isn't something that works for you right now, have you considered Open Educational Resources? These handy tools, also known as OER, are free online college course material available to anyone who wants it. Various OER sites like those housed at MIT or the University of California - Irvine present lectures, notes, tests, assignments and more that come straight from their courses. Think of OER as a slightly more immersive YouTube. If you don't have enough time to commit to a full course, you could watch a video on thermodynamics or genetics whenever time permits. Even YouTube itself is full of fascinating information that can beef up your knowledge, though you have to be a lot more savvy about weeding out the junk there. The point is, if you're really light on time and money, you can still earn yourself a pretty solid education. It's certainly not easy, but as a parent, you already know that few things worth having are.

If you're a parent ready to take the plunge, here are 10 great schools designed for you.

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