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Whether you never finished college, or you want to go back and improve your level of income after having kids, there are a lot of options out there. It's not going to be easy, but below are a few of the strategies that will help you to start on the path of achieving your goals.
Going back to school while you have kids that aren't yet in school can be a real challenge. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, but it does mean that you'll want to plan ahead in how you're going to accomplish your goals.
Figure out what you want to do
When you're coming out of high school and going to college, it's easy to not know what you're going to do. While it's always better to have a plan at that age, it's not always the case. As a parent, you have a lot more responsibilities, and likely far less time. You shouldn't go into this thinking that you're just going to take a few classes and "figure it out." You need to figure it out before you actually get started.
If you're not sure what you want to do, then start by doing research on your interests and skills. There are several websites online to help with this, but careeronestop.org is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor and is a good option for this. It's a great resource for figuring out what you might want to do as well as what options you have for getting into that field or profession.
Look at community colleges
My wife started school at the community college to get her Associate's degree before transferring to a 4 year college. It was about 3 times cheaper to attend the community college than the 4-year college. Is it less prestigious? I guess. But if you're planning to graduate with a Bachelor's degree, then it makes no difference at all. Well, no difference other than a lot less many out of your pocket.
Beyond that, a lot of the teachers and professors at the community college are really good. You will still get an excellent education, and have people who want you to be successful. Definitely check out what options you have available in your area and state. Go in and meet with a counselor if you're unsure. They'll be happy to work through your concerns and plan if you're still unsure.
Consider certificate programs
Certificates are a big thing right now, and they can lead to excellent results and jobs. In our local area, our community college as well as a technical college offers certificate programs. If you're unsure, certificate programs are designed to provide students mastery over a specific subject or topic. These programs are offered in many trades, professional fields, and academic areas. Study.com has a solid explanation around differences between programs and is a great resource for finding programs that are available to you.
A lot of the programs can lead to high paying jobs. If you search the web, you'll find lots of articles about the best paying jobs for certificate programs. This can be a good starting point for figuring out if one of these programs makes sense for you or not.
Find available online programs
In addition to looking at community colleges or certificate programs, look at what online programs are available. A lot of schools offer programs that are completely online. Others will offer a large portion of their courses online. This leads to a huge amount of flexibility, and is really ideal when you have kids at home. Working on courses at night or the weekend when someone can help watch the kids allows you to keep the kids at home, but still move your education along. We were able to combine online courses with the community college for my wife, so she was able to pay the lower community college rate, and have the flexibility. Almost all of the general credit courses were offered in online variants.
The big downside to online programs is that they require you to be dedicated and vigilant. You absolutely have to schedule when you'll be doing your classwork - act as if you are actually going to class. Otherwise, it's too easy to skip doing work or missing assignments. If you're not able to dedicate specific time each week, you're going to have a bad experience with an online program.
Work through your finances
Fill out the FAFSA. You're almost for sure going to have to do this regardless of whether or not you'll qualify for federal loans and grants. Depending on your income level, you may be able to get completely free money through grants to help pay for your education. It's a great way to take advantage of the opportunities presented.
The other thing you should do is look at what scholarship opportunities there are out there. There are a lot of scholarships these days, and they can help offset many of the costs associated with getting your education. While careeronestop.org has a scholarship finder, you can also look at the finder on other sites as well (I like the one on collegeboard.org a lot). Even if you don't qualify for grants, you can still qualify for scholarships. Although some are need based, not all of them are.
Determine your plan for your kids
You know what you want to do, you know where you want to go, now you have to figure out your plans for your kids. If they're already of school age and attending school, this is much simpler.
If you're going with a certificate program, it may be more flexible in nature - perhaps you can go in the evenings or at times that are convenient for you. Maybe there are weekend classes and your spouse, or other relative, can watch your kids while your doing the work.
If you've found an online program, it should be flexible. My wife could work on her classes at any time. There were still due dates, but no set schedule. We set time aside each week when she would work on her classes, and I got to spend some quality time with the little ones.
If you have to leave the home, and you don't have any other options for your kids, then you may have to look at daycare options. Most colleges and universities offer daycare onsite. You'll need to consider what options you have, and how to transition your child into daycare. Read our article on how to make that transition as smooth as possible.
Going back to school can be very rewarding. It can also be very difficult with young kids in the home. You should absolutely do it if you can make it work though - the longer you delay, the harder it will become.