A money guide for parents going back to school

You'll need to plan your school and work schedule around your child care needs.

Brian Acton


Brian Acton

Brian Acton

Contributing Reporter

Brian Acton is a contributing reporter at Policygenius, where he covers personal finance and insurance news. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, TIME, USA Today, MarketWatch, Inc. Magazine, and HuffPost. 

Published August 10, 2021 | 7 min read

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If you think that unencumbered young adults are the only people enrolled in college, think again: More than one in five college students is a parent. If you have kids and you’re ready to further your career or education by going back to school, you probably already know that working classes into your busy schedule will take some effort.

There’s also the matter of money to consider, and you have to set your finances up for success. Here’s how to get your money ready for going back to school as a parent.

1. Figure out how much it will cost 

No matter what school or academic program you’re considering, you need to know how much the university is going to cost, especially when you have child expenses to consider. The median student debt for student parents in 2015-2016 was $6,500. Affordability is an important aspect of choosing a school, especially when you’ve got kids to take care of. 

You can check out any school’s net price calculator, which will help you calculate ballpark costs for your education including tuition and fees, textbooks, school supplies and more, minus any grants or scholarships you will receive, says Joseph Orsolini at College Aid Planners. All colleges are required to have these calculators available on their website, he adds. 

Read up on the assumptions made by the calculator before you get started — some are geared toward first-year undergrad students, on-campus freshmen, and other student types that may not apply to your specific scenario. If that’s the case, looking for grad school tuition and fees online or calling up the college’s financial services office might be your best bet.

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of buying your meals (or signing up for a campus meal plan), transportation costs, parking, school supplies like binders and paper, and any other incidental costs you will incur along the way.

As you search for the right program, don't let your tunnel vision for a specific school override the practicality of shopping around. Not all programs are created equal, but more expensive programs aren’t always worth it. Evaluate the cost of several institutions, and remember that sometimes a degree from a state school can be just as valuable as one from an Ivy League institution.  

For practical purposes, it might make sense to attend a local school or look for a virtual program. These options will make it easier to juggle student/parent responsibilities and lessen disruption to your family’s routine. 

2. Look for grants & scholarships

Each year the Department of Education, institutions of higher learning, and private donors award $46 billion in scholarships and grants. These monetary awards are often based on economic need, can be used to pay for your education, and do not need to be repaid. You may be eligible for many aid opportunities, including ones that are geared specifically toward parents.

Eligibility requirements vary, so you’ll need to do your homework to find the right scholarships and grants to apply for (there are several that are available for single parents, for example). You can look for private awards online or check with local resources. Scholarships.com, CollegeXpress, and Scholarship America are good online resources to start with. You can also look for scholarships and grants offered by your state (check your state’s website), county and local community organizations. 

When you choose a school, check the university website for scholarships granted directly by the institution. Each university will have its own scholarship programs, and some may be targeted directly to parents returning to school. Plan to be a familiar face at the university’s financial aid and scholarships office.

3. Determine child care needs

Your specific needs will depend on the age and needs of your children, your family size, and whether they’re in school for part of the day. You need to consider how your class schedule and work schedule will line up with your child’s daily schedule. Child care could be one of your biggest costs while you’re enrolled in school. 85% of families report spending 10% or more of their household income on child care. Whether your kids already have care or you need to find it, finding room in your budget for care is essential. 

Your partner, co-parent, or family members may be able to step in to watch your kids for free while you're in class or studying. It could be difficult or impossible to get partial or full child care coverage from your network, so you may need to arrange for paid child care such as after school programs, day care centers or at-home help. Waitlists at daycare centers can be several months or more, so start figuring out care well before you plan to start school. 

If your employer offers a dependent care flexible savings account, sign up during the enrollment period. These are plans that allow you to pay for eligible child care expenses, including day care centers, after school programs, and in-home child care up to an annual limit, with tax free money.   

4. Apply for student loans

If you can’t afford all your college expenses out of pocket, student loans can help you cover most school costs, and will require you to start repaying six months after you graduate or leave. There are private and federal options to explore:

Private student loans

Private student loans are offered by private companies. They generally have higher interest rates and don’t offer as flexible repayment options as federal loans such as income-based repayment, public service loan forgiveness, etc. They also require credit checks, while federal student loans don’t. 

Keep in mind that some private loans have variable-rate interest, which means your payments can go up as time goes on. Make sure you carefully review the terms and conditions of any private loans you’re considering. 

In many cases, private loans are best used to help bridge the gap if federal student loans don’t cover all your educational expenses. 

Federal student loans and grants

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will connect you with federal aid in the form of student loans, grants, and work study. You will need to answer questions about your income, employment status, and dependents — including children to whom you provide more than half of their support. You will also need to provide your Social Security number, driver’s license number if you have one, federal tax information for yourself and spouse (if you are married), and records of untaxed income. 

The earlier you apply the more aid you may be eligible to receive. Colleges also set their own priority deadlines for the FAFSA. Make sure you’re paying close attention when they announce the deadlines for the upcoming school year. 

You need to list at least one school on your FAFSA, but you do not need to be enrolled or accepted. Any funds you’re approved for won’t be released until you’re an official student. The schools you apply to will use your FAFSA information to determine the types and amounts of aid you can receive. 

If you’re applying to grad school, make sure you are signing up for and taking all the tests required to get admitted. Whether you’re applying to grad schools or undergrad, work on gathering all the necessary documents (transcript, letters of recommendation, etc.). 

5. Have a plan to pay back your student loans

College is expensive, and as a parent it will be especially helpful to reduce the amount of debt you take on and make it easier to tackle after you graduate. There are many ways to lower the cost of college as you go to school, setting yourself up better for the future. 

Ask your employer if they offer student loan or tuition assistance. They may have an interest in helping you pay for a degree that will advance your career or help you become more proficient at your job. As part of last year’s coronavirus stimulus package, employers can now make tax-free contributions of up to $5,250 a year toward an employee’s student debt until 2025

Finally, remember that college tuition can be negotiated. Some students may qualify for a tuition discount due to their financial or family situation, but you can also negotiate directly with the school’s financial office based on your academic achievements, career achievements, status as a parent and more. Here are some tips for negotiating lower tuition

Parenting is challenging enough on its own, and trying to juggle kids with the demands of going to college won’t be easy. Make sure to understand the costs of your education and look for ways to make it as affordable as possible. Don’t forget to prepare your finances for child care, as it could be one of the biggest incidental costs of going back to school. Be sure to tap all of the resources your employer offers for furthering your education or student loan repayment program.

Recommended reading

Here are some tips on reducing college costs

We break down how student loans work

Here’s how to save on child care while you’re in school.

Image: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images