A Mom's Guide to Online College

by - December 05, 2017

Let me start by telling you my story.
When I was 24, I worked full-time at War-Mart. I had been working at War-Mart since I was 16 years old. I had done a plethora of jobs with the company, but at this point, I worked on the third shift on the stocking crew. When our manager quit, I was selected to do his job until they found someone to replace him. So, I was checking in the trucks, pulling the pallets to the floor to be stocked, managing who went where, and keeping the stockroom organized. I applied for the position. Everyone thought I was definitely going to get it.
I didn’t. It was probably because I was a woman, but it doesn’t really matter now. The person who was given the job had been working for the company for a few months, and he had no idea what he was doing. He spent the night on his Bluetooth talking on his phone – and I ended p continuing to do the job. When I mentioned this to the manager, he basically told me, “well, you wanted to do the job, right?” Classy.
At some point while all of this was going on, I became pregnant with our youngest son. I told management that I was no longer going to be pulling heavy pallets or humping heavy boxes, but they told me “tough,” and I continued to do the job. At 18 weeks, I had a bleed – anyone who has been pregnant knows that this is a horrible experience. I went to my Doctor, and the baby was fine, but she told me that if I continued to stress my body doing the physical labor at work, I was going to lose that baby.
I told my manager. He basically called me a drama queen. I quit that day.
So, with no job and a baby on the way, my husband and I had to make a plan. Something had to give. We had both gone to state colleges right out of high school, but neither of us had finished. We created a 5-year plan that included both of us going back to school. He decided to go to a Tech school and enrolled in an Automotive Services Technologies program, and I enrolled in the local Community College’s online General Transfer program. I also decided that in order to stay home with our young children, that I would start a daycare business at home and care for other youngsters. This way, I could be home with my kids, go to college, make enough money to keep us afloat, and maybe provide good childcare for other little ones.
I’m not going to lie – it was hard. We saw some tough times during that 5 years. We struggled to pay the bills, we ended up relying on food stamps, and there were some days where I thought, “I bet I could go back to War-Mart right now and end this.” I was tired. I stayed up really late writing papers and completing assignments, and during the day I was caring for 5-6 little kids. I was stressed about money every day.
The important thing was, we never took our eyes off of the goal.
In 2012, I graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in English Literature Theory and Research. I graduate with honors. I was a Phi Theta Kappa member. I became a Florida Certified teacher. It took me awhile to find a job, and we had to move. but I do not regret one single moment of those years.
This morning, I was woken up at 10am to the sound of lawn mowers. People were cutting my grass. It was 10am on a Monday, and I was still asleep! Once a week, someone comes and cleans my pool. I’m not telling you this to brag – I’m telling you this because 5 years ago, I was counting pennies and trying to hide my food stamps card from judgmental eyes at the grocery check-out with 5 kids hanging out of my cart. Those days were hard, but worth it. And, I owe all of it to my degree that I obtained online.
In 3 months, I will have a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Instruction.
There is a University of Phoenix commercial that comes on, it’s a cartoon Mom who gets fired from her job, and she’s sad and then decides to go back to school, and she stays up late working on her degree, and in the end her and her kids are celebrating that she’s graduated and then she gets a job – the first time we saw that commercial, my husband turned to me and smiled, and said “that’s you, babe.” That was a proud moment for me.
You can do it too. Below is a guide that I have put together for anyone interested in or apprehensive about going back to school. Everything is my own opinion, and I was not paid by any organization, school, or person to give my opinions. This is merely my experience – yours may be different. I am offering this as advice from my own experience.
A Guide to Online College
#1: Five Things You Should Know When Considering Going Back To School:
  1. Online College requires you to be committed and motivated. Classes are not scheduled, and your learning is dependent upon your involvement. You have to read course material, participate in discussions with classmates, and complete projects. There is no one breathing down your neck and reminding you of deadlines. You have to have the motivation to keep up with assignments.
  2. Time management is a must. Having a plan when approaching an online class is the best way to ensure that you are completing everything in a timely manner. Know when your due dates are ahead of time, and make a plan regarding what you will complete and when. Stick to this plan with fidelity. Otherwise, you will fall behind.
  3. You must have a decent computer and access to high-speed internet. Because your courses are completely online, you will need a reliable computer with audio and video capabilities, and a fast internet connection. Relying on your local Starbucks is probably not going to cut it unless you plan on spending a lot of time there (which is possible, don’t let this deter you!) You may have to participate in live online lectures, so streaming capability is a must. You will need Microsoft Office (which you can get for both Mac and PC). The best way to have the most up-to-date Office software is to get a subscription to Office 365, which will run you $9.99 per month and can be used on 5 computers or devices. You can get more information about Office 365 by clicking here.
  4. It is going to be so hard. You are going to be tired after work, or after taking care of kids all day, or after a tough day. You aren’t going to want to write a 10-page paper. You aren’t going to want to study. You are going to get complacent and want to quit. This is normal. Persevere. Push through those moments and commit to completing assignments. It will all be worth it. Keep your eye on the goal. You can do it.
  5. You will be s proud of yourself. This is an important one. In the end, when you receive your diploma, you are going to be so proud of yourself. You are going to weep with joy. Your family is going to be proud of you. Your kids are going to be proud of you. You are going to mount that diploma on your wall in the best frame that Michael’s has on their 50% off shelf. Your sense of accomplishment is going to be like a high. I promise. It’s incredible.
#2: Choosing a program – 5 Things to Consider
After you have created your goals and decided what direction you want your education to go in, you need to decide on a program that suits your needs. Honestly, most colleges have online programs these days, and you can go to any one from anywhere around the country. How do you decide which program is right for you? Consider these 5 things:
  1. How are classes taught? Do classes run in semesters where you will take 4-5 classes at once for 15 week semesters? Or are classes taught one at a time back-to-back in 6-8 week spurts? You have to consider which is better for your schedule. Taking 4-5 classes at once time can be overwhelming if you don’t have a lot of time to commit, but you get more classes done this way. Classes that run back-to-back in 6-8 week sessions are  significantly lower in time commitment.
  2. What are the graduation requirements? What classes are required to fulfill your degree program? Get a list of required classes and a brief description of each one. Make sure that you know exactly what is required before you commit to a program so that there will be no surprises later. Will there be intern or service hours required? Will you be required to complete volunteer hours or observations? Know this information before going in!
  3. What materials will be required? Will you have to purchase books, or are they available online? Some programs make their books available online in PDF format to enrolled students. Some do not. Some only use materials that are accessible online. Find out what materials you will need to complete your degree program.
  4. How long will it take? Find out exactly what your graduation date would be if you stayed on track. Know what the end goal is. Mark it on your calendar. Ask for a mock-up of what your schedule would be for your entire program so that you know what is coming and exactly how long it will take.
  5. How much does it cost? Compare programs. Find out how much courses cost per credit hour. Most courses are 3-credit hours, so do the math. Find out if there are any service fees, online learner fees, book and material fees, administrative fees, etc. Find out how much this program is going to cost you. Prices vary from school to school. Most colleges have in state tuition rates, out of state tuition rates, and then online tuition rates. Typically, they do not charge more for out-of-state online students. Find out for sure. Factor this in to your decision making.
#3: Paying for College
There are tons of resources available online about paying for college. There is a lot of noise. Honestly, there are only two things that you need to know:
  1. Financial Aid. If you are going to need financial aid, which most students do, your best resource is the FAFSA website, which you can access by clicking here. This is the US government’s website for financial aid. If you are an Undergraduate student, you can be eligible for grants AND loans to help you pay for college. Grants do NOT have to be paid back, and most undergrad programs can be 100% funded by using Pell grants. You can also get access to Subsidized and Unsubsidized Student Loans (subsidized means that the government covers the interests while you are in school, and unsubsidized means that your loan accrues interest while you are in school. Most undergraduate students will use Subsidized loans). The FAFSA website has all of the information that you need to make a solid decision about funding your education, and you can apply for financial aid right from their website. You will need our previous year’s tax returns to fill out the forms. They typically process your application within 24 hours.
  2. Scholarships. Once you decide on a program, ask your Admissions Counselor about scholarships that are available to online students. There are lots of them, you just have to ask which ones are available to you for your particular school and program. Scholarships are like free money for college that you never have to pay back. Your college will have information on these.
Financial Aid disbursements can help you pay for things like books, a reliable computer, a Microsoft 365 subscription, and your high-speed internet connection. This is how I was able to have those things when we were food-stamps broke. The FAFSA website has lots of information about borrowing responsibly, but those extra funds are designed to help you obtain the resources necessary to be successful. Always read the fine print and understand the terms before agreeing to anything. If you need help, call their hotline. They want to help you!
I hope that this inspires you consider furthering your education. If you have questions about my experience, please leave them in the comments below or find me on Facebook. I will help as much as I can. Going back to school was the most rewarding that that I have ever done, and now I have an amazing career as a Middle School English teacher, and I have no regrets. Every late night that I spent working on assignments was completely worth it!

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