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For Some Single Parents, Online College Holds the Key

Jan. 30, 2018
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It’s a modern-day math problem: A single parent, age 31. A wage of $9.50 an hour. And a dream of a four-year degree. Elisa Magagna’s challenge was to solve it.

“I wasn’t making very much money at all, just above minimum wage,” says Magagna, now 34 and living in Pocatello, Idaho. “I was a single mom of four kids just trying to better myself and my life.”

Thanks to an online degree program, she did.

» MORE: Is online college for you? Answer 5 questions to find out

Magagna got her bachelor’s degree in business administration in just over three years while working full time and raising her family. She studied at home through online-only Western Governors University, graduating in June 2017 with just $3,000 in student loan debt. Her salary increased by about $8 an hour after she’d earned her degree.

Undergraduates who have dependent children make up a quarter of college students, and 43% of student parents are single mothers, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Compared with childless students, single parents face a web of obstacles when going back to school:

  • They typically work while taking classes
  • They are more likely to have low incomes and less money to divert to college expenses
  • Caring for children may leave little time for schoolwork

» MORE: Alternatives to college What are my options?

For many, online colleges address those particular challenges. Studying at home makes child care less of an obstacle and cuts out commuting time. It also may cost less.

At Western Governors University, for example, tuition and fees for an undergraduate business degree are $6,670 per year, compared with $8,173 at a four-year public school. Pell Grants, a form of federal financial aid for low-income students that doesn’t need to be repaid, covered nearly all of Magagna’s schooling.

Online is not a magic bullet

But learning online isn’t a panacea.

“In practice, the online learning experience needs to be developed quite a bit more before we would expect low-income students to receive an equivalent quality education to, say, a community college,” says Barbara Gault, vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Elisa Magagna received a business degree online through Western Governors University while raising four kids. Photo courtesy of Elisa Magagna.

Elisa Magagna received a business degree online through Western Governors University while raising four kids. Photo courtesy of Elisa Magagna.

Taking classes online, without the accountability of an in-person professor, requires discipline and self-motivation. One Brookings Institution study found that students who took an online course were 9 percentage points less likely to stay enrolled the following semester. Plus, student parents in online programs may need more child care support than they anticipate, Gault says. That leads some to drop out, overwhelmed by the demands on their time.

Without a completed degree to lead to a higher-paying job, any money borrowed for school can quickly become a burden. Student parents are twice as likely as nonparents to default on their federal student loans within 12 years of starting school, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.

» MORE: Curb student debt with these cheap career training options

The school you choose matters

Students with family responsibilities — and little time to research college options — often limit themselves to attending schools that are already on their radar.

“They see a commercial for a particular institution every day,” says Mary K. Hutchens, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who focuses on nontraditional students. “So that’s the one they end up going to.”

Since the schools advertising heavily are often private, for-profit institutions, due diligence is crucial before committing. These schools, many of which offer online programs, often cost more than public or private nonprofit colleges. Yet they have poorer outcomes for graduates regarding salary, job placement and debt repayment. And single mothers are the family type most likely to enroll in them, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

» MORE: Your college choice: How to see if a school is legit

Stick to nonprofit public or private colleges that have invested in online learning; a so-called “blended” program with both online and in-person components is another good option, Gault says. Use the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to view schools’ graduation rates, students’ earnings after graduation and typical debt load. Assess an online school’s reputation using “best of” lists by U.S. News, Princeton Review and others.

“Look for programs where online is their bread and butter,” Hutchens says.

Victory can be life-changing

Magagna says her kids were inspired by her commitment to finishing school.

Magagna says her kids were inspired by her commitment to finishing school. Photo courtesy of Elisa Magagna.

Magagna’s degree — earned from a reputable nonprofit university with supports to make sure she graduated — helped her get a better-paying job. She now works as an office manager in the primary care unit of Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello.

Because she worked while in school and received Pell Grant funding, she graduated with little debt; most of her earnings can improve her family’s life, as she wanted.

Plus, she says, finishing her degree with her children in the audience made her a role model for them.

“They’ve been able to go through this journey with me,” she says. “They all want to get a college education now, and understand how important it is, because of the struggles I’ve had.”

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