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Going Back to College: How To Drag Your Family Along, Kicking and Screaming

Going back to college - school ahead street sign


What’s the toughest challenge you’ll face as an adult attending college online? It won’t be finding the tuition money. It won’t be finding the time. Get ready for your biggest problem to be your own family – your spouse and your kids. The ones you love the most may be the noisiest naysayers when it comes to your great back-to-college plans. Say what? It’s so easy to going back to college online. Online learning is such a blessing for the returning student who is also a time-strapped parent. Why would someone who loves you oppose your earning a college degree in this great convenient way? There are many reasons. Most are unconscious, and almost all have to do with the fear of change in relationship roles or income level and debt. Husbands, for example, may fear that higher education will give their wives more career choices — and thereafter more independence. Wives often worry that husbands may get too chummy with their younger online study buddies. Often spouses disagree about the value of a college education. She may think a degree is essential. He may think a new pick-up truck is a much better way to use that joint rainy-day fund.


People attend college for many reasons, and most who return to college later in life do so with a fierce determination to succeed. What many are not prepared for is the seemingly irrational opposition that higher education can stir up— in their spouses, their children, or their parents. I’m speaking from decades of working with non-traditional adult college students – and also from very personal experience. If you go back to school realize that your decision will greatly impact everyone in your family. You’ll have to change your routine; tighten free time; assume more short-term debt; and deal with your own fears and insecurities about your rusty academic abilities. Expect the things that affect you to also affect the fam.


Get Family’s Nod, But Stick To Guns with Returning to College


When my oldest sister decided to return to college to complete an associates degree to cap off her RN she had a part-time job, a child hanging off each hip, and a laid-off spouse. She wanted more college education so she could move up in work and pay level. Her husband thought she should delay any focus on her career until the kids were in high school. And he greatly feared that the family would not be able to manage the cost of her college degree. When my sister headed back to college without her husband’s buy-in it didn’t “cause” her divorce but it was the final surface-issue that caused her rocky marriage to unravel. Divorced and a single mom for the next five years, my sis will be the first to say today that ten years ago she was glad she stuck to her guns and earned that degree. (Now she has BOTH a degree and a husband. And, oh yeah, she makes 20 thousand dollars more a year to boot.)


Convert Kids From Symptomatic to Supportive of a Return to School

Little boy throwing a tantrum


On the other end of the family spectrum, I’ve seen teenagers throw temper tantrums and middle-schoolers feign mysterious illnesses in an effort to get dad or mom to put down the school books and pay more attention to them.   Children can get resentful if mom or dad suddenly have less time for them, or if they are assigned more chores — like making their own dinner — by parents who are desperate to steal back study time.   Attaching the burden of new chores to a repayment of greater freedom is one tactic you might try. If preparing dinner once a week means getting one night of extended curfew, or a future trip to the amusement park, kids may be quicker to embrace your return to school. Likewise, leveraging extra ‘asks’ with an offer of added authority — for example, he/she gets to take over the remote control for two hours, or be in charge of their own bedtime routine — might redirect energy away from resistance.  


Surprise! You’re The New Normal Among Online College Students


People harbor all sorts of ideas about what is age-appropriate behavior and what is not. Many still think education is for the young. No one wants to be a 40-year-old freshman, but let’s face it: In today’s 24-7 online college world, 40 is about average for going back to school. In fact, 36 remains the average age for an online degree student. Online grad students are even older, sometimes by a decade. Your loved ones may need help updating their image of a college kid. Some don’t realize how much lifelong learning has come an essential part of almost all occupations. Chances are someone in your family will simply not be in favor of your determined midlife march toward a college degree. This may be especially true if you are the first in your family to attend college or if you are about to book a higher educational standing or earning potential than your partner or spouse.


There’s Gonna Be A Showdown With Going Back to College


It is a huge decision to return to college when you’re tangled in family obligations and money management. Bottom line: any decision you make will absolutely affect the fam. Get ready to negotiate. Mom and Pop, be prepared for higher education to challenge and change your family life. It may be difficult for you to disappoint loved ones. Women, in particular, may feel they should set aside their personal goals for the sake and sanity of the fam. If your family gangs up on you – and believe me this can happen – you may feel overwhelmed and prone to surrender. My advice: Stand firm. Expect resistance. Embrace grumbling. Remind loved ones that contrary to how they feel, your return to college is not meant to take anything from them. Point out that they too will share in your eventual rewards, such as increased income and heightened personal security. Do your homework and be prepared to discuss the big-big ticket issues – like educational debt and time management – when it comes to meeting your family obligations. Then, get them ready to rethink your family obligations.


Have a Family Meeting, Then Make A Plan For Going Back To College


If you feel anyone in your family is resisting your educational advancement the best action plan is to speak up. Plan for resistance. Encourage family members to voice their concerns. Listen carefully to what they say. In most cases you’ll find a fear of change or money issues lurking under negative objections. Honest discussions about change and fear will often help soften or overcome the resistance. It’s not all negative. There can be a huge upside to negotiating your return to college. Such discussions can also bring your family closer together. Every time a family faces a big issue that changes life for everyone – like college – the family has a chance to grow stronger through the process of working toward a common long-term good. And that’s a great lesson for kids of all age to see in action.



About the Author: Vicky Phillips was cited in 2009 by US News & World Report as “for 20 years the leading consumer advocate for online college students.” In 1989 she designed America’s first online counseling center for distance learners on AOL. In 1998 she authored the first print guide to online graduate degrees – Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools put out by the Princeton Review. In 2001 she authored Never Too Late to Learn the Adult Student’s Guide to College.


Image Credits (In order or appearance):
Clover Autrey/flickr