"I'm not a crafts mom," says Jennifer Mechem, who stayed home for five years with her kids before enrolling in business school. It's not the only time she has sidestepped convention: Mechem, now 43, dropped out of the University of Chicago and took a break before getting her undergraduate degree at age 30 from Evergreen State College. A babyhood bout with meningitis left her with hearing loss, and at Evergreen she concentrated on disability rights. She always had thoughts of law school, but she lost out in an interview for executive director of a nonprofit because of her lack of management experience: "If I wanted to get to the next level, I needed to fill the credential gap." Now she's in B-school at the University of Washington. "Ten years ago, I would have laughed and said, 'Fat chance!'"
Goal: To re-enter the workforce in the private sector. When she left Evergreen, she worked for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
Motivation: "I felt keenly that having only a B.A. was a barrier to advancement." She adds: "Life is uncertain. I want to make a reasonable amount of money if I have to support my family."
Finances: Even though her husband teaches law at U.Wash., she gets no break on the annual tuition of $17,000. A merit scholarship takes care of $7,000 a year, and, rather than blowing the family's savings, Mechem has borrowed $28,000 her first year. She will owe about $60,000 when she graduates.
Benefits of age: "I'm not intimidated by faculty. I look at them as peers."
Advice : Consider a full-time, daytime program over a part-time program in the evenings, because child care during the day is easier to find. It has worked for her.