Jacque Goleeke is going to have a very busy fall.
The 29-year-old Indiana native and mother of three is expecting another child in September. For the next nine months, she'll also be completing an online bachelor's degree.
"I am very nervous about it," says Goleeke, who hopes her online business degree will help advance her career. "Some courses are more challenging than others. Depending on what comes up next, it might not be something I can tackle."
To some expectant and recent parents, the idea of signing up for an online program seems like a wise move during a break from work. For others, such as Goleeke, balancing diaper duty with homework is a nerve-racking prospect.
Adults considering online course work while parenting should consider the following tips from experts and parents.
[Learn how to tell a good online course from a bad one.]
1. Test the water by signing up for a course or a certificate. One misconception is that online courses are easier than their counterparts at brick-and-mortar institutions. But that's not the case, experts say. Online courses often involve an extensive amount of reading and writing as well as time management skills.
Meeting course deadlines and the stress of caring for an infant or young child can be taxing. Before making a long-term commitment, experts suggest first trying one class.
"Take one course before enrolling in a program and see how it works," says David L. Stoloff, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University who has been teaching online courses since 1998. "You might not like it; it might not work with your lifestyle."
[Discover time management tips for online students.]
Kimberly Hawkins, an office manager at a public health company, jumped in to her online master's in public health with both feet – at about the same time she decided to get pregnant.
She took a few months off after she had her newborn and found the transition back to school almost too much to handle at times.
Looking back, she's not sure she would do the program again.
"I can't wait for it to be done," she says. "I kind of wish I would have done it before I had kids because it's constantly in the back of my mind."
Students intent on taking more than one course but unsure if they have the time or preparation for an entire degree might consider a compromise between the two, says professor Dani Babb, an online education consultant who teaches anywhere from 12 to 30 online courses at a given time.
"If you only have about six months to go to school, consider getting a certificate instead of a degree," she says.
[Explore child-friendly college programs.]
2. Learn about the policies for dropping out of a course. Even students with the best intentions of finishing an online course may want to drop out of the class after they've had a baby. As a result, experts suggest students take their time to investigate how flexible their programs are when it comes to a leave of absence.
Babb says it's common for her pregnant students to ask for time off after they've given birth.
"A lot of my students will do it for like three months or so," she says.
More often than not, Babb and Stoloff say, professors will approve a leave of absence. The length of the leave depends on the institution, they say.
"A certain number of people ask for extensions and I'm happy to give them," says Stoloff. "I don't think learning needs to be confined to 15 weeks. I tell students all the time that life comes before the course."
Of course, a leave of absence is not necessary for all expectant parents.
Lisa Witzler, an ombudsman at the National Institute of Public Health, had her child a year into her doctorate program in conflict resolution.
Just two weeks after childbirth, she was on the couch and nursing while logging into her program.
"It was crazy," she says. "I was able to have a really supportive partner and that makes a huge difference."
3. Choose your courses wisely. At some point during your studies, students will have to take a course they find challenging. But immediately after pregnancy is likely not that time, experts say.
Babb suggests that new parents take courses they are confident they will be able to tackle.
"Avoid math and statistics classes," Babb says. The highest dropout rate she says she sees is in students who have a major life event during a math or statistics course.
Students should also consider the number of courses they plan to take after having children, experts say. One course might be manageable, but taking several while caring for an infant would be a challenge for many.
Witzler, who had her baby during her doctorate program, says she was thankful that she was only taking one course the semester after she gave birth.
"It was great timing," she says. "I just powered through."
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.