Moms Share Secrets to Success in Online Classes

Most online students are women, many of whom struggle with juggling school work and family responsibilities. 

Mixed race mother working with daughter in background

Women should ask their partner about taking on more responsibilities during their online studies, experts say.

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It's hard enough for working women to balance their career demands with caring for a son, daughter or spouse. Add pursuing an online degree into the mix, and women can feel as if they are drowning in a sea of dirty dishes, office memos and class notes.

Karen VanGorder, director of online programs at Indiana University-Purdue University—Fort Wayne, has heard her fair share of complaints from female students who feel utterly overwhelmed by their multiple commitments. And she feels for them.

"If you work 40 hours a week and you spend 10 hours a week cooking and cleaning and doing those things, you just run out of time. You have to sleep," she says. "It would be nice if we could say, 'Along with your scholarship, here’s an extra 10 hours a week.'"

At VanGorder's institution, about 70 percent of students in the online general studies program are female – a trend mirrored in online undergraduate programs throughout the country. In 2012-2013, for example, women made up 54 percent of the students at 147 online bachelor’s programs that reported data to U.S. News.

[Explore tips for expectant parents considering an online degree.]

While juggling family, work and school commitments can be a challenge, it doesn't have to be impossible. Below, women share tips on how mothers can feel successful in the play room, board room and virtual classroom.

• Have a frank discussion with family members: "A lot of research shows that women who are mothers – even if they are working full time – are doing more house work and child care than fathers," says Jennifer Fraone, associate director of marketing and communications at the Boston College Center for Work & Family. "And that’s been a fact for as long as we can document."

Fraone recommends that students sit down with their partner and discuss how that person can take on more responsibilities. The same is true for children, she says. Female students should clearly explain to their kids why they are pursuing an education – be that to land a job or earn more money for the family – so that children understand the importance of being supportive and giving their parent time to study, she says.

"Take a little time when you do get a good grade to go out and celebrate with your family," Fraone adds. "That can help them feel a little more engaged in helping to support you."

Take advantage of the time you have: It’s important for female students to make every spare second count when it comes to their studies, experts say. Sitting in the car while a child finishes piano practice or waiting in the doctor’s office during a kid's annual checkup can be a great opportunity to whip out some reading materials or start studying.

[Listen to online students share time management tips.]

"If you have small children, definitely take advantage of nap time," says Amanda Matheny, a single mom of 3-year-old son Loudin, who is pursuing her online bachelor’s degree through Western Governors University. "In the evenings when he’s in bed I focus on studying and that way I can spend more time during the day on him," says Matheny, who lives in San Antonio.

Talk to your employer about having flexible hours: Virginia resident Patsy Deyo, an online student in the master’s in nursing program at George Washington University, struggled at first to balance her school work with her full-time job and caring for her 5-year-old daughter Kaitlyn. She and her husband approached their employers, and were able to set up an arrangement where they could work staggered hours to get in more time with their child.

"Having that flexibility was key," she says. "I think it’s important for employers to support you, especially if you are in a job that relates to your degree."

Fraone says employers are more likely to be flexible when it’s for educational purposes than when it is for a different kind of personal need. She suggests students arrange a one-on-one conversation with a manager, reiterate their commitment to the job, and ask for a trial period during which they can work from home or adjust their hours.

"I think sometimes just having an extra hour in one direction or the other can really make a difference," she says.

[Discover productivity apps that can help online students.]

Don’t bite off more than you can chew: One key to being a successful parent, student and employee is not to burden yourself with an impossible workload, students and experts say. Earning an online degree can be a noble goal, but it doesn't necessarily need to be done as fast as possible.

Deann Ballard, a South Carolina resident and parent of five children who is earning her online bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, says she originally made the mistake of taking a full course load.

"At first I thought I could do it fast, but that’s just not realistic with my workload," she says. "I decided it wasn't worth the stress. Don’t set a hard deadline, like 'I will do this in three years,' because that will set you up for failure."

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.