Assess Online Programs as a New, Soon-to-Be Parent

U.S. News | June 5, 2017 - There are times when 31-year-old Erin Kendrick turns on her computer and logs into her online classes with her 10-week-old daughter sitting nearby or atop her lap.

New Parents and Online Learning

Kendrick is pursuing her MBA online through the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School. As a new parent who until recently traveled often for work, she says the flexibility of online education simply made sense for her and her husband, who's also an online MBA student.

"We were nervous about potentially moving somewhere that wouldn't have good internet, or having a child and needing to slow down the pace of how quickly we would finish our MBA, and they were very willing to work with us," the Nevada resident says.

Kendrick isn't alone. The ability to complete coursework around your own schedule and earn a degree at your own pace often attracts those who have young children or are expectant parents, experts say.

"We definitely see a lot of online students who are also parents, who are probably intentionally choosing an online degree because of the flexibility it offers in the midst of their other obligations around raising children," says Kyle Whitehouse, assistant director of student services at Oregon State University Ecampus.

Here are six questions new or soon-to-be parents should aim to answer when speaking to academic advisers at potential online degree programs or researching their options.

1. Can you choose how many courses you take each term? Connecticut resident Joseph Catrino, who earned his MBA online in 2014 from Quinnipiac University – where he worked at the time – says that with a two-year-old and another baby on the way, a full-time job and an education, there was no way he could have managed more than a single course at once when he first enrolled. So that's what he did.

Experts suggest that young parents research whether there's flexibility in how many classes they can take at once – and with that, if part-time versus full-time enrollment status affects financial aid.

"If there's the ability to step in with a couple of courses and to really understand what you're able to do and what you're able to fit in your schedule, I think that that's the best option," says Jill Buban, senior director of research and innovation for the Online Learning Consortium, an organization aiming to advance online education.

2. Can you take breaks as needed? With everything happening in their busy lives, young parents should check whether they can choose not to enroll at all during certain academic terms.

That flexibility was beneficial to Kendrick, the UNC student. After her daughter was born, she didn't take any online courses for five weeks, she says.

3. What student services are available? Support staff such as academic advisers can help new or soon-to-be parents not only manage their time but also guide them if family-related situations arise during the program.

For example, Crystal Fey, senior program manager at University of Wisconsin—Extension, which offers several online degrees, says a pregnant online student at the school gave birth to her child around the same time she was scheduled to take her final exam. The student services staff worked with the school to change her test date.

4. What is the weekly time commitment? Knowing that information is important, Buban says, so students can be clear with their families about their need to focus on their coursework, or so that they can schedule a babysitter.

5. Are there any live classes? Live, or synchronous, online classes are an opportunity to build relationships with classmates, but for many new or expectant parents they aren't a realistic option.
Experts suggest finding out whether programs have live or self-paced courses, or both. If they are live, the parent should assess whether that's a good choice for them given their other obligations, or evaluate whether somebody can watch the child at those times.

"I wanted something where once my wife and kids were in bed, I could then sit down and do my readings and respond to people on discussion boards," says Scott Bennett, a student who since last year has been pursuing an education technology master's online at Johns Hopkins University and has two young children.

6. Is travel required? On-campus residencies or similar requirements allow students to network with other classmates or faculty in person. Taking time to travel, however, isn't doable for many new or expectant parents, especially if they also work.

They should ask about on-site requirements and determine whether the face-to-face networking is worth the time away from home. If it is, they might have to rely on a babysitter or spouse.

In some cases, these turn into family trips, though the student should ensure they will have time alone for coursework, says Sridhar Balasubramanian, senior associate dean for MBA programs at UNC.

"It keeps them focused on the academic content," he says.