Sheena Payne was just a year shy of her bachelor's degree from Florida State University when she found out she was pregnant. As a single mom, she moved to Orlando so she and her daughter, Laila, could be near her family. Now her essay about how online courses would help her finally clinch that diploma has won her an unforgettable Mother's Day gift: a full scholarship from American InterContinental University (AIU).
Nearly 40 other mothers will get similar good news this month from Project Working Mom. Set up by eLearners.com, a New Jersey company that promotes accredited online education, the project is distributing about $2 million from AIU, Walden University, and DeVry University.
The schools see it as a way to open doors of opportunity while at the same time connecting with a ready-made market of people who need the kind of flexibility their online programs offer. Demand is clearly growing. About 3.5 million students took at least one college course online in the fall of 2006, up 10 percent from the year before, according to the 2007 Sloan Survey of Online Learning.
Many of the 50,000 essays that poured in for the scholarship contest included "heartbreaking" tales of poverty, abuse, and divorce, says eLearners.com content director Helen MacDermott. "But they're not all hardscrabble and misery. A lot of these women are so motivated.... At this point, the biggest barrier is financial, and that's a terrible reason for someone not to be able to move on to the next stage of their life or provide things that they want for their kids."
Just 15 percent of single mothers with children below age 18 have a bachelor's degree or more, according to a 2006 Census Bureau report. But whether a working mother is married or single, going back to school can be daunting. Besides finances, time and confidence are often lacking. Project Working Mom aims to push aside these obstacles by providing scholarships, information about schools and financial aid, and an online forum for women who are balancing work, school, and motherhood.
In traditional classrooms, older students often aren't comfortable talking about pressures at home or work, but an online forum "creates a safe space for them to voice the issues they're facing," says Becky Wai-Ling Packard, a professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., who has studied adults in higher education.
Building up confidence is particularly important for those who've had a lapse in education, Professor Packard adds. If a student takes on too big a load, she "might not do well and believe it's a lack of ability." Many drop out at the first sign of trouble, but they're more likely to persist after succeeding in one or two courses, she says.
A similar scholarship project for men may be developed down the road, says Ms. MacDermott of eLearners.com, but the focus for now is on women because they tend to fare less well economically as heads of households. The project hopes to break the low-wage cycle, since people who earn a bachelor's degree earn significantly more than those with just a high school diploma.
When Ms. Payne stopped school to have her baby, she had already learned some hard lessons about the need to focus on academics rather than extracurriculars. She had nearly dropped out of college early on, but an administrator who shared a similar story helped her turn things around. In Orlando, working part time at a bank, Payne was determined to finish her degree at another university, but it would have meant traveling 45 minutes each way for some courses.
She says she's shocked and grateful to have won a scholarship from the online branch of AIU, based in suburban Chicago. She plans to take business and Web-design courses and to someday start a company.
Payne looks back at a series of painful experiences and seemingly wasted time, but she says they've made her stronger. "If I had never decided I was going to find out who I was and be that person ... then I would serve no purpose for my daughter. She needs to see she can fulfill all her goals ... because I've been through so much and I've done it." Now six months old, Laila sits on Payne's lap when she's at the computer: "She likes to help me type," she jokes.
Many of the applicants share that desire to be a good educational role model for their children, MacDermott says.
For the essay reviewers at Walden University, the stories that stand out most are from people who aren't only in need, but who also "talk about how they may choose to use their degrees for the betterment of their community or even their family life," says Jerry Sweitzer, a Walden spokesman. Because most of Walden's students are working adults, he says, "they can share best practices [from around the world] ... and take what they are learning right back to their job."
Before people jump into online courses, they should make sure it's a good fit, MacDermott says. "The flexibility is great, but ... you have to be judicious with your use of time and extremely self-motivated," she says. The retention rate for online courses at community colleges is 72 percent, compared with 78 percent for in-person classes, reports the Instructional Technology Council, which works with colleges engaged in distance learning.
For Jen Schwartz of Salt Lake City, earning a master's in education from AIU was a perfect solution when she and her husband had four young children. She felt encouraged by professors and fellow students who were always accessible by e-mail. "I don't think I wrote a single paper where I didn't have a baby nursing on my lap at some point ... and you can't do that when you're up at the University of Utah," she says.
She completed the intensive degree last August after just 10 months, paid for with some inheritance money. But for people who can't swing the tuition on their own, Project Working Mom plans to offer a second round of scholarships this fall.