From motherhood to mortarboards: scholarships and higher education funding for women

scholarships for women

Flowers, chocolates and cards are often the usual gift ideas when it comes to Mother's Day. And though it's wonderful to get presents from the family, education experts agree, there is one gift every mom should consider giving herself: a degree.

Why moms need a degree

Single mothers, stay-at-home moms, and those working outside of the home, can all benefit from earning a degree by bolstering their personal development and their family's income.

"It's particularly critical that women get degrees because women still tend to earn less than men," said Linda D. Hallman, Executive Director and CEO of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

In addition, college degree holders generally earn more than their less-educated counterparts. Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2009 shows that individuals with a bachelor's degree had a median weekly income of $1,025 compared to $626 for those with only a high school diploma. Educated workers face better job prospects as well. The 2009 unemployment rate was 5.2 percent for bachelor's degree holders compared to 9.7 percent for those who graduated high school and never pursued further education, the BLS reports.

In addition to potentially boosting family income, the Economic Mobility Project reports that 50 percent of the children of college-educated parents go on to earn a college degree themselves, compared to 13 percent of children with less-educated parents.

Scholarships for women

For moms with tight family budgets, the biggest obstacle to returning to school may be the cost of tuition. While some women may be fortunate enough to have savings to cover the expense and others may be able to pick up extra work hours to pay tuition, most students rely on some type of financial aid to pay for their education. Fortunately for moms, there are scholarships just for women.

  1. College scholarships: The first place moms should check for scholarships is the college or university where they intend to enroll. Almost every major institution offers scholarship programs, but eligibility requirements vary. Some scholarships may be based on financial need, while others are awarded on the basis of academic merit or limited to individuals entering specific fields of study. For example, Wilson College offers 11 different student scholarships for women with children, while the University of Colorado and the University of Denver both offer a scholarship supported by the Dottie Roberts Foundation, which is for female students with a desire to pursue a career in publishing.
  2. Professional organizations: The American Association of University Women and the Philanthropic Education Organization (P.E.O.) are two national groups that provide scholarships across career fields. Groups, such as the National Housing Endowment and the Society of Women Engineers also provide funding to women entering specific fields. Another example: scholarships for women provided by the Automotive Women's Alliance Foundation. Don't forget to check with local organizations as well. Many large and mid-sized cities have women's clubs and regional professional groups that may also offer scholarship opportunities.
  3. Minority scholarships: For women identifying with minority groups, there may be additional scholarship opportunities. The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) offers a number of Program Services Scholarships at institutions across the country. The Hispanic College Fund and Asian Women in Business also provide scholarships for women in those ethnic groups.
  4. Scholarships for older women: Finally, several scholarship programs exist specifically for older women who may not have graced a classroom doorway for years or even decades. The Talbot's Scholarship Foundation offers money to women ready to start a new career. Meanwhile, the Nina Mason Pulliam Legacy Scholars Program offers money to moms who are at least 25-years-old and have dependent children at home. Once moms hit 40, they are eligible to apply for the AARP Women's Scholarship Program.
  5. Business-sponsored scholarships: There are also a number of womens' scholarships that are administered by businesses. The Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship is one instance of this type.

Additional sources of financial aid

Scholarships aren't the only way to fund a degree.

Grants: Like scholarships, grants do not have to be paid back. The federal Pell Grant program may be the best-known education grant program available, and though not just for women, it certainly is a great resource for any student seeking aid. In addition, the government offers other grants to students meeting certain criteria or going into specific careers:

  • Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG)
  • Academic Competiveness Grant (ACG)
  • The National Science & Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grant

Grants may also be available through state programs and professional organizations. For example, the American Association of University Women offers several grant and fellowship programs. In addition to offering grants and scholarships, the AAUW has spearheaded several educational policy initiatives at the state and federal levels. "AAUW is also working to ensure that students attending both private and public institutions get the most bang for their educational buck," said Hallman.

Tuition reimbursement: An often overlooked option for working women to pay for school is employer tuition reimbursement programs. "Businesses know that there is great value in having a highly educated workforce," said Tanya Knight, a Florida-based education coach and author. "Tuition reimbursement programs increase worker efficiency as well as improve employee loyalty and retention."

The human resources department of most firms should know whether the company has a tuition reimbursement program. In addition, Knight advises women not to be shy about proposing a program if one does not currently exist. For existing workers planning to earn a degree directly related to their position, many employers may be willing to consider either partially or fully reimbursing tuition costs.

How to get started finding financial aid

All students should first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is what the federal government uses to determine eligibility for its loan and grant programs. In addition, many states and colleges also use the FAFSA. It is best to apply early since federal aid is limited. Once funds are gone, applicants will need to wait until next year.

After completing the FAFSA, prospective students should find out if the college of their choice has an organization dedicated to women's issues. Some colleges have offices devoted specifically to assisting women and minorities, and these departments may provide access to additional scholarship resources. For example, the Office of Diversity and Women's Programs at Worcester Polytechnic Institute compiles a list of women's scholarships for its students.

With a bit of research and moxie, moms can chart a path from motherhood to mortarboard by taking advantage of these types of funding resources. There are millions of dollars in scholarships available for moms planning to take the plunge and head back to school--why not become one of them?