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For working moms, a way to connect with college

About 40 mothers are receiving scholarships from Project Working Mom to earn degrees online.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2008

Recipient: Sheena Payne, holding her daughter, Laila, won a Project Working Mom scholarship.

Courtesy of Sheena Payne

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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.

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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.

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