Federal grants help parents return to school

BY NICOLE KARLIS | JULY 08, 2009 7:21 AM

On Monday, UI student Erin Davis took her three children to the pool. On Tuesday, the 24-year-old finished her homework.

After having her first child when she was 17, Davis, the owner of in-home daycare in Des Moines, chose to go back to school. She is taking online classes through the UI.

The Obama administration will give parents such as Davis greater opportunities to return to school for the 2009-10 school year. For one thing, the federal Pell Grant, which Davis has received in the past, saw a 13 percent increase.

It brought the maximum reward to $5,350 a year, given to students demonstrating the most financial need.

Mark Warner, the director of UI Student Financial Aid, predicts the Pell Grant increase will affect the number of nontraditional students — including parents — applying for assistance. Never before in his career has he seen such a drastic increase happen within one year, he said.

Jeremy Ralph, the father of a 3-year-old boy, said loans and Pell Grants gave him the opportunity to attend the UI.

“I basically get to go to school for cheap,” he said.

He received an associate’s degree in culinary arts from Kirkwood Community College but realized it wasn’t enough to support his family.

“I decided to go back to school in hopes to better the family and my life,” Ralph said.

Since enrolling at the UI, he found being a full-time dad and student hasn’t been easy.

“I’m usually up till 3 to 3:30 in the morning doing homework — you know, it’s the sacrifice to be a good dad,” Ralph said.

The student in applied studies — who works at Taste on Melrose, 1006 Melrose Ave., four days a week — said he is now looking for job opportunities that come with health insurance and vacation days.

Davis has a similar story. She also earned her first degree before starting at the UI — in early childhood education at Des Moines Community College. She, too, realized she needed more education to provide for her family.

“I realized, ‘This was it,’ she said. “I didn’t have any other options.”

In the midst of financial struggle, Davis unexpectedly discovered a knack for business. Because she couldn’t afford childcare for her children, she decided to start her own daycare; now, she makes more money than her mother does, she joked.

It was “a choice due to circumstance,” she said.

Aside from federal grant money, she attributed her success to self-discipline and focus on the goal. This month, Davis will receive a Bachelor of Applied Studies degree with a concentration on entrepreneurship, and she is looking into furthering her education even more with a newfound interest in psychology.

Though it took time getting used to managing the tots, a business, and schoolwork, Davis said, it was worth the effort. It is important for parents to go back to school — “to be a role model to your children,” she said, “and create the stability that you need.”

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