What Is the Value of an Education to a Stay at Home Mom?

Women are pursuing degrees in record numbers. But taking time off to raise a family once you’re that deep in debt makes many have to choose between the two.

It was an introductory sociology class my freshman year and students were debating whether women who wanted to be stay-at-home moms should get a college degree. One woman argued that they shouldn’t bother – it was simply a waste of time and money. The majority of the class disagreed, some quite fervently.

At the time, her comments certainly rankled me, even though I had no idea what I was planning on doing with my life. And while I still think it is absurd that anyone would argue against women getting an education, now that I am a stay-at-home mom with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, I find myself thinking of that conversation often. What was the point of all that education? What am I doing with it now? Was it just a waste of time and money?
When my husband and I got married, we were both graduate students. Our decision to attend school simultaneously raised a few eyebrows, but I was adamant I would not play the role of the supportive wife who worked to put her husband through law school, promising herself she would take her turn “later” when the “time was right.” We were certainly on a tight budget for several years, but I have no regrets about the path I took. Even when I ended up quitting my job only a few years after graduation.
After six years in school, I might as well have used that Master’s degree in Anthropology and Public Health to wipe my baby’s bottom.
While I haven’t heard anyone debate the worth of educating future mothers since my freshman year, there are striking difference in education levels between stay-at-home moms and working moms. Nearly half of all stay-at-home moms have a high school diploma or less, compared to 30% of working moms, according to the Pew Research Center. And this disparity in education translates into financial losses – nearly one-third of stay-at-home moms live in poverty, compared to only 12% of working moms.
While a large percentage of stay-at-home moms have attended college, the share of mothers with advanced degrees who stay-at-home with children is fairly small.  For moms with professional degrees, only 11% stay at home – 9% for those with a Master’s, and just 6% of moms with a Ph.D.
The majority of these moms with advanced degrees who do leave the workforce to care for their children suggest that they would have stayed in their career if their workplace offered a more flexible arrangement. With a lack of paid maternity or sick leave, coupled with the high cost of childcare, it’s no surprise many women end up putting their careers on hold for a few years. 
Once the children of these moms get closer to school age, seventy percent end up back in the workforce. Unfortunately, there is a high price for women who leave the workforce – even for a few years – as their wages and lifetime earnings can take a large hit.  
I scrimped, saved, and worked through my grad school years in part due to a nagging fear that if I did decide to stay at home with my kids, the last thing I would want was a massive student loan hanging over my head. I was lucky to land a job as a research assistant to help cover some of my bills, but many aren’t so lucky. 
The average undergraduate borrower has over $30,000 in student loan debt. For every woman who quit her job because of an inflexible schedule or the high cost of childcare, there is another wishing she could take some time off but is paying off a mountain of educational debt instead.
Despite the large percentage of women staying at home who do not have higher degrees, more women are now earning college diplomas than men – 37% vs 35%. Nevertheless, women are still earning 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. This gap in pay hits women for whom college is out of reach even harder – They work at lower wage jobs and they have less of a chance to earn enough to pay for adequate childcare.
Whether or not I use my degree on a day to day basis, I don’t regret my decision to go to college or graduate school. I have gained perspective and experience that has improved my life and that I can pass down to my children. I  learned organizing and management skills that I use while volunteering I have a sense of accomplishment from pursuing a field I wanted to study.
On the days that I do use it, I’m working as a freelance writer from home, a degree of flexibility in a field I love that I’m not sure I would have if I didn’t pursue an education. And if I decide to return to the workforce full-time, I’m glad I have options available to me.
Women are pursuing higher education in record numbers, but we still have more work to do to ensure that college is affordable and accessible for everyone and that our workplaces are more flexible and accommodating of working parents. Only then we can be sure that women truly have the option to pursue what is best for them and for their families.