15 Ways to Navigate College As a Single Parent

Single parenthood still carries a significant chunk of the nation’s family demographic. The Pew Research Center dissected the various profiles of these non-traditional parents. Non-traditional parenting has evolved from the dichotomy of single fatherhood and single motherhood to include cohabiting unmarried parents. 

From a financial perspective, cohabiting parents, albeit not married, have better advantages over single parents, and those advantages are comparable to married parents. Of course, the advantage stems from childcare, and all other household expenses can be shared between partners, whereas single parents have to depend and shoulder everything upon themselves alone.

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Table of Contents

Single Parenthood in America: By the Numbers

Among single parents, there has been a consistent trend of more single mothers compared to single fathers. A 2018 Pew Research Center study estimated that of the 25% non-traditional parents accounted for in the national population data, 53% of that subset are single mothers (or 13% based on national data), and 12% are single fathers (or 3% based on national data). However, the disparity between single mothers and single fathers over the last five decades has become less with the prevalence of single fathers in the population, which has grown more than two-fold from 1968 to 2017. Data on single mothers, on the other hand, has seen a gradual decline.

Single Parent in College - fact

Regardless of gender, single parents between the ages of 16 and 24 represent the majority for this subset of the population, at 35% as of 2017, which some people find alarming. What is even more concerning is that a third of all parents are single parents – most of whom are mothers – with little or no college education. This condition is directly related to the poverty situation among single parents, especially single mothers. Aside from family security, single mothers (and fathers too) also have to fight the stigma of raising their child or children alone. 

For simplicity and clarity, we will define “single parents” in this piece as follows:

  • Unmarried individuals, male or female, with a child or children outside of marriage who are not cohabiting with a partner (regardless of whether that partner is the children’s other parent or not), are also not cohabiting with extended family such as older parents or other relatives.
  • They are currently working one or multiple jobs to meet household obligations. 
  • In terms of educational attainment, they do not hold a college degree or, at the very least, they have attained some college credits but have been forced to discontinue their studies due to financial circumstances, and schedule difficulties.

READ: Educational Attainment In America: What The Trends And Statistics Say

College Education for Single Parents: A Life-Altering Game Changer

In a 2018 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), it was concluded that a college degree is a key out of poverty among single mothers. The research is indeed catching up to its subjects. In a previously conducted IWPR study in 2016, student mothers, both married and unmarried, comprise two-thirds of 70% of the total population of parent students. Within that subset, more than half of 61% is composed of unmarried single mothers. To provide a holistic perspective, in a more recent study, again by the IWPR, single mother students account for close to 10% of all college students in the country as of 2019, which forms part of a significant chunk of the post-secondary student population. 

The growing numbers show that single mothers (and single fathers as well, although their numbers are still playing catchup with the moms), are starting to grasp the undeniable value of education in landing a job that pays and thus, getting them out of the poverty hole. It has been said that single-parent students are far more motivated and more equipped mentally, skills-wise, psychologically, and emotionally than their non-parental counterparts.

A good grasp of reality brought about by premature parenthood and the real-life experiences that come with it play a vital role in the tenacity, fortitude, motivation, and resourcefulness of single parents. Whereas traditional, straight-from-high-school-to-college students with no dependents go to college because it has always been the norm, like they were following the pathway set for them (and saved up for them by their parents), single-parent students are going to school on their own accord. They go or are going back to school because they strongly believe it is the only way to improve their family’s lives financially and in all other respects. They also believe that it sets a good example for their children and that their pursuit of higher learning and a college degree leads to a life built around self-esteem, self-respect, ambition, and the drive or pursuit of a better life.

While all that is very admirable, it does not take away that single-parent students face different challenges than traditional students with no dependents. Their needs are specific, if not more challenging. Fortunately, there are several strategies and resources that single-parent students can take advantage of to make their college experience a successful and enjoyable one, albeit peculiar difficulties.

READ: History Of Women In STEM Fields

College For Single Parents

15 Ways to Navigate College As a Single Parent

1. Get help.

Getting help to watch over children and assist with household chores, thus, giving single-parent students more time to study. You could hire professional help such as a housekeeper who can provide support with almost everything, including chores and babysitting, or even a nanny/babysitter to cover child care. You could also make use of on-campus childcare services, which is a great thing to look for when choosing a school. You could also look into government programs incentivizing parents to attend college, like the “Child Care Access Means Parents in School” program by the Education Department. You could even ask a friend or a relative to come over during hours where you need to attend classes online or in-campus and also time to take care of additional coursework or homework, which brings us to our next tip. 


2. Stick to a fixed schedule.

Sure, this is easier said than done. However, it is very important to follow a schedule that is as rigid as possible because single parenthood entails holding down multiple responsibilities – childcare, one or more jobs, and of course, school. This is also equally important when hiring help for the kids. Creating a schedule that coordinates school and works with your designated trustworthy person is very crucial. Most sitters and nannies are taking on this job part-time, so schedule coordination between you and outside help is very important. When drawing up a schedule with the nanny or sitter, do not cut the schedule too close that it will only be enough to cover your school schedule. Factor in study time because there will certainly be assignments that you need to accomplish or submit. It is better for multi-tasking individuals like single parents to do these right after lectures rather than procrastinate, which could be very tempting, especially for online classes. Factor in a little bit of solitude after school and work to give you a breather from your loaded life. 


3. Organizational skills should be second nature.

This may not be applicable if your children are too young to have playdates. However, if you happen to have toddlers and school-aged kids in tow, then the drawing board, the calendar, or whatever you want to call that whiteboard with dates and post-its should be your best friend. Mastering the art of organization and scheduling is almost innate to multi-tasking parents, especially solo parents. You need to organize school, extracurricular school activities, playdates, your job, your schoolwork, and required activities and having a bit of “me” time as well to keep you sane.


4. On the point of “me” time…

Over the past decade or so, the importance of having “alone time,” “me” time, or solitude amid the chaotic world of multi-tasking and single parenthood is essential to be able to keep an optimal performance at school, work, and home. The last thing you will need is to cause burnout. Having a few minutes to yourself helps you recharge mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and to some extent, physically. Solitude helps one become more creative, reflective, and have better foresight, which could help increase one’s planning and organizational skills – two important skills for solo parents juggling multiple priorities. Be careful, though, not to overdo solitude, as it may backfire and may cause counter-productivity.


5. When choosing a college program, consider an associate’s degree.

Now that we have covered your responsibilities at home let us break ground onto your entry into (or back into) college. An associate’s degree is a good pathway to get your college feet wet while earning a legitimate degree that could land you a job or move you up on that career ladder.

The great thing about associate degrees is that it is mostly focused on skills and technical education, basically what you will need for a job or to grow further in the job you already have. Even better is that it only takes two years to complete, so the mental pressure is less compared to when you are staring at four long years to complete a college degree. Besides, should you decide to further your studies towards a bachelor’s degree, many community colleges across the country offer associate degrees whose credits (some, if not all) can be transferred to four-year colleges and universities. This is a good way to make use of that AAS, AS, or AA degree without spending more time than you should in pursuit of that BS or BA degree. 


6. If an associate’s degree is for you, check for school partnerships.

To ensure that your AA, AAS, or AS degree is honored and lets you transfer the credits towards an accelerated four-year program, check your community college of choice or the program itself for partnerships with four-year programs in other universities and colleges. This is a popular pathway among students taking the less daunting path of associate degrees while trying to carve a high GPA that increases their chances of getting accepted into four-year institutions. Of course, for single parents, this is a good long-term plan – you get an acceptable degree in two years, work for a while and save money, and then, once ready, go for that bachelor’s degree through an associate’s degree transfer. 


7. If your finances are strapped, a degree from a community college is not a bad thing.

Attending a local community college is not a bad thing. In fact, it is very much acceptable these days. Most single parents attend public community colleges. Not only does a community college allow you to earn a college degree in two years at most, albeit an associate’s degree, it will also cost you way less. For example, several comparisons of tuition fees between community colleges and universities estimate that the price disparity is ten-fold between the two types of schools. So, if you are paying $3,000 per academic year for a two-year program at a community college, expect to pay ten times more annually for a four-year program offered at a university. 

School for parents

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8. Leverage skills learned on the job.

Many universities and colleges offer credits for the prior learning experience, evaluated by the American Council on Education. Another variety is the Prior Learning Assessment, administered by the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning. There are many ways to evaluate one’s eligibility through this pathway. The CLEP or DSST exams are two of the most common ways of gaining college credits. You may have also worked or currently working at an establishment that the American College on Education has evaluated, and therefore your work experience may count towards college credits as well. Training certificates and the industry or professional licensures and certifications may also be evaluated for this purpose. Military service is most common here. A portfolio of work accomplishments in various media (artworks, whether digital or traditional, written works, websites created, and the like), can also be submitted for credit evaluation. All these pathways can help you gain college credits, which would help you accelerate your studies. Plus, using your previous (or current) workplace experiences as an entry pass to college can also work for you even after you are in. If you are currently employed while studying, which most single parents presumably are, you can also apply your course learnings from school to your present work, making this a productive two-way street.

It is extremely practical to choose a program in which you can leverage the skills you already know, thus legitimizing your work and educational credentials. For example, those working at restaurants, cafes, or hotels can pursue an associate’s degree in hospitality management. Those working as bookkeepers or clerks or assistants can pursue two-year degrees in bookkeeping, paralegal studies, office administration, or even foreign languages and many more. People who have been working as EMTs and nursing assistants, both roles which do not require a degree, can pursue associate degrees in their respective fields. 


9. Consider online colleges instead of brick-and-mortar ones.

The greatest consideration for single-parents seeking additional education is that online colleges reduce or, at best, eliminate the commute or travel that brick-and-mortar schools require. This even works to your advantage (in some respects) if you hold a remote job, which essentially means that you do not need to leave the house anymore except for errands, which you can also delegate to someone else. 

Whether you are enrolled in a synchronous or asynchronous program, online programs offer flexibility and versatility in time best suits, single parents. 


10. Embrace study tools to increase your productivity.

Whether you are taking free courses on MOOC platforms to help expand your knowledge regarding skill-specific or tool-specific sites, or even sites that help you map out your learnings in a creative and yet logical way, or even DIY quiz sites that use AI technology to help with retention and understanding; there are countless study tools that can help you gain a better understanding and comprehension of the material being tackled.

You can even go old school: creating flashcards by using index cards and markers! Enlist the services of your little tyke (or tykes, although that could go south with more kids involved). They can write the flashcards for you, or inversely, they could read back the cards for you to answer. This strategy is almost like killing two birds with one stone. Not only does it help you study, but you are also spending quality time with your kids. Plus, giving them more things to do can help their motor, sensory, and cognitive skills. Making it now three birds with one stone.


11. Explore student financial aid programs specifically for single-parent students.

As the household breadwinner, financial aids are a go-to avenue to help unburden single-parent students with the cost of a college education. Several grants and scholarships are offered to this student demographic, but we will focus on some federal and private grants that are need-based or based on a student’s financial predicaments. 

Single parents enrolled in college can also apply for a FAFSA grant. One of the more popular grants that single-parent students can obtain through FAFSA is the Pell Grant. This federal grant prioritizes financial needs, and the single-parent status perfectly fits the bill of qualifications for this grant, should they get it.  The grant is determined by several factors: student status (i.e., part-time or full-time), your program’s tuition schedule, and many more. 

Another FAFSA-federal grant the parent students can avail of is the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which grants financially challenged students a maximum of $4,000 per academic year. The Federal Work-Study program, or FWS, is also a viable pathway for financial aid, still under the FAFSA umbrella. But the caveat here is students need to check if their school participates in this program. Especially if the FWS program applies to students enrolled in an online program. But otherwise, it is a good program as students can be employed by any government agency, whether state, federal or local or even through private non-profit schools. They must also render community service, which mostly includes tutoring services to children and emergency response activities. 

Other government programs help reduce your tuition and overall household costs and help you tie up with a child caregiver while you are in class. Each state has a Head Start Program, a daycare, and early childhood instructive center rolled into one. This program is especially geared towards financially challenged families, including single-parent families. There are also tax programs that help reduce the taxes owed by as much as $1000 per child under the age of 17, which is the schema for the Child Tax Credit program. Another similar example is the Child and Dependent Care Credit program. 

Some schools offer scholarship programs specifically designed for single parents. An example of this is Wilson College’s Single Parent Scholar program. The main draw of the program is covered housing for the parent-student and their two children aged 20 months to 10 years. The program covers all housing costs and meals while the parent-student pays full tuition and other fees, except if another grant has granted them scholarship or funding.This on-campus housing perk alone is indeed a great help for single-parent students attending on-campus programs, they can also participate in group school activities without the worry of commute or traveling back home. 

If you work for conglomerate companies, such as Starbucks, Wells Fargo, or Chipotle, you can access employee tuition assistance programs. These programs are typically included in each employee’s benefits package. The assistance is usually in the form of reimbursements or disbursements. 

Online classes

12. Talk to your professors and advisers often and make sure they are aware of your situation.

It is important to keep a healthy and open communication line with your professors and advisers. It is equally important to inform them of your challenging situation. However, some advisers may not be equipped to deal with the peculiar challenges that single-parent students may face. When placed within your university, it is best to find an adviser that is experienced in counseling parent-students or non-traditional students. This adviser must be approachable, empathic, and understanding of your situation. They must strictly impose coursework deadlines, lead you to the right academic resources, and motivate you to complete your studies successfully.


13. Participate in group study sessions if you can, in-person or online.

Study sessions do not need to be group gatherings. Nowadays, online schooling also entails online collaboration with other students. Some students may not be into online or in-person study sessions or even group conference calls or talking about the last lecture and the assignment that came with it. You might even find that you are one of these students. Which is completely fine. With your time constraints as a parent, a student, and an employee, you should not feel obligated to join these sessions either. There are other ways to be a part of the discussions in the online space. There are group chats, forums like Reddit or Quora, the local forum for your class, “academic Twitter,” and many more. It is not limited to verbal, real-time discussions. You can be a keyboard warrior or a simple lurker in these avenues and learn a thing or two about the course or the material.


14. Keep a constant online presence.

Regardless if you are taking an on-campus program or an online program, keeping a constant online presence means being active among your school peers. Aside from course discussions, tips, and tricks of the trade, being proactive in your program’s online portal also keeps you in the loop for important announcements. Use these platforms to sign up for the school or the college’s newsletter. Signing up for the mailing list is a simple way to never miss a relevant event. Oftentimes, newsletters are where they announce important student and job-based events such as job fairs, internship programs, or even an event where you can take your children to school for a day, kind of like a fair, which should be fun. If your class has a social media group on Facebook or something similar, join those and activate your notifications so you are always in the loop. By simply keeping your virtual alerts on, you will get notified of relevant coursework information as they come, without spending precious time scrolling and weeding through the feeds. Because, as you know, your time as a single parent is precious. You do not want to waste any excess time trying to manage and maintain a social life within your college career. Allow technology to help you stay connected to both school and family.


15. Make sure your kids are aware that you are going back to school and why you are doing so.

We are going full circle here. Make sure that once all these strategies are in place, the first and last thing you must always ensure is that your kid(s) know about your plans to return to school. If they are below the age of reason but can speak clearly, it is still wise to let them know of your plans to go back to school by using language they can understand. Remind them of it often once the pursuit is underway. If your child(ren) are older, then it goes without saying that keeping them in the loop of this endeavor is not only important, but it will also instill in them the value of education. Thanks to you, they can be motivated to do well in their studies. You are setting a good example to your children, one of the best upshots of going back to college and earning a degree.

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