College is hard to get through, but throw a baby into the mix and it becomes even tougher. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., approximately 1 out of 4 undergraduate students has a dependent of their own. About half of those are single parents. For students with families of their own, the economic and academic challenges of college can be overwhelming, but there are resources to help. Here's how single parents who are in or headed back to school can find support.
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Understand the Obstacles
The odds are against single parents who are pursuing an education. More than half of all single parents attending school have low incomes. They're more likely to work full-time jobs on top of school and family responsibilities and frequently need substantial financial aid to complete their degree.
"The immediate need to get some sort of income is often so tempting that oftentimes (single parents) will drop out to work at that minimum-wage job that's not at all fulfilling to them because they need that immediate income ... or because their child care becomes unreliable or unavailable and that juggling becomes just too much," says Katie Kough, director of the Women with Children Program at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa.
A major challenge facing student-parents is that many colleges and universities cater to traditional students who attend college full time without family responsibilities. Amenities that student-parents need, such as affordable child care facilities, flexible scheduling options and parent support groups, aren't available at every institution.
The Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates that college campuses only supply about 5% of the child care that student-parents actually require. Flexible scheduling options are much more available -- 31% of all college students take at least one course online, reports the 2011 Sloan Online Survey -- but it's still tricky for parents to carve out time to complete assignments without distraction.
"It's really difficult for single parents, especially if they don't have a lot of family support and they're just kind of out on their own," says Elaine Adams, coordinator of the Ecovillage program at Berea College in Berea, Ky. "If they have a family member that can help out, that can make the difference between night and day in them being able to still get to classes and therefore being successful in getting their degree."
How to Get Help
Some colleges such as Berea are stepping in for students who don't have family help. Berea's Ecovillage is one of a handful of residential college programs designed specifically for student-parents. Ecovillage provides family-friendly accommodations for up to 50 single parents and married couples with kids, on-campus day care for preschool-aged kids, after-school programs for children in grades kindergarten through third and free parenting and life skills workshops. Other institutions offer subsidized day care, parent mentoring or free meals on campus to children of students.
"It's a great way for (student-parents) to be able to come and have that support network to be able to be successful parents, but it's also a great way for them to be able to get that education so they can ensure the success of themselves for their child's future as well," says Stephanie Struckhoff, assistant director of residence life for the Mothers Living & Learning program at College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Neb.
Residential student-parent programs make a big difference. In Mothers Living & Learning, for example, 85% of those enrolled in the program for at least one semester make it to graduation. That's more than double the graduation rate as the rest of campus, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.
Only a few accredited schools nationwide offer residential parent programs, but a larger number of institutions offer support initiatives without the residential component. For instance, the University of Massachusetts Amherst offers child care tuition assistance, a discount on home heating oil, a weekday drop-in child care center and free weekly meals and play activities. Even though there's a child care center available on campus, the University of Alabama's Sitters for Service program provides approximately 600 hours of free baby-sitting every semester to graduate students with children.
"(Student-parents) need to be looking for universities that recognize that it is a challenge and who are making efforts to address the challenges that this group of people face," says Katherine Rehner, the graduate parenting support program coordinator who oversees Sitters for Service.
That means seeking out institutions that have parent support groups or advising and mentoring programs. Schools may also offer child care services or connections with local facilities, financial counselors who can help you apply for child care subsidies, emergency loan programs to cover unexpected costs or financial aid awards for students with children.
Kough also recommends exploring schools that have an active student-parent community.
"If (students) feel a part of that institution and feel connected and feel like they matter to that institution, they're probably more likely to work to get their degree," she says.