When picturing the average college student, you may envision a recent high school graduate who is pursuing their first undergraduate degree. However, that is no longer always the case, as a growing number of students are considered “non-traditional students.” There are many reasons you can be considered as such — like taking classes online instead of on-campus, or working full-time while going to school — but parenthood is one of the most significant factors.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), 26 percent of all undergraduate students have a dependent child, which amounts to almost five million students. Further, over half of these parents are going to school and raising their child without the help of a partner or spouse.
Both being a parent and going to school are demanding in-and-of themselves; simultaneously, they present a truly unique student experience. This guide from Maryville University Online will address the challenges of parenthood in college, detail the various ways you can get support as a parent and student, and provide resources with additional information to help you be as successful as possible in college.
Why Do Parents Return to School?
Education is a highly personal choice. From changing careers to pursuing a master’s degree, there are many reasons why you might choose to go back to school. Recent research has found that parents may have different motivations for pursuing a college education than other students.
- Learning: While they may also want to bolster their resume or have more job options, researchers have found that many adults return to college because they are motivated to learn.
- Better employment opportunities: Experts predict that by the year 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some college experience. Unemployment is an especially daunting prospect if you have children, but with a degree under your belt, a larger number of high-quality positions may be open to you.
- Improve or acquire skills: In college, you learn invaluable skills that you can then apply to your future positions. Parents may decide to improve upon their existing abilities or acquire new ones to aid a future job search, set them apart from other candidates, or enhance their performance at their current job.
- Personal growth: Though education or job opportunities are often huge factors for attending college, many people feel a sense of achievement and fulfillment when going to school.
- Set an example: The National Center for Education Statistics found that children whose parents went to college are more likely to pursue post-secondary education themselves. You may decide to set an example for your children to inspire them to take their own studies seriously.
Challenges of Going Back to College as a Single Parent
As a parent and a student, you may face unique challenges when going back to school, particularly if you don’t have a partner at home to help you. However, by making yourself aware of some of the issues you could encounter, you can be better prepared to cope should they arise. Here are some of the challenges you should be conscious of when going back to college as a single parent:
- Organizing your finances: Between your costs of daily life, your children’s expenses, and paying for school, your budget may feel a little tight. While there are many ways to finance your education, getting organized so you can take care of all of your expenses can still be daunting.
- Staying healthy: After a long day of studying and caring for your kids, the last thing you probably want to do is cook or hit the gym. Your healthy habits, such as a morning walk or great bedtime routine, may start to slip through the cracks as you start to worry about assignments and exams (in addition to your other responsibilities).
- Establishing a new norm: Your children may have a hard time accepting the fact that you now must spend time doing homework along with them. They may be too young to understand the significance of your return to school. Give them time to adapt to these changes while your family establishes a new sense of normal.
- Adjusting schedules: Whether your routine is well-established or constantly fluctuating, school will inevitably change your schedule. Dropping your children off at school in the mornings may get even more hectic as you also get yourself ready for school. You may need to ask a friend or relative to do the afternoon pick-up because you’re in the middle of a lecture.
- Being involved with your children: You will likely have to spend a little less time with your kids so you can give your education the attention it deserves. You may feel guilty or struggle with the fact that you can’t spend as much time with them as you did previously.
It won’t always be easy to handle these obstacles, and may take a readjustment period when you are building your new routine for school. Remind yourself what motivated you to make this decision in the first place. It’s okay to feel frustrated or overwhelmed, but don’t lose sight of your goal. Stay focused and remember all of the good that can come out of this experience.
Benefits of Going Back to College
Despite the difficulties you may experience when returning to school, there are significant benefits too. Going back to school can have a positive impact on your life socially, economically, and emotionally. Some of the most attractive advantages of returning to college include:
- Long- term economic security: Pew Research notes that, “On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education.” Going to college is an investment. Though you may not have as much freedom while in school, a college degree can help secure your financial future in the long-term.
- Better career opportunities: Though this is a big motivator for parents to go back to school, it is a huge benefit as well. With a college degree, you have more options available to you. You could be eligible for a higher-level position in your industry, able to negotiate a promotion or pay raise at your current job, or change your career entirely.
- Care for your family: Your decision to go back to college doesn’t only affect you; it also has a profound effect on your children. Yes, you may have better professional opportunities, but so could your family. You are acting as a positive role model and providing the best future for them that you can.
- Meet new people: Whether you choose to go to school online or on-campus, you will have the chance to meet new people and expand your horizons. College is a great time to get involved with your community, try new things, and make new friends — all of which is still possible as a non-traditional student.
- Increased self-esteem: It doesn’t matter how long it takes to complete your degree; simply going to school is a major accomplishment. Let yourself feel proud of this achievement and to feel confident in your choice and abilities.
While you may face challenges in going to college as a single parent, it can also be an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience. For you and your family, the benefits of returning to school may far outweigh any costs.
Time Management in College: Tips for Adult Students
The key to thriving college as a parent and a student is time management. There are only so many hours in a day for you to accomplish everything that needs to be done. To deal with the various time constraints in your life, you must be organized and able to manage your time in a way that doesn’t have a negative effect on your health. Here are a few strategies that can help you learn how to manage your time as a parent and student:
- Plan your schedule: Don’t go into the day without knowing what’s on your schedule. Though you don’t have to plan each and every moment, be cognizant of what you need to do next. Be sure to plan time for rest and relaxation, in addition to all the tasks that you need to do.
- Prioritize your to-do list: Make a to-do list, but don’t stop there. Rank each item on your list from most important or urgent to least. Some days, you may be able to take care of each item on that list, but if you can’t, you will have at least done the most important things.
- Stick to your routine: A good routine can be comforting for both you and the rest of your family. You will be used to doing certain things every day, and they will end up taking less time, leaving you free to take care of other tasks.
- Forget perfectionism: Do your best to let go of your need to be perfect and perform flawlessly in school. Unless you plan to pursue an advanced degree, such as a doctorate, you do not necessarily need to have the best grades across the board. This may be a difficult adjustment to make, especially if you were a straight-A student in the past, but your responsibilities are different now. Instead of striving for perfection, simply try to do your best.
- Be flexible: Despite all your planning, and no matter how well you stick to your routine, there will come a day when something comes up. You have to unexpectedly pick your child up from school, you get sick, your babysitter for the afternoon cancels — things happen. Be ready to change your schedule to accommodate unknowns.
Though these tips can help you manage your time, remember that there will be days when you can’t do everything that you expected to. Try not to worry if that happens. You have many obligations as a student and parent that are very different from someone who is solely a student or parent. It will take effort and practice to figure out how to make time management work for you, but it will help you thrive as a college student.
Making Time for Family
For your own happiness, and to be successful as a student, you have to find the right balance between your academic obligations and your family. As you first begin your studies, you may have a hard time finding that equilibrium. Still, there are many ways you can make time for your family, even on the busiest of days:
- Schedule family time: Build time into your daily schedule specifically for your family. During this time, don’t worry about your assignments or any chores and errands that need to be done. Simply enjoy the time you spend with your family members. On your busiest days, they will appreciate that you’re making an effort to focus on spending time together, and you may end up feeling better after a break from your obligations.
- Homework-free days: Schedule one day each week when you can take a break from your studies. Take that time to do something fun with your children, to catch up on rest or chores, or spend time doing an activity you enjoy. Taking a break from your schoolwork will allow you to enjoy your time with your family and get your mind off of school for a day. After a day off, you’ll feel more refreshed and ready to get back to your studies.
- Study with your family: Your academic and family lives don’t have to exist separately. When possible, study with your kids. For example, if you have a presentation, ask them if they will be your audience while you practice. Or, if your kids are old enough that they have their own homework assignments to complete, encourage them to study with you.
- Stay in the moment: Always do your best to stay focused on the task at hand and try not to worry about what you aren’t currently doing. Don’t think about your assignments or an upcoming test when you’re spending time with your family, and vice versa. Worrying about schoolwork during a family outing will just stress you out and make it harder to be present.
- Ask for help: Sometimes, no matter how well you plan, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed by everything going on in your life. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend or family member for help. Whether you need a babysitter so you can study without interruptions for an upcoming exam, or someone to pick the kids up from school because you have a lecture, it’s important to recognize when you need more support. Your loved ones will likely be happy to help how they can.
Balancing your home life with your schoolwork can be tricky, but it is far from impossible. It can take time to find out what works for you, so don’t be afraid to try new things until you figure out the best way you can balance school and family.
Mental Health for Single Parents in College
As a single parent going to college, it is incredibly important to maintain your mental health. Both parenting and studying can be challenging, and on top of your other obligations — like those you may have at work — your mental health may be taxed.
However, it is incredibly important to continue to take care of your mental health now that you are both a student and a parent. Both going to college and raising a child can be stressful, and you shouldn’t ignore the impact that may have on your mental health.
Many students struggle with their mental health during college. According to the American Psychological Association, more than one-third of first-year college students report experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. In addition, studies have continually found that students who have a mental health condition are at risk for lower academic performance. Whether you are a freshman just starting college or a single parent going back for a degree, maintaining your mental health is crucial to your success and happiness while attending school.
The Intersection of Parenthood, College, and Mental Health
As a student and a parent, the obstacles you face differ from those of a traditional student. In particular, the stress you could feel may not only affect your mental health, but it may also impact your physical health. Another study found that parents who had high levels of stress related to both school and parenting experienced worse physical health than those who had low levels of stress.
The same study determined that social support makes considerable difference in the lives of parents who are college students. Parents who felt like they could not ask their loved ones for support reported issues, such as: more headaches, less sleep, and a lack of exercise. But parents who felt supported by their friends and family members were in better physical health and felt significantly less stressed.
While parents who are students may be at risk for different kinds of stress, it can still have a negative impact on your mental health. On those busy days when you feel overwhelmed, just remember that a reliable support system and a well-balanced life can make all the difference.
Non-Traditional Student Resources and Considerations
Before the rise of online education, you had to physically go to a university to take college classes. But today, you have more options for attending college than ever before. Taking classes partially, or even entirely, online has made college more accessible for students everywhere. These online opportunities can provide parents with the flexibility and freedom necessary to raise a child while going to college. Here are some of the most popular options that today’s college students have to choose from:
“Distance learning” is the use of technology to facilitate students’ education outside of a traditional classroom. Every aspect of learning takes place online, from professor’s lectures to discussions with classmates, to turning in homework assignments. Essentially, the classroom has moved from being on-campus to being online.
One of the biggest benefits of distance learning is that you do not have to go to a classroom to get your education. You don’t even have to live in the same town, state, or country as your university. Because your classes take place online, you can get your education from wherever you like, as long as you have a strong internet connection.
You often have more flexibility with your schedule when taking classes online, making it a great choice for busy parents who want to go to school. Instead of making your schedule work around school, you can work school into your existing plans. Having that kind of freedom can make succeeding in college more achievable, as you can study when it’s most convenient for you.
What Is a Hybrid Course?
A hybrid course is designed with online and in-person components, in an effort to combine the biggest advantages to both forms of education. Students can have some of the flexibility provided by an online course, while getting to learn in a more traditional environment. Ideally, a hybrid course can work for students with a variety of learning styles.
Hybrid classes can be structured in a few different ways. For example, some may spend half of their class time meeting in-person and the other half completing coursework online. Another class may only require students meet in-person only a handful of times throughout the course and spend a majority of their class time online. It all depends on how the instructor and university choose to structure the course.
Though they don’t typically offer as much flexibility as a completely online class, hybrid courses can still be highly beneficial if you are a parent. You can still adapt your schedule to your needs at least part of the time. You also get to interact with your professor and classmates in-person. Even if you are independent learner, you may still appreciate that you get the chance to meet your peers offline.
Financial Aid Resources for Single Parents in College
As a single parent, you may feel intimidated by the prospect of paying for your college with only your salary. However, there are actually many ways to pay for college, and plenty of resources and financial aid available to single parents who wish to pursue a degree.
Considerations for Preparing to Go to School
Before you begin school, you should think carefully about the increased expenses you will have to cover when you start your degree program. Though they are manageable, you should be well-informed. Common costs associated with attending college include:
- Tuition and fees: A study from the College Board reports that over the past twenty years, tuition and fees at private and public four-year universities has risen by over 200 and 100 percent, respectively.
- Books and supplies: In the same report, the College Board also recommends that undergraduate students attending a four-year university budget $1240 for books each year.
- Childcare: Depending on where you live in the U.S., you may spend anywhere from seven to more than twelve percent of your salary on childcare.
Do not let these additional costs discourage you from going back to school; the experience and degree you will get from this time is invaluable. From scholarships to going to school part-time, there are many ways to finance your education. By understanding what kind of costs you might face as a student, you can plan and make healthy financial decisions for you and your family.
Single Parent Scholarships and Grants
There are many organizations that provide scholarship, grants, and financial aid specifically for single parents going to college:
- Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): The federal government gives out need-based aid in the form of loans, scholarships, and grants. Fill out the application to see what kind of aid you qualify for.
- Capture the Dream: This award is given to low-income single parents living in the California Bay Area. Recipients are chosen based on financial need, history of leadership, community service, professional recommendations, and academic performance.
- Women’s Independence Scholarship Program: This scholarship is meant to help women who have experienced domestic violence attend college. They give awards for many kinds of institutions, from private universities to vocational schools. Recipients must demonstrate financial need and have a concrete plan for their plans after completing their program.
- Emerge: Residents of the state of George can apply for an Emerge Scholarship. They award women who are non-traditional students and who are determined to succeed regardless of what challenges they may face. You must be aged 25 or older and write an essay to apply.
- Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund: Granted to single parents residing in Arkansas, this award seeks to help impoverished families improve their standard of living. Eligibility criteria include a 2.0 minimum GPA, a household income no higher than 250 percent above the poverty line, and completion of the FAFSA.
- Soroptimist’s Live Your Dream Award: This award is meant to support women who are the primary breadwinner for their family by helping them get an education. To be eligible, you must have a financial need, be enrolled or accepted into a technical or undergraduate program, and be motivated to pursue your career goals.
- Bruce and Marjorie Sundlun Scholarship: The Rhode Island Foundation sponsors this scholarship, which is intended for single parents of either gender. Applicants who are currently receiving state aid or who have been incarcerated are given preference.
- Educational Support Award: This award is meant to assist single mothers with dependent children who are low-income and are pursuing some kind of education or training. Recipients are chosen based on their financial need, personal circumstances, and educational goals.
- Ford Opportunity Program: Granted to single parents who are college students living in Oregon, this award goes to applicants who take initiative in their community, show a concern for others, and demonstrate a strong work ethic. Note that this scholarship is only available to students who attend classes on campus, and not online students.
- Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund: The Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship is only open to women who are age 35 or older, are low-income residents of the U.S., and are obtaining a degree from a not-for-profit university. Selection factors include your goals, how you plan to accomplish them, and how you will use your education to give back to your community.
- Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers’ Single Mother Scholarship: This award is granted to single mothers who are attending college with the desire to provide a better life for her family. Two recipients are chosen for this award each year: one who is pursuing an undergraduate degree and one who is pursuing a degree in law.
There may also be awards, scholarships, and other aid opportunities offered by your university, states, or organizations in your area that are only open to locals or residents. Be thorough in your search!
Additional Financial Aid for Single Parents Returning to School
For additional information about and opportunities to obtain financial aid, for school or your family, consult the following resources:
- Support a Student Scholarship Program for Single Fathers: This scholarship is designed to help single fathers who are enrolled in a job training or post-secondary education program. The funds from this award are meant to go to expenses other than tuition, such as rent, childcare, books, and utilities.
- Single Mothers by Choice: This foundation provides information, resources, and support to mothers who have decided to become a single parent on their own.
- Extended Family: This charity works to support and assist single parents who have a financial need in the San Fernando Valley area. Recipients must must employed and receive little or no financial help from their child’s other parent.
- Low Income Home Energy Assistance Programs (LIHEAP): This federal program helps low-income families with the cost of home energy bills, energy crises, and energy-related home repairs in an effort to reduce health and safety problems that arise due to weather.
- Women, Infants, and Children (WIC): This federal program is meant to assist women and their children who are at risk for not adequately meeting their nutritional needs. In addition to covering the cost of certain nutritious foods, recipients can also receive information about nutrition and screenings for other health services.
- Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): This federal program provides health insurance to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Qualifications and assistance differs from state to state.
- National School Lunch Program (NSLP): This federal program provides nutritious, low-cost or free school lunches to children in schools, daycare facilities, and other childcare institutions across the country.