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Against the Grain: Evolving the Institution to Attract and Retain Single Parents

Against the Grain: Evolving the Institution to Attract and Retain Single Parents
It’s critical for higher education institutions to adapt their operations to better serve the growing population of parents looking to earn a degree.
Midwest private colleges are going all out to attract a dwindling number of recent high school graduates. The truth is they’ve missed an entire group of dedicated students waiting to be discovered. Nationally, more than one third of adults over the age of 25 have no college education.[1] Colleges committed to having a positive impact on their community can make a major dent in local poverty by investing in college success for low-income single mothers in particular.

Anecdotally, most college professors know that non-traditional students are often their best students. No one is forcing these students to attend. They’ve discovered for themselves how important a college education is to provide for their families. Non-traditional students have a reputation for being dedicated and mature, and for bringing useful experience to classroom discussions.

Unfortunately, the traditional model of higher education is often designed for students just out of high school with no work or family obligations. Even institutions considered more adapted to non-traditional students, such as community colleges, often have unseen barriers that can make students’ time in college drag on for years and make it less likely they will complete.

With little time or money to waste, low-income single mothers need to be able to find the right program quickly and get the support they need to balance school, family and work. But limited access to overworked advisors or counselors means students may find themselves in the wrong program or classes. Students nearing graduation may find they can’t get into those last few classes they need. Students who transfer to a four-year college may find that most of their credits only count as electives, costing them years of tuition and lost wages to earn the required credits. Non-traditional students are often also first-generation students who may need help navigating college. Unfortunately, with work and school, they may also have trouble meeting during regular office hours with the staff who can anticipate the questions they don’t even know to ask.

Fortunately, with a little thoughtful planning, any college or university can help more low-income single mothers finish college.

  1. Use emerging technology to make advisors more accessible to students, day or night.

  2. Work with faculty to create supportive attendance policies that recognize the unique needs of students with children.

  3. Create an emergency grant to help low-income parents, so small financial emergencies such as a flat tire or missed child support payment don’t cause them to drop out.

  4. Partner with local organizations to ensure high-quality childcare is available close to campus.

  5. Create an emergency childcare option for student parents who experience unexpected childcare problems.

  6. Allow students to use college scholarships and grants for childcare or living expenses if needed.

  7. Have non-traditional students review college policies and consider the impact on working and parenting students. Get rid of policies that create unnecessary barriers.

  8. Review program requirements and course schedules from the last few years to see how long it would take students attending part-time to complete various programs. Consider how this might differ for working students who can’t necessarily take courses at any time of day or night.

  9. Create clear programs of study that minimize duplicative or unnecessary coursework and are well articulated with baccalaureate programs.

  10. Prioritize enrollment in key classes for students who are close to graduating or develop online courses for classes that fill up fast and are needed for graduation for larger numbers of students.

Thoughtfully rethinking how we support parenting students can pay off with a greater community impact and better completion numbers in the long run.

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[1] American FactFinder, “Educational Attainment: 2012 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates,” United States Census. Accessed at

Additional Resources

“Midwestern College Dilemma: Fewer Local Kids to Tap,” Lakeshore Public Media, July 28, 2014. Accessed at

“Low Income Single Mothers at Community College: Recommendations for Practices to Improve Completion,” Women Employed, 2012. Accessed at

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