Going Back to College as a Single Parent

Millions of single parents attend college each year. Learn about your enrollment options and how to earn your degree as a single parent.
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  • Millions of single mothers and parents in the U.S. attend college each year.
  • Online and part-time enrollment options offer increased flexibility for single parents.
  • Many financial aid and assistance programs target students who are single parents.

According to an analysis by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), 1 in 5 undergraduates in the U.S. — around 3.8 million students — has a dependent child. Nearly half of these students are single mothers.

Going back to college as a single parent can be challenging. Managing work, education, and childcare isn't easy, especially when doing it all by yourself. Fortunately, there are options available that can make juggling these everyday responsibilities a lot less daunting.

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We'll look at why single parents attend college and what kinds of financial aid and enrollment options they have.

Why Are Single Parents Choosing to Return to College?

Single parents return to college for many reasons. Many are newly divorced and discover they have few good-paying job opportunities available to them without a college degree.

Data shows that bachelor's degree-holders earn significantly more than high school graduates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, four-year college graduates ages 25-34 earn about $20,000-$25,000 more per year than those with only a high school diploma.

For many single parents, not having a college degree often means having to hold down more than one job just to make ends meet.

Not all single parents who enroll in college, however, focus solely on getting a better job. Some parents simply desire to improve their level of education and acquire new skills. Others want to serve as a role model for their children. Research indicates that children whose parents went to college are more likely to attend college themselves.

Returning to college as a single parent can also provide a sense of personal achievement and fulfillment.

What Are the Advantages of Being a Single Parent in College?

Being a single parent in college can offer a few advantages. As a single parent, you may already be used to multitasking. This can give you an edge over other students when it comes to completing coursework on time while managing other tasks.

Students who are parents also tend to have higher GPAs than those who are not parents. According to IWPR, one-third of student parents have a GPA of 3.5 or higher compared with a quarter of dependent students. This isn't a complete surprise, as many parents who commit to attending college are especially motivated to do well.

Finally, single parents in college can benefit from special assistance in the form of scholarships and grants specifically targeting single mothers and parents.

3 College Attendance Options for Single Parents

For single parents who aren't seeking the traditional college experience, a few options are available. These alternatives make it easier to earn a degree while working and taking care of your children.

1. Online Courses and Programs

Online courses — offered by both traditional schools and accredited online colleges — are an excellent choice for single parents. These programs offer the flexibility many parents need to juggle work, childcare, and education. In fall 2019, over 7 million students enrolled in at least one distance-education course at a U.S. college or university.

Taking online courses also allows students to study at home while still having easy access to all course materials. Distance learners can even save money on common expenses like gas, parking, food, student services, and supplies. Online instructors are also more likely to use e-books instead of expensive hardcover books.

Lastly, online classes offer the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of students, including other single parents.

2. Part-Time Enrollment

Though it'll likely take longer to earn a degree while attending college part time, this enrollment option can offer more flexibility for single working parents. Part-time students can attend just 1-2 classes a week, giving them more time to work and take care of their children.

Part-time students with full-time jobs also tend to rack up less college debt. Many find they can afford to pay for their education as they go since they're only taking a few credits at a time.

Not all programs offer part-time enrollment options, so be sure to check with your school.

3. Commuting to Campus

Attending college full time and commuting from home offers both flexibility and cost savings compared to living on campus. For most single parents, living on campus simply isn't an option, though some schools may offer special housing options for parents and families.

Popular Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

What Kind of Financial Aid Is Available for Single Parents?

Many nontraditional students qualify for scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid at the federal, state, regional, and local levels. This aid can cover tuition, housing, and childcare costs. Below is a breakdown of various financial aid options for single parents.


Grants can come from the federal government, the state, colleges, and private and nonprofit organizations. Most grants do not need to be repaid, though some may include stipulations in which payment is required if obligations are not met. The most common federal grants are the Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant.


Scholarships can come from just about anywhere, including nonprofits, private businesses, schools, professional and social organizations, and religious groups. Many college scholarships target single mothers and single parents. Like grants, scholarships are monetary gifts that don't need to be repaid.

Consult your college's financial aid office to learn more about institutional aid. You can also look for scholarships online.

Federal Work-Study

The Federal Work-Study Program provides on- and off-campus part-time employment opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as full-time and part-time students, with financial need. Check with your school's financial aid office to learn more about work-study offerings.

Employee Assistance Programs

If you're currently working, see whether your employer offers college tuition assistance to employees. Companies like Starbucks, Amazon, UPS, Wells Fargo, Target, Bank of America, The Home Depot, and Chipotle all provide various forms of tuition assistance or reimbursement.

Special Housing Options

Contact your school to see whether they have special housing or residential options for single parents. Single mothers may also qualify for on-campus housing grants.

Childcare Services

As a single parent, you may qualify for free or reduced-fee childcare services on campus.

See whether your school participates in the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program. Low-income parents who qualify for a Pell Grant are typically eligible for this program. You can also look into the Head Start Program and the Child Care and Development Fund, which assist low-income families by providing childcare.

In addition, many colleges have on-site daycare services available at daily or monthly rates.

Veteran Benefits

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers educational benefits for veterans and their dependents, such as training and tuition assistance. Some schools may also match what the VA provides. As such, students should check with their school when applying for VA benefits to learn more about the process and other important VA benefits information.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about financial issues.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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