Millions of single parents attend college each year, but many may doubt their ability to complete their degrees. Discover how to complete your degree as a single parent.

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Going Back to College as a Single Parent


  • Millions of single parents in the U.S. attend college each year, despite the potential challenges.
  • Online and part-time enrollment options provide increased flexibility for single parents.
  • Many financial aid and assistance programs target students who are single parents.

There's no question that going back to college as a single parent can be challenging. Whether you're a single mom or a single dad, managing both your job and the kids is no easy task. Adding college to the mix may seem downright impossible.

For many single parents, quitting a job to pursue a college degree is not an option. You need an income and you need to provide for your children. If your kids are young, you also know how difficult and expensive it can be to find reliable childcare, especially with all of the new social distancing protocols in place. Fitting your life within the parameters of a traditional four-year college is unrealistic.

But before you dismiss the idea of returning to college as a single parent, you should know that there are options available that can help make juggling work, school, and the kids less daunting.

A bearded man in a t-shirt sits next to his young son at a dining room table, diligently studying from a laptop computer.

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Single Parents in College

One-fifth of all undergraduates have a dependent child, and more than 50% of these students are single parents.

Every year, more than 2 million single parents attend college. According to data collected from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, approximately one-fifth of all undergraduates have a dependent child, and more than 50% of these students are single parents.

And student parents aren't just attending community colleges. According to the same study, 48% of them are pursuing their degree at a public four-year institution, a private nonprofit four-year institution, or a private for-profit institution. Many single parents are pursuing advanced degrees as well.

Student parents also tend to be older than their fellow students with no children. The median age of student parents is 32 years, compared to 27 years for independent students and 20 years for dependent students with no children.

Why Are Single Parents Choosing to Return to College?

There are many reasons why single parents decide to return to college. Many are newly divorced and find they have few decent-paying job opportunities available to them due to the lack of a college degree.

Returning to college as a single parent can also offer an added sense of achievement and fulfillment.

It's no secret that bachelor's degree-holders earn more than workers with only a high school diploma. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), four-year college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 earn median salaries that are $20,000-$25,000 more per year than workers with only a high school diploma.

For single parents, not having a college degree can sometimes mean having to hold down more than one job just to make ends meet. This can result in spending less time with your children.

Not all single parents who enroll in college are solely focused on getting a better job. Some simply desire to improve their level of education and acquire new skills. And some want to serve as a strong role model for their children. NCES reports that children whose parents went to college are more likely to attend college themselves.

Returning to college as a single parent can also offer an added sense of achievement and fulfillment.

Advantages of Being a Single Parent in College

Believe it or not, being a single parent in college may actually offer a few advantages. As a single parent, you may already be used to multitasking. This can give you some advantages 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 students who are not parents. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), one-third of student parents have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, compared to 26% of dependent students with no children. This makes sense when you consider that many parents who make the commitment to go to college are especially motivated.

There is also additional assistance in the form of scholarships and grants that target single parents.

College Attendance Options for Single Parents

There are a few options available to single parents who want to attend college that don't include a fully immersive, on-campus learning experience. These alternatives make it easier to earn a degree while still working and managing a household.

  • Attending an Online College

    Online courses — offered by both traditional schools and accredited online colleges — are a fantastic option for single parents because they offer the flexibility that single parents need to juggle work, childcare, and education. In 2018, close to 7 million students were enrolled in at least one distance education course at a degree-granting postsecondary institution.

    Taking online courses also allows students to study at home, while still having easy access to all course materials. Studying at home can be more comforting for some people.

    Distance learners can also save money on expenses like gas, parking, food, student service fees, and supplies. Additionally, online instructors are more likely to use e-books as opposed to expensive hardcover books.

    Finally, virtual classes offer the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of students and other single parents. Engaging in online discussions with students from across the country and around the world adds a new dimension to education.

  • Attending College Part Time

    It may take longer to earn a degree while attending college on a part-time basis; however, this approach offers more flexibility for single parents who are still working. Part-time students can attend one or two classes a week, giving them more time to manage work and family.

    Part-time students with full-time jobs also tend to rack up less college debt, as many learners are able to pay as they go while only taking a few credits at a time. Not all schools offer part-time educational options, so be sure to check with the institution.

  • Commuting to College

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

Financial Aid Resources Available for Single Parents

Finances can be tough as a single parent, and paying for college is expensive. Before you take out a loan, make sure to check out grants, scholarships, and other support programs that may be available to help fund your education.

Many nontraditional students qualify for scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid at the federal, state, regional, and local levels. This aid may help cover tuition, housing, and/or childcare costs. Read the following section for a breakdown of federal-level options.

Students can also access state-level grants and resources through the online search feature provided by IWPR.

Grants for Single Parents

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

FEDERAL PELL GRANT

  • Awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need
  • Does not need to be repaid
  • Amount of grant changes annually

The maximum Federal Pell Grant award is $6,345 for the 2020-21 award year. The actual amount you are eligible to receive depends on a variety of factors.

FEDERAL SUPPLEMENTAL EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITY GRANT

  • Awarded to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need
  • Administered through the college's financial aid office
  • Offers between $100 and $4,000 a year
  • Funds are limited at participating schools (early application is recommended)

To apply for a federal grant, you need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.

Scholarships for Single Parents

Scholarships can and do come from just about anywhere, including nonprofit groups, businesses, schools, professional and social organizations, religious groups, and more. There are thousands of scholarships available every year, including some that are reserved for single parents.

Scholarships do not require repayment. Some scholarships cover the entire cost of tuition, while others provide a one-time payment of a certain dollar amount.

Check with the financial aid office at the school you plan to attend to learn about institutional aid. You can also find some excellent resources online. Each scholarship has a different application deadline.

Federal Work-Study Program

The Federal Work-Study Program provides part-time employment opportunities — both on and off campus — for undergraduate and graduate students who demonstrate financial need. The program is available to full-time and part-time students.

To receive this type of aid, your school must participate in the Federal Work-Study Program. The type of work you do will be related to your course of study, when possible. Check with the school's financial aid office to learn more about this program.

Employer Assistance Programs for Single Parents

If you are currently working, see if your employer provides assistance with college tuition. Companies like Starbucks, Amazon, UPS, Wells Fargo, Target, Bank of America, The Home Depot, and Chipotle offer various forms of tuition assistance or reimbursement.

Housing Programs for Single Parents

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 Programs and Options for Single Parents

As a single parent, you may qualify for free or reduced-fee childcare services on campus. See if your school participates in the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS). Low-income parents who qualify to receive a Federal Pell Grant are eligible for this program. CCAMPIS provides support to low-income parents in the form of on-campus childcare services.

You can also look into the Head Start Program or the Child Care Development Fund, which help low-income families. Both options provide assistance for childcare.

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

Single Parent Veterans Educational Resources

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers education benefits for veterans and their dependents, such as training and tuition assistance.

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You Got This!

When you decide to go back to school as a single parent, you're making a big commitment that will affect you and your family. Be sure to research all your options and address any concerns before making any final decisions.

Speak with an enrollment advisor at the college or university you plan on attending. They can help answer any questions you may have concerning loans, grants, or scholarships. They may also be able to point out some great options and resources available to you as a single parent.

There's no question that returning to school as a single parent will be challenging. But with a lot of determination on your part — combined with support from family, friends, advisors, professors, and peers — you have a great chance at being successful and improving the long-term financial outlook for you and your family.