Single parents made up more than 15% of the undergraduate population in US colleges and universities as of 2012. According to the American Council on Education, more than half of this demographic were first generation college students and in the low-income bracket. Though students who are single parents may be fighting a seemingly uphill battle to fund their college experience, there are significant rewards in higher education.
BLS data shows that graduates with a college degree, even those with just some college but no degree, make more than people with only a high school diploma. So, low income single parents stand to benefit financially in the long term from obtaining a college degree, but most do not have the funds to enroll. Many find financial assistance through scholarships and grants specifically created for their demographic. After all, it is always advisable for single moms and dads to maximize "free money" through scholarships and grants.
While attending college as a single parent can be challenging in several ways, most single mothers and single fathers report financial hardship as the most difficult obstacle. Single parents typically spend at least two thirds of their income on housing and basic necessities, and most do not have extra income to put toward a college education. The USDA estimates the average cost of raising a child in a middle-income household to be more than $200,000, which is almost than $14,000 per year for 17 years, with housing, food, and childcare expenses among the most costly of child-rearing expenditures. This financial difficulty, combined with a lack of time and child care options, can make going back to school after becoming a parent especially hard.
Finding reliable childcare as a single parent with both school and work obligations can be especially difficult. College students are often at the pinnacle of their academic career, and the pressure is on to attend courses, meet deadlines and find time to study in between. Trying to balance work and school schedules and finding affordable childcare to accommodate an increasingly irregular schedule is not easy. Additionally, single-parent students may only be able to work part time, which means they may not have the income to be able to afford safe, clean housing for themselves and their children. As a response to this growing need for reasonably priced child care that can be provided as needed for college students, some states such as Oregon have developed their own grants designed to provide support in the form of child care for college students.
Overcoming the unique challenges of being a single-parent student can begin with researching financial aid options specifically for your demographic.
Scholarships are financial aid that are awarded based on the merit and academic achievement of the student applicant. Anyone can apply for scholarships, as they are offered according to individual merit and not necessarily financial need. There are scholarships available to students within a broad range of income levels, education levels, majors, talents, fields of interest and ethnicity. A variety of scholarships are offered nationally through federal funding but also through individual schools, cultural organizations and private/corporate sponsors. Unlike student loans, scholarships are gifts that typically do not require repayment after graduation.
Though criteria and eligibility vary from case to case, the scholarship application process generally includes some universal requirements. Students will likely be required to submit transcripts to determine current GPA and recent academic performance, as well as letters of recommendation in addition to filling out the formal application. Though scholarships are not based exclusively on financial need, many donors ask that applicants complete the FAFSA and may require additional income-related documentation. Those applying for an especially inclusive and/or competitive scholarship may be asked to attend a personal interview at the school or lending organization. Some scholarships require an essay or other personalized communication from you, indicating your intentions for your academic and/or professional future as well as personal insight into your reason for applying.
Tips and Tricks
- Start looking as early as possible. Scholarship application deadlines for the upcoming semester tend to be months in advance. It is never too early to start researching available scholarships and preparing your application materials well before the due date.
- Follow instructions carefully. Whether you are naturally inclined to be detail-oriented or not, now is the time to make sure you've followed the exact instructions to the letter. This process is intended to demonstrate your ability to be disciplined in your approach; assume those reviewing your application will reject your application simply for skipping a step.
- Personalize your materials. Especially in your essay, if applicable, always tailor your materials to the scholarship and opportunity you are applying to. Generic, uninspired 'form letter' essays are a sure-fire way to get your application tossed aside on the spot.
- Use optional materials to your advantage. If you have the option to include additional materials such as reference letters or recommendations, for example, use this opportunity! The extra information included in your application may improve your chances over another applicant who opted out.
- Check your online profiles. It is common today for those reviewing your application to search for you online and potentially view any profiles or social media accounts you keep current. Search for yourself first so that you can make sure your online presence is professional and presentable for a scholarship review board audience.
Additional Application Resources
Where to Find Scholarships
There are numerous places to look for scholarships, ranging from widely-known to unexpected sources. Below are just some examples of how and where to find the scholarships that are right for you:
Your College or University
While this may be the most obvious place to start your search, you may be surprised at how many scholarship opportunities are available. Consider contacting the financial aid office in addition to exploring school scholarships online or in-person, and make sure to explore both federal and school-sponsored options.
Many non-profit and organizations are devoted solely to providing college scholarships and supporting higher education efforts. Though criteria may vary, foundational funding exists at both local and national levels for eligible college-bound students.
Local Community Organizations
Many local organizations and/or local branches of national organizations provide scholarship information to students in their community. Examples may include charity organizations, community recreation centers and civic/municipal government websites.
Your local church, mosque or synagogue may have community-sponsored or private scholarship opportunities for students within their congregation and/or studying in a major related to ministry, divinity or religious studies.
Many local business and/or corporations offer scholarships to students attending college in the area. Check with your employer, if applicable, or your parent(s) employer for current sponsorship opportunities.
Scholarships are vital option for single mothers and single fathers who need help covering the cost of earning their college degree. All of the following scholarships are offered annually on an ongoing basis, though students should consult the website of each individual scholarship for the latest information.
Scholarships for Single Mothers
- Altrusa's Olive Gillespie Scholarship
This award is open to female sophomore, junior or senior Western Kentucky University students with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Applicants over 30 who are widowed or divorced with dependent children are given first priority; consideration is given to those demonstrating financial need.
Award Amount: One time award of $500
- The Frances M. Dunn Memorial Scholarship
This award funded by Dunn's children is open to Interdisciplinary Sciences students in their sophomore, junior or senior year of study at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology who are single mothers with at least a 2.5 GPA.
Award Amount: One time award of a minimum of $500
- The Patsy Takemoto Mink Education Support Award
This scholarship named for former Congresswoman Mink is open to students enrolled in or planning to attend an accredited certificate, degree or training program who are at least 17 years of age with minor children. Applicants must be low-income status according to IRS tax codes.
Award Amount: A one-time award of up to $5,000
- The Ellen M. Cherry-Delawder Memorial Scholarship
This scholarship is open to students at Howard Community College who are single parents with dependent children. Preference is given to students who are pursuing a degree in business or a related field.
Award Amount: Varies, depending on funds available
Scholarships for Single Mothers & Fathers
- Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund
Access to this network of scholarship opportunities is available to low-income Arkansas residents who are single parents of one or more dependent children, and who do not have a degree or diploma from a four-year college or university.
Award Amount: Varies according to county of residence
- The BYU Marriott School Single Parent Scholarship
One of several BYU Marriott School scholarships awarded by the Spouse Association of the Marriott School's National Advisory Council; applicants must be a single parent with custody of dependent children and enrolled in a Marriott School program in good standing.
Award Amount: Amount varies, renewable annually
- The Downer-Bennett Scholarship
The Downer-Bennett Scholarship is available to undergraduate students who are single parents studying at the University of New Mexico; applicants must be a continuing undergraduate student at UNM with a competitive GPA, completing at least 12 on-campus UNM credits each semester of the upcoming academic year.
Award Amount: A one-time award of $200-$1,000
- The Kentucky Colonel's Better Life Scholarship
This scholarship is open to Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College students who are residents of Kentucky and single working parents with at least one child under the age of 12. Applicants must be full-time students and demonstrate financial need not met by other funding sources.
Award Amount: $2,500, renewable for a second year with continued FT study and by maintaining satisfactory academic progress
- The LouEllen Dabbs Scholarship
The LouEllen Dabbs Scholarship is open to Holyoke Community College students who are single parents in Business, Banking or Finance majors who demonstrate financial need. Applicants must be registered in a minimum of nine credits and have at least a 2.35 GPA.
Award Amount: Award covers tuition only
- The ANSWER Endowment Scholarship
This scholarship from The Foundation for the Carolinas is open to full-time, degree-seeking students who are legal residents of Mecklenburg County, NC or a contiguous county in North or South Carolina, who have not yet completed a four-year degree. Applicants must be nontraditional female students, age 25 or older, who are primary caregivers to at least one school-age child who lives with them in their household.
Award Amount: Variable, dependent on individual need
- The Kathryn Kyriopoulos Colemere Endowed Scholarship
This Westminster College scholarship is open to part-time students demonstrating financial need who are single parents. Applicants must be enrolled at least part time, with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Priority is given to business, education and nursing students.
Award Amount: A one-time award of up to $1,500
- The Peggy A. Stock Presidential Scholarship
This scholarship is open to undergraduate Westminster College students with strong academic backgrounds who can demonstrate financial need. Applicants must be enrolled at least part-time, with a minimum 3.5 GPA. Priority is given to students who are single parents.
Award Amount: A one-time award of up to $5,000
- The Steven K. Wright Scholarship
This Westminster College scholarship is open to students who can demonstrate financial need and are enrolled at least part-time with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Priority is given to nontraditional students who are single parents.
Award Amount: A one-time award of up to $500
Scholarships for Minority Single Parents
- The Rodney and Patricia Westveer Scholarship
This scholarship is open to female students who have children and are age 30 or older, entering their freshman, sophomore or junior year at Calvin College. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and have a GPA of at least 2.5. Second preference is given to minority students pursuing a degree in Education.
Award Amount: $1,900; renewal is possible if GPA requirements are maintained
- The Barnes Gromatzky Kosarek Architects Endowed Scholarship
This scholarship is open to single Hispanic women with dependents who are enrolled in associate's degree programs at Austin Community College. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and have at least a 3.0 GPA
Award Amount: One-time amount varies depending on funds available
Scholarships for the Children of Single Parents
- The American Traffic Safety Services Foundation Roadway Worker Memorial Scholarship
Designed to provide financial assistance to children of workers killed or permanently disabled in work zone accidents, this scholarship is also open to the spouses of fallen workers and parents with custody or legal guardianship of surviving children. Applicants must apply the award toward higher education at an institution that requires a GED as a condition of acceptance; they must also demonstrate financial need according to the FAFSA application.
Award Amount: A one-time award of up to $10,000
- The Naomi Scholarship
This scholarship is open to first-year and transfer students at Calvin College who are from a single-parent family and have a minimum 3.0 GPA; applicants must demonstrate financial need and Christian character.
Award Amount: A one-time award of $1,350; may be renewable with maintenance of 3.0 GPA and Christian character
- White Collar Defense Diversity Scholarship
This scholarship is open to undergraduate law students who are Hispanic or African-American and from a single-family home, with a GPA of at least 3.0. Applicants must demonstrate financial need.
Award Amount: A one-time award of $500
- The Armstrong Family Foundation Scholarship
This scholarship is open to US residents accepted to Arizona State University as full-time, degree-seeking students. Applicants must demonstrate financial need; scholarship is awarded to students who have experienced family circumstances beyond their control that have prevented access to educational opportunities.
Award Amount: Up to $8,000
- The Leon and Ida Finkelstein Memorial Scholarship
This scholarship is open to students at the University of Minnesota who are children of Jewish parents and have lost one parent due to divorce or death.
Award Amount: Varies according to financial need
Post-Baccalaureate Scholarships for Single Mothers & Fathers
- The Emporia State University Single Parents with Children Scholarship
This scholarship is open to Emporia State University students who are single parents with sole or joint custody of their dependent children. Applicants must demonstrate financial need by completing the FAFSA and maintain a minimum GPA of 2.75 for a minimum of 7 graduate credit-hours for the fall semester of the scholarship year.
Award Amount: $2,000, renewable for up to four years
- The Coplon Donohue Single Parent Scholarship
This scholarship is open to full-time graduate Minnesota State University students in good standing who are single parents with primary custody of their children.
Award Amount: A one-time award of $1,000
- The Bruce and Marjorie Sundlun Scholarship
This award is open to low-income Rhode Island residents who are single parents in any college-level study program; preference is given to those previously incarcerated or currently receiving state financial aid.
Award Amount: One time award of up to $1,500
Grants are one of the largest sources of financial aid in higher education for single parents. Grants, sometimes referred to as "gift aid," are different than scholarships in several ways. Unlike scholarships, grants do not have to be repaid and are need-based rather than merit-based. There are numerous types of grants, from federal, local/regional and private sources, all aimed at providing financial aid to single parents. Some of the most common options include:
The federal Pell Grant program provides financial aid on the basis of need to low-income undergraduate students and select graduate students at over 5,000 participating colleges and universities. Students can apply by completing the FAFSA, which determines eligibility according to the student's expected family contribution (EFC), the cost of attendance, their enrollment status (FT or PT) and the length of student enrollment (for a full academic year or less). For 2010-2020, the maximum Pell Grant award was $6,195, though awards always vary depending on FAFSA information. Awards are delivered annually, possibly in multiple disbursements; students can receive the Pell Grant for no more than 12 semesters.
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or FSEOG, is a need-based grant that is administered by the financial aid office at participating colleges and universities, and is limited to the funds available at each individual institution from federal financial aid each year. Students apply for the FSEOG by completing the FAFSA; students with great enough financial need to be eligible for both the Pell Grant and the FSEOG will receive the FSEOG first, then the FAFSA will determine the potential amount of the remaining Pell Grant award. Students may receive between $100 and $4,000 for the academic year, though they should contact individual schools for details about this program. Schools are limited to one annual lump sum of federal funds for FSEOG-eligible students.
Individual State and School Grants
In addition to federal grants, individual states and schools can provide extra financial aid for single parents. State-based grants are typically limited to state residents paying in-state tuition costs. Most states offer at least one state-specific grant, through state education agencies, non-profit organizations and/or tuition exchange programs. For example, student-residents of California, one of the country's largest providers of state-based aid, may be eligible for Cal Grant Programs to fund their education. School-based grants may also be a possibility. While many schools offer scholarships based on merit, need-based grants funded by the institution itself tend to be less common, though they do exist.
Private grants for higher education are offered by a variety of companies, businesses and nonprofit organizations. Though it may take some research to find them and they may only offer moderate funds, every little bit contributes to make a college education possible for single moms. Private grants are need based, unlike merit based scholarships, and are awarded according to the policies of the giving institution or foundation. Students may apply for unlimited private grants from numerous sources, provided they meet eligibility requirements. An example of a private grant offering funding and support for single-parents includes:
- The Ford Opportunity Program
Funding through the Ford Scholars Program is open to college students in the state of Oregon or Siskiyou County, CA who are single-parents and head of household. Students must be first-time four-year college applicants planning to earn a bachelor's degree with at least a 3.0 GPA, and must demonstrate financial need.
Award Amount: varies; intended to cover 90% of student expenses not funded by other financial aid sources
Other Ways to Save
In addition to the many scholarships and grants available to single-parent students from all walks of life, there are a multitude of other resources to help offset the costs of getting a college education while caring for a family. For many college students who are single parents, supplemental assistance with expenses outside of tuition, such as childcare and/or housing, can make a big difference. Below is a list of resources designed to support single parents as they pursue a college education.
Through an employer tuition reimbursement program, employees of a participating corporation or organization may take college courses that are paid for by their employer. Employers may pay up to $5,250 in tax-free educational assistance per student per year. While these funds may be awarded to students who are non-degree-seeking, they can only be used for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment as related to direct education costs. National financial firm, Deloitte, is among the most comprehensive supporters of the employer tuition reimbursement program in the US, offering its employees full tuition reimbursement for post graduate school studies after two years of employment at Deloitte.
Free or subsidized on-campus childcare offers low-income single parents the ability to complete their college education with peace of mind that their children are cared for at a rate they can afford along with tuition and other expenses. There are both public and federal sources that fund on-campus childcare services at many US colleges and universities. The Child Care and Development Fund, for example, is one of the largest national organizations devoted to providing childcare assistance to low-income individuals who are completing vocational training or other educational programs.
Some federal organizations provide grants to low-income single parents in need of on-campus childcare services while they attend classes. These grants, though governed nationally by the US Department of Education, are dispersed locally by each individual college or university to meet the unique needs of single parents on their campuses, and others in the community. The USDE CCAMPIS program offers grant-based funding for childcare assistance according to each student's income and financial need.
Subsidized family housing can help low-income single parents provide clean, safe housing for their family; this option is especially helpful to single parents who are in college while also working to make ends meet. Single-parent students may qualify for housing assistance through numerous national non-profit agencies such as the Public Housing Agency in their state, Social Services and the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Additionally, they may be eligible for Low Income Housing Tax Credits or Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8), which gives low-income families the opportunity to live in government-sponsored living facilities.
Additional Resources for Single Mothers and Fathers
This project under the Institute for Women's Policy Research aims to improve the post-secondary education experience for single parents and build awareness of public education programs.
The Office of Head Start (OHS) provides support in the emotional, social and mental development of students from birth to age 5. Services include nutritional, social, health and educational programs. Single parents from low-income families should seek aid from their local OHS office.
Single parent programs generally offer academic advising, career counseling, financial aid guidance, educational workshops and other relevant services. Check-in with your school's academic counselor to find out about local single parent programs.