More than two million single mothers are enrolled in college today. This means more than two million single moms are balancing courses, credits, and exams with diaper rashes, dance recitals, and naptime meltdowns. And to those two million single moms, we say … respect. Serious respect.
We hope you get a glimmer of satisfaction when people around you say, “I don’t know how you do it all.”
You deserve it, and we’re not saying that to patronize you.
Single motherhood is a morning-noon-and-night, 365-days-a-year, zero-paid-vacations job. You’re never off the clock, which is tough, because 54% of you also have an actual job, which accounts for at least 20 hours a week. Meanwhile, you’re checking in for online lectures, poring through reading assignments, and cramming for tests. You’re working toward a degree and toward a brighter future for you and your children.
Research suggests your hard work will pay off in dividends; the benefits of a college education are worth it, and these benefits will have a positive multigenerational impact on your family. You are part of a fast-growing population of students, single mothers seeking the lifelong professional and economic opportunities that come with degree-attainment. But you have to get there first.
Not to sound ominous, but research shows single moms are a vulnerable population, and the demands of parenting and providing put this demographic at a higher risk of financial hardship, noncompletion, and loan repayment challenges.
We had a chance to speak with Sara Sherman, author of The Single Mom's Guide to Getting a Degree, the life coach behind the Single Mom's Ask Sara blog, and—perhaps most importantly, a single mother of three with a Master's Degree in Public Administration from Central Michigan University.
Sara offered some valuable insights for single mothers in college, both from personal experience and from her years counseling student-parents. She warns that "College is hard when you aren't a parent…Add raising children to the mix, and well…the process doesn't get any easier. The demands, distractions, and juggling can quickly become overwhelming. (And we haven't even mentioned the money.)"
Burnout and non-completion are very real risks, but you can take steps to protect yourself, enhance your experience, and improve your likelihood of earning a valuable degree and advancing in your career.
Check out our tips and resources below to make the most of your online education experience.
And between us, if you’re exhausted, stressed out, or you just feel like venting, we welcome you to give our comments section an earful. Sometimes it’s good to get it out of your system.
A Growing and Vulnerable Population
Before we dive into our tips, let’s take a quick look at why single motherhood in college is an increasingly pressing issue. Single moms are among the fastest growing college demographics, expanding at twice the rate of the larger undergraduate population. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reports the number of single mothers in college more than doubled between 1999 and 2012. In the IWPR’s findings, single mothers accounted for 11% of all undergraduates; 19% of all female undergrads.
The Institute attributes some growth to the overall growth in the number of households headed by single women. The rise in online college opportunities has also created a new level of accessibility for students balancing education with personal responsibilities, such as parenting and working.
Some colleges provide support resources and childcare services, but many others struggle to keep up with the needs of this growing population. The shortfall of support resources only magnifies the overlapping risks often faced by single mothers. For instance, single moms are more likely than other students to come from low-income households. Likewise, women of color in college — already considered an at-risk population — are more likely than white women to become single mothers.
Single moms often face deeply ingrained sociological barriers, from gender and racial discrimination to unequal pay and the omnipresent challenge of providing childcare. These conditions can place academic priorities far behind the demands of parenting and work.
The same challenges hold true for single moms taking online courses. Even with a convenient and flexible educational experience, you have your work cut out for you, from choosing a quality degree program to taking all possible steps to ensure successful completion.
Fortunately, there are some practical things you can do to improve your chances of success without sacrificing precious family time or slowing the nonstop, full-throttle pace of your everyday life.
Fill Out Your FAFSA
First and foremost, you need to determine your eligibility for financial aid. Your initial step in the college search and application process: complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Whether you’re going to a traditional college, attending online classes, or both, everything starts with your FAFSA.
Both current and prospective online college students must fill out a FAFSA form annually to determine individual eligibility for student financial aid. This means that you’ll fill out a FAFSA not just at the start of your college career but for every year thereafter as well, so get to know it.
The Department of Education makes the FAFSA available. All students seeking assistance for undergraduate or graduate studies have the right to fill it out. In fact, you should complete your FAFSA even if you don’t think you’ll be eligible for a need-based loan. Some unsubsidized loans are available to all, regardless of income.
To learn more about federal financial aid, how your benefits are determined, and which deadlines you’ll need to mark on your calendar, check out Financial Aid for Online College: Everything You Need to Know and Do.
Avoid Shady For-Profit Schools
With your financial aid benefits locked in, make sure you apply them to a school that deserves your money. The IWPR reports 30% of single student mothers attend for-profit colleges. This is triple the rate of female students without children.
Not all for-profit schools are a scam, but some definitely are. Whether you plan to attend a two-year community college, enroll in a vocational school, seek a bachelor’s degree, or pursue a graduate degree, the quality and reputation of your school matters. You have a lot of online options, but … well, how should we put this gently? The internet is a festering swamp of scam artists, opportunists, and Nigerian princes. Education is one of many sectors where these creatures search for prey. OK, so that wasn’t gentle, but you really do need to be careful out there.
Quick tips to help you find your way:
Accreditation matters big-time. School-wide regional accreditation is largely considered superior to school-wide national accreditation, though national accreditation may be valuable when applied to individual degree programs. Reach out to the schools on your list to find out more about their accreditation status and check out our handy guide for navigating the accreditation landscape.
Know the Difference Between For-Profit and Community College
Both for-profit and community colleges offer online opportunities to earn your associate degree. The big difference is that community colleges often cost less and are likelier to provide you a direct pathway to transferring into a regionally accredited four-year program. Sara Sherman also point out that many community colleges are consciously structured around the unique needs of single mothers. She explains that "most community colleges, and some traditional advanced degree institutions are literally built to serve the non-traditional student. Schedules are flexible, and most, if not all courses are available online."
Read on to determine which path is right for you.
Know the Difference Between Online Colleges and Diploma Mills
Diploma mills are one step below shady for-profit schools on the academic totem pole. Diploma mills are usually online portals where you can purchase an unaccredited “degree” that likely has no practical value and may not even require you to take any courses, read any books, or actually do anything besides verify your credit card payment information. Read on to find out how you can avoid these junk degree stores as you search for a legitimate online college.
Start with Reputable Online Programs
Avoid degree mills and shady for-profit schools by starting from a source of reputable, high-quality online programs, many of them directly affiliated with noteworthy traditional public and private universities. Sara Sherman calls the growth of legitimate online learning opportunities an "absolute game-changer" for single mothers, pathway that "takes the stress out of finding, and paying for childcare, and takes the stress out of working around kids' schedules. You can still access classes when kids are sick, participating in activities, getting into bed on time, etc.”
Check out the 100 Best Online Colleges to get your search off on the right foot.
Get Grants: Single-Mother, Women of Color, Need-Based, etc.
When it comes to paying for your education, the FAFSA is just your first step. According to the IWPR, the demands of childcare, work, and living expenses often conspire against education for single moms. I mean, if you think college is expensive, do the math on childcare expenses. According to Fortune, “In 33 states, the cost of infant care is higher than the cost of college tuition — $9,589 a year vs. $9,410, according to the newly released Care Index.”
So yeah, you’re basically paying double the tuition so your kid can fingerpaint and sing nursery rhymes. It’s best not to think about it. Instead, take steps to prepare for this reality by getting all the financial help you can.
Countless grants and scholarships are earmarked for single mothers, women of color, and need-based candidates. Based on the prevailing statistics, you likely fall into several of these categories. If you conduct due diligence in seeking these financial awards, you could get some relief from your financial burdens.
There is one catch. Many of these grants and scholarships become available to you only after you commit to a degree program. Others become available only as you advance to higher levels in your education. So you’ll have to gamble on yourself.
But the good news is, some of that money could come when you need it most. The risk of noncompletion for single mothers grows over time, as financial difficulties, childcare responsibilities, and educational demands compound. But many organizations exist that want to see you succeed, both yourself and your children.
It’s up to you to find and connect with these organizations. Put the time into identifying which opportunities best apply to your situation, particularly for scholarships and grants that target single moms, women of color, and need-based candidates.
No matter what your financial situation is, you could use all the help you can get. Dig into the world of grants and scholarships to find that help.
The Financial Aid Office
Start with the financial aid office at your college or university. Ask your adviser how you can apply for additional grant programs beyond FAFSA. Check out additional federal grant programs, including:
- The Academic Competitiveness Grant: for need-based candidates with strong academic performance
- The National SMART Grant: which funds studies for careers in healthcare, engineering, or technology, and is available to students in their third and fourth year of college
- TEACH Grants: which help fund degree programs dedicated toward careers in education
Top online scholarship directories and resources to investigate include:
One good way to pursue an academic scholarship is to consider companies and employers that you might be interested in working for. Reach out to the corporate offices at each of these companies and find out if there is an affiliated foundation where you can apply for a scholarship. This is not only a great way to get help financing your education, but it can also help you secure employment in advance of graduation.
Most of the largest private companies offer scholarships in exchange for various academic or professional commitments. The size of these awards, the nature of this commitment, and the competitiveness of each contest will vary considerably. Academic scholarships — some targeting your demographic and others available to all — are awarded through household companies as diverse as WalMart, Google, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Target, General Electric, and more.
Nonprofit foundations are another important avenue for securing educational support. A wide range of charity groups, religious organizations, and professional associations offer scholarships, many of them earmarked for students with financial needs, as well as single mothers and women of color.
Visit Student Grants to browse some of these opportunities and to receive tips on submission, application, etc.
Take Advantage of Support Services
Scholarships and grants aren’t the only avenue for support. As a single mom, you are eligible to take part in a number of programs, some offered through the federal government and others through nonprofit groups and foundations, all aimed at providing you the support you need to complete your education.
Start your search through the Department of Education, which provides a portal to state-by-state listings of key agencies and resources. This includes services directed at student-parents, women, single mothers, and women of color. Look for agencies that apply to you, your family and your needs.
And because, as an online student, you may not have access to the full array of campus resources, you’ll also want to check out some of the organizations below, which provide various levels of counsel and support for choosing a quality degree program, balancing your workload with your responsibilities as a parent and provider, and locating childcare services and other resources in your community:
- American Association of University Women (AAUW): an organization dedicated to the promotion of education and learning for women and girls
- Child Care Aware: an online resource for parents seeking childcare, including a Local Child Care Resource and Referral search engine
- Extended Family: a group providing financial assistance to single parent families, including for education
- Helping Hands for Single Moms: an organization providing assistance to mothers earning a college degree
- Single Parent Alliance & Resource Center (SPARC): a program providing emotional, financial and other forms of support for parents facing various challenges
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): a state-by-state program providing assistance to families in need, which can include education expenses
Other practical steps to take during the pursuit of your degree to improve your chances of completion:
Create a calendar, make to-do lists, and avoid procrastination. Stay on top of assignments, readings, and studying so that nothing bunches up on you. No ffective stress-relieving techniques for a busy mom beats checking items off a to-do list.
Get In Touch
Reach out to your instructors and professors. Let them know you’re a single parent doing your best to manage your responsibilities, but you may, on occasion, require flexibility to balance everything. This preemptive discussion could go a long way toward helping you get everything done without falling behind.
Reliable childcare is a must. If you have an affordable option you can trust, that’s great news. Be sure to have friends and family on deck too if possible. Let those in your inner circle know that your education will demands much of your time, and that you may need a helping hand once in a while. It’s good to have a go-to sitter who works for free pizza while you’re at the library cramming for a test.
Only take as many courses as you can handle. Don’t overburden yourself. Be realistic about what you can take on while still working, providing, and caring for your family. Complete your education at the pace that makes sense for you.
Get your search started by checking out the reputable online colleges that made our annual Best Of list.
And once again, if you feel like venting about anything, let our comments section have it!