Supporting Single Mothers in Higher Ed and Organizations

Bias and Privilege
Minute Read

Each fall, banners and flyers cover university campuses directing new students to the many different offices and organizations dedicated to supporting their success. Unfortunately, one subset of nontraditional students is routinely left out when it comes to financial, administrative, and social support – single mothers.

The Facts About Single Mothers and Education 

Student parents make up 22 percent of undergraduates nationwide, increasing each year, and that number is even higher among Black women. Only 28 percent of single mothers who entered college between 2003 and 2009 earned a degree or certificate within 6 years, compared with 40 percent of married mothers and 57 percent of woman-identifying  students who were not parenting.

These data are especially relevant because, If single mothers  can make it to graduation, a degree can drastically improve the financial outcomes for them and their families. In 2016, single mother poverty rates decreased an average of 33 percent with each additional level of education. 

Single student mothers need more support than the average student, and yet, they’re offered significantly less. They stand to gain many  short and long-term benefits by attaining a degree, however, given the extra challenges and responsibilities they face,it takes them longer to graduate if they do at all. 

Ethos Business Manager Alicia Hernández has real life experience with all of this data. She dropped out of high school when she was pregnant with the first of her four children. Alicia was a single mom and worked full-time as a staff accountant while she was earning her bachelor’s degree, which took her ten years. Nearly twenty years after dropping out, she earned a Master of Education in Higher Education Leadership. 

I spoke with Alicia about the needs, challenges, and experiences of being a single student mother. She has some insights on what university systems and professionals within them can do to provide more adequate support.


Alicia Hernández has been defying the odds from the very beginning because of her genuine love of learning and her desire to open up new opportunities for her family. Not only did she experience being a single mother and student, she’s also a first-generation college graduate and an immigrant. Her parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was three years old. Finding little support in her pursuit of higher education for people like her, Alicia learned to advocate for herself.

First, Alicia found that she was disqualified for most scholarships because they were only available to “rising juniors and seniors.” And, with a several year gap between high school and her college application process, writing essays made the application process difficult. Once she started school she noticed right away that the services available at her student center seemed to be geared toward “traditional” students: living on campus with lots of free time in the afternoons and evenings.

“I always felt out of place,” Alicia said, as if her situation was completely unique in the world of higher education. Instead of resume writing and career building, she needed help with things like finding affordable childcare and paying for gas to fuel her 40-minute commute. She wondered, “How are they going to help me if their focus is more on assisting the traditional students trying to find a job?”

Cue the mental struggles of mom guilt and impostor syndrome – now Alicia had to regularly choose between time spent with her children or focusing on an education to provide a better life for them and herself. At one point in her education journey, a semester break turned into a five-year gap. Then as she reentered the education system, one of her kids needed medical care, and she worried she might have to drop out again. 

Because she worked in accounting and her master’s degree was in education, Alicia also felt like she couldn’t go to her employer for help or support. However, she mentioned several key ways that accessibility, inclusion, and advocacy would have made a big difference for her.

Single Parents and Education Statistics

The statistics on single parents and education make it clear that single mothers in higher education aren’t having equitable experiences compared to other students. Their grades, their finances, and their family’s wellbeing all suffer because of unmet needs.

  • More than 60 percent of single student mothers report spending at least 30 hours per week caring for children.
  • 43 percent of women at two-year colleges who live with dependents say that they are likely or very likely to drop out of school due to their dependent care obligations.
  • For students with dependent children, any amount of paid work is associated with declines in degree attainment, whereas among non-parents, nominal amounts of paid work (less than fifteen hours per week) are not associated with diminished college success.
  • In 2012, single student mothers had over $6,600 in unmet financial need on average, the amount a student must pay out-of-pocket to cover college expenses after family contributions, grants, and need-based aid are taken into account. That’s more than $1,700 higher than non-parenting women in college, and $2,000 more than married mothers. 
  • Single mothers who do graduate have higher levels of debt than both their nonparent and married mother peers, to the tune of $4,800.

Information from IWPR: Single Mothers in College

Becoming an Advocate

While Alicia began her college career, she didn’t always know how to speak up about her concerns or where she could even go for help. Eventually, she found that student centers were able to provide some assistance – even if it wasn’t advertised. Alicia spent some time volunteering with teen moms starting college and helped them find discounted space at the school day care. During her time in graduate school, Alicia started an initiative called “Stay In to Stand Out,” speaking to high schoolers to encourage them to pursue higher education. She urges single student mothers to both be their own advocates and seek out school staff who can help.

One of the reasons Alicia came to work with us is that we share her mission of helping organizations such as universities advocate for their underrepresented people. “Even if it’s on the back end,” she said, “I still feel good being part of an organization that’s mission is to bring changes to universities and different organizations.”

How To Create Equitable Experiences for Single Moms

Alicia emphasizes that there’s room for improvement when it comes to supporting caregivers in the higher education space. We developed the R2P2 framework to assess equity for underrepresented employees within an organization, and it’s useful here too. To get a holistic picture of what your single mom students or employees experience, look at how they engage with your policies and programs during four key phases: recruiting, retention, promotion (or student success), and protection. 

See some of the most effective ways universities and other organizations can support single moms as students or employees using the R2P2 model: 


  • Recruiting single mothers might look different than recruiting other diverse students. Evaluate the application process for incoming students who aren’t coming from a high school setting.
  • Allocate more university-funded scholarships and grants to nontraditional students in general or single moms specifically. Consider creating scholarships for gas, food, and other expenses besides tuition. 
  • For employers, make sure job posts mention flexible scheduling when it’s available and include an accurate pay range in the description.


  • Does your school or location have a childcare center? If not, see if you can partner with a local day care for free services or discounted rates.
  • Student centers often can help nontraditional students, but the verbage in their materials may not show it. Expand the use of language to be more inclusive and add specific examples. For instance, mention that counselors can help find affordable childcare, figure out babysitting schedules, navigate food assistance programs, or fit school expenses into your budget.

Promotion and Student Success

  • Single student mothers often have to do much of their schoolwork at night. What resources, services, and extracurriculars on campus could be adapted for after-hours availability? 
  • Don’t disqualify single moms for advancement opportunities because of limited availability. Instead, look for ways to make scheduling more flexible.


  • It can be difficult for student moms with state-provided insurance to find a therapist. Can your school’s health center provide free or discounted counseling? 
  • Be sensitive to the fact that single moms have different needs than other nontraditional students or employees. Consider these when you’re assessing benefits and student support services.
  • Make sure single moms have at least one advocate who’s available to hear their concerns and help them problem-solve unique challenges. 

As you apply this to your own organization, ask yourself: What student support services or benefits are available to single moms in each phase? What needs are going unmet? Where do you need more data? Determine what easy fixes you can take action on right now and what larger goals to budget for in the coming years.

Single Mothers Are Great Students, With Support

Student mothers are usually juggling at least one job and childcare responsibility in addition to their schoolwork. Without much guidance from her school, Alicia felt like she had to navigate these challenges by herself. While traditional students can easily get help finding on-campus housing and work, single mothers are hard pressed to find support that’s both relevant to their needs and accessible to their schedule. 

Higher education has the power to help single mothers lift themselves and their families out of poverty and create generational wealth. They typically have more than enough motivation to succeed, but limited time, money, and other resources get in the way of their student experience. 

Does your organization need some help connecting with underrepresented subgroups like single student mothers? Book a free discovery call and let’s chat!


Blog written by Kelsey Hoff

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