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Tips for going to college as a single parent

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Earning a degree requires a lot of careful financial planning and time management; for single parents attending college, that juggling act becomes even more complicated. However, there are many resources tailored to single-parent students — including several financial aid opportunities — that can make it easier to get a college education while balancing at-home responsibilities.

How single parents can pay for college

Most college students use a mix of federal, state and private aid to finance their degree, but single-parent students have additional resources and supporting programs that “traditional” students don’t have access to.

Supporting organizations

There are several organizations that help single-parent students pay for college, and there are also those that support parents more holistically by providing resources like access to child care or affordable housing. Here are a few organizations that exist solely to provide support for student parents:

  • The National Center for Student Parent Programs (NCSPP): The NCSPP promotes several support programs for college students with children, including affordable near- or on-campus housing, mentoring programs, food insecurity prevention and case management.
  • Single Moms Planet: Offering programs around things like financial literacy and child enrichment, Single Moms Planet aims to help single mothers fill the financial gaps that may otherwise prevent them from attending college.
  • Child Care Access Means Parents In School (CCAMPIS): Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, CCAMPIS provides schools the funds necessary to implement on-campus child care for low-income students.

Federal and state financial aid

Federal and state financial aid is available to students who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some parents may qualify for need-based aid, though there are also aid opportunities for students who don’t have significant financial need.

Students can see their total financial aid eligibility through the financial aid package awarded by their school. Options may include:

Scholarships

Scholarships are a great way to cut the cost of college without any strings attached. Scholarship search engines can save you time by filtering for awards specifically geared toward single-parent students. Applying for scholarships specific to your situation or interests increases your likelihood of receiving funds, since the applicant pool will be smaller.

Here are a couple of awards to consider applying for:

  • Live Your Dream Award: Sponsored by Soroptimist, this award is available to women who display financial need and are enrolled in eligible academic programs. Candidates can apply from Aug. 1 through Nov. 15, and the finalist may receive up to $16,000 to assist with academic-related expenses.
  • Helping Hands for Single Moms: Helping Hands for Single Moms is an organization dedicated to assisting single mothers in college, with a scholarship program available for those residing in Dallas and Phoenix. The organization works with the circumstances and needs of each scholarship winner to ensure that their specific academic and financial needs are best supported.
  • Custody X Change Giving Fund: Custody X Change offers three yearly scholarships worth either $500 or $1,000 to single parents. The application deadlines are Dec. 31, April 30 and Aug. 31 for the spring, summer and fall scholarships, respectively. Applicants must send in a 400- to 500-word essay describing how an education will improve their family.

Alternative college options

Alternative options like community college, technical certification programs or online schooling are great ways to cut tuition costs. Average yearly tuition at community colleges is almost $7,000 less than at four-year in-state institutions, according to College Board, and certification programs may be even cheaper.

Community colleges and online college programs can be an ideal option for those with children, as the courses may provide flexibility that you likely wouldn’t receive at an in-person or larger four-year school — especially if child care isn’t an option.

Tips for single-parent college student success

It may take a few weeks to settle into new routines; here’s how single-parent students can academically succeed while juggling multiple responsibilities at work and at home.

Stick to an organized schedule

An organized schedule that details everything from wake-up to bath time will serve you and your children, especially during transitional periods. Creating a constant routine that both you and your family can rely on will help affirm the new short-term lifestyle that comes with earning a degree.

If you’re finding yourself overwhelmed between work, school drop-off lines and classes, look for local groups of single parents going to school or join a broader Facebook group. These are great resources for advice and tips on how other students in similar situations have managed a chaotic schedule.

Research affordable child care

Most states offer child care subsidies that use both federal and state funds to provide child care services to eligible families. To take advantage of subsidized care, families must display financial need.

If you don’t qualify financially for subsidized child care, consider asking close friends and family to watch your children while you attend school — it may help if you take evening or weekend classes. You can also research schools that have dedicated child care centers.

Prepare for possible obstacles

The best way to prepare for earning a degree is to anticipate the potential obstacles that you may encounter. When you consider the following circumstances prior to starting school, you can have established backup plans in place:

  • Do your professors allow students to bring children into the classroom if there’s an emergency?
  • Is there anyone who would be able to pick up a child from school should they get sick while you’re in class?
  • If daycare or school is canceled for the day due to a holiday or emergency, who can watch your children?
  • When exam week rolls around, do your professors offer single parents any help or exemptions? For example, would you be able to take the exam online or at home?

Before applying to a college, call the student support office to see what resources are available for nontraditional students. If you attend a school that does offer these resources, you’ll likely have fewer obstacles to overcome should something unexpectedly happen.

The bottom line

It’s possible for single parents to attend college while balancing all of their responsibilities, but it will take perseverance and dedication. While there are plenty of resources available to help single parents earn a college degree, it’s imperative that parents also take advantage of the resources available to them organically.

Staying connected with students in similar life situations, taking advantage of federal student loans and need-based financial aid, applying for specific scholarships and planning for future obstacles are necessary for academic success as a single parent.

Learn more:

Written by
Hanneh Bareham
Student loans reporter
Hanneh Bareham specializes in everything related to student loans and helping you finance your next educational endeavor. She aims to help others reach their collegiate and financial goals through making student loans easier to understand.
Edited by
Student loans editor