Create a Plan for Success as a Single Parent
By Delece Smith-Barrow
As the program director for the Student Parent Center at the University of California—Berkeley, Ginelle Perez has a big job. She helps undergraduates with children apply for university-owned family housing, connect with counseling services, line up subsidized child care and figure out how to manage their course loads.
For Perez, this job isn't just a job. She's giving back to a community that once helped her.
"I was a UC—Berkeley undergraduate student parent," says Perez, who is a mother of two. She credits the center and school resources with helping her succeed in college and go to graduate school.
he hundreds of students the center serves are among the millions of college students with children. In the 2011-2012 school year, colleges and universities in the U.S. enrolled 3.5 million students who were also single parents, according to an infographic released in September by the American Council on Education.
These students have a set of challenges that many other undergrads don't face. "It's just the overall burden of feeding multiple mouths and housing a family," says Susan Warfield, program director for the Student Parent HELP Center at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. There's also finding and paying for child care, and sometimes working through custody issues with a former spouse, she says.
Time management can be especially hard, says Katie Kough, assistant dean of students and director of the Women with Children Program at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. Even the most organized parent can be thrown off when a child gets sick the night before a presentation.
These and other hurdles lead many parents to drop out.
"Being a parent substantially increases the likelihood of leaving college with no degree, with 53% of parents vs. 31% of nonparents having left with no degree after six years," according to a March 2013 report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
any parents can successfully complete college and then go to graduate school or start a career, but it takes early planning, experts say.
The first thing they should do is find reliable child care, says Warfield. Professors may be understanding of students who miss a day here or there, but long-term absences could make getting through school difficult.
Some college campuses provide subsidized child care for students. If campus child care is not an option, Warfield suggests students check with their county's local Child Care Resource and Referral offic to learn their options.
Parents with children must also find stable housing, experts say, because the lack of a stable home can prevent students from focusing on school.
Providing housing for mothers is one of the pillars of the Women with Children Program at Wilson College. Each family gets a two-room suite and private bathroo. They share a kitchen area, laundry area, playroom and other spaces, says Kough.
"To have to ask any woman, any parent, but especially a single parent to choose between pursuing an education and caring for their hild is probably the most unfortunate and unfair question and choice you would have to ask somebody," she says. The program usually provides housing for between 15 and 20 women and their children.
Paying for a home and day care are some of the biggest expenses for student parents, and more than 65 percent of students raising children on their own have full- or part-time jobs, according to the American Council on Education's analysis.
Warfield, who's also a licensed social worker, encourages students with children to know all their options for bringing in income.
"Be aware of your welfare support," she says. Some students, she says, believe that they will be ineligible for welfare if they go to school, but that's usually not the case.
he also asks them to look to their school for help. "They need to educate themselves about financial aid," she says. "Financial aid is not just tudent loans." Students should be wary of schools that only discuss private loans with students, she says.
At Berkeley, students with children are eligible for a special grant, says Perez, and exceptional grades aren't a requirement for receiving it. "It's a need-based award," she says.
Once the school year is underway, students should focus on bonding with their new campus community.
"The fastest, quickest way to feel like this is your home is to connect with as many people in as many places as you can," says Kough from Wilson College. Orientation is a good time to make these connections with students, she says, but it shouldn't stop there.
"Establish relationships with your faculty members, your academic advisers," Kough says. "And not just by email. Put your face in front of them."
Students should also make a connection with someone in career services, experts say. Planning for life after college is critical for parents in school and should start early.
"Don't just graduate with a degree," says Perez. She pushes students with children to think about internships, work experience and graduate school.
"Parenthood should not limit your academic goals," she says.
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