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When single moms are college students, complications and barriers abound. The risk is great as they try to raise children, provide financially and succeed as a student. But if they earn a degree, so is the reward.

The Education Design Lab, a nonprofit group that seeks to improve higher education systems and reduce equity and skills gaps, has enlisted a team of four community colleges to develop new programs and support systems that improve the chances of success for single moms at community colleges.

At Delgado Community College in New Orleans, single moms can join a special section of a college success skills class that caters to their unique needs. The course typically teaches study skills, time management and financial literacy, all skills they will need to make it through their education, while also letting them build a support system with other students in similar situations, said Tamika Duplessis, the associate vice chancellor for student affairs at Delgado.  

Delgado is one of four community colleges that received $50,000 to design programs toward the goal of increasing the degree and credential attainment by 30 percent for single moms by 2024.

“It’s really, really critical to focus on populations like single moms, for whom education was not designed and who experience so many different barriers.”

Miriam Swords Kalk, senior education designer, Education Design Lab

“It’s really, really critical to focus on populations like single moms, for whom education was not designed and who experience so many different barriers,” said Miriam Swords Kalk, a senior education designer at the Education Design Lab. Their education is “going to be critical for them to advance their careers, support their families as they want to, and just have the futures they want for themselves in terms of fulfillment and growth and economic mobility.” 

Though the programming looks a little different at each college, all try to account for the specific challenges single moms encounter.

Related: How student parents of young kids make it through college

Now midway through a five-year process of designing the pilot programs, the colleges have learned that to retrofit their systems to make them more welcoming to single moms, they need to streamline support for basic needs and career development opportunities. They need to remain flexible to account for their students’ full lives. They need to partner with community organizations to get students as much support as possible. And they need to find ways to give these students a sense of belonging on campus.

“It was shocking how many folks said ‘I actually don’t know if there are any other single moms on my campus’, or people who said ‘I didn’t know that there were any and then when I finally met another single mom, that was such a game changer for me,’” Swords Kalk said.

Courtney Bleier and her son Malcolm celebrate her recent graduation from Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. Bleier, a single mom, benefited from services developed as part of the Single Moms Success Challenge, a pilot program to improve graduation rates for single moms at four community colleges across the country. Credit: Image provided by Courtney Bleier

The Single Mom Success program has recently become even more relevant because the loss of access to abortion in many states may leave more people with children from pregnancies they didn’t plan for.

“Colleges are already not prepared to support parent learners – especially single parent learners,” Swords Kalk said. “So I think this needs to be a really, really big wake up call for folks across post-secondary education and training that if they’re not already focusing on parent learners, they need to be.”

Swords Kalk said that she hopes the work they are doing in the Single Moms Success Challenge will be scalable to other colleges to help more student parents – fathers as well as mothers – earn college degrees. 

Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization focused on helping student parents succeed in college, said that the most important thing to do to improve college success for student parents is to start trying. Once programs are up and running, she said, you can enhance and refine them.

Related: Huge numbers of student fathers are dropping out of college 

“Everybody at an institution needs to be thinking about student parent work, and prioritizing it,” Lewis said. “It can’t just live in one office with a couple people.”

Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, one of the four in the pilot program, established a student services coordinator specifically for single moms – someone who could answer their questions, help them troubleshoot when they come up short for bills, coordinate childcare, and help them get connected with other students in similar situations, said Medea Rambish, dean of academic foundations at Monroe.

To help faculty support single moms in the classroom, Monroe added material on student parents to the annual empathy training that educators there go through.

Courtney Bleier, a single mom who just graduated from Monroe with an associate degree in liberal arts, said she had left an abusive relationship before attempting to make it through community college while also caring for her young son. She said she wouldn’t have been able to graduate without the support she found at Monroe.

Whenever she had questions or problems, professors and administrators were there to help her, she said. And they connected her to a childcare center that was both a good fit for her son and a supportive community of teachers and parents that helped her find other resources at Monroe.

Bleier said she is not done with college. She’s taking more science classes to prepare her to apply for a nursing program. Though she hopes to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, she plans to go through the Monroe nursing program first.

Related: Student parents in college who are ‘close to the edge’ need help

“I’m willing to take more time to get a bachelor’s so I can spend more time at MCC, so I can get the support that I know that I can get while I’m here,” Bleier said.

Central New Mexico Community College started offering $500 stipends to students in the pilot program who meet certain GPA and credit requirements, and who meet with their advisers each semester. The adviser was once a single mom in college herself, so she can understand their needs, said Charnia Parrish, associate director of advisement.

The students who are participating in the pilot program and any other single moms on campus are invited to join a Facebook group where they can share resources and support each other. And once per quarter, the college offers a family friendly event to bring the student parents and their kids together. Last fall, they hosted a book drive and then gave books to families based on their children’s ages. In the spring, it was a rock painting event (there were lots of ladybugs, but some more intricate designs, too), and this fall, they will screen the Disney movie Encanto.

Parrish said these events have allowed for the moms and their children to begin forming a community, sharing resources and ideas. 

“One thing that’s confirmed for us is how resourceful and dynamic this group is,” Parrish said. “They’re determined to be successful.”

This story about single moms was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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