When a student is an unmarried parent

July 11, 2011

Sara Goldrick-Rab

Sara Goldrick-Rab

Unmarried parents who attend college face obstacles of money and time. Parenting young children while also attending college creates difficulties that are different from those faced by traditional students. Many public programs offer support to these students, but the support is neither well coordinated nor easily accessed.

UW-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab says deficiencies in current higher education policy cause unexpected adverse consequences for families where an unmarried parent is also a student. Goldrick-Rab and graduate student Kia Sorensen say that more effective support could help these unmarried students complete their college degree and certificate programs.

Opportunities for college attendance have expanded dramatically in the U.S. over the past several decades, but unmarried parents are still among those least likely to attend. And although completed degrees confer large economic benefits, they may be outweighed by the cost to these students’ families. 

Addressing this problem is important now. Among all undergraduate students, the proportion of unmarried parents has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, from 7 percent to just over 13 percent. And unmarried parents make up a substantial segment of undergraduates from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds: More than one-third (36 percent) of African American female undergraduates nationwide are unmarried mothers. Fifteen percent of African American male undergraduates are unmarried fathers.

Unmarried parents make up 21 percent of Native American undergraduates and 16 percent of all Latino undergraduates. This compares with 10 percent of white and 9 percent of Asian undergraduates. Overall, 8 percent of male undergraduates and 17 percent of female undergraduates are unmarried parents.

Families Compete for Time

Unmarried parents attending college find very little time to spend with their children. Because financial aid often doesn’t make ends meet, many unmarried parents work long hours while taking classes. In years past, financial aid enabled students to devote all their time to studying and parenting. But students now commonly study, parent, and work.

These students tend to take longer to complete four-year degrees. Among all students who started college in 1995-96, 29 percent attained a bachelor’s degree by 2001, compared with just under 5 percent of unmarried parents.

National data indicate a serious shortage of campus child care centers—with existing resources meeting only one-tenth of demand. The shortage is particularly severe when it comes to infant care—only about one-third of campus child care centers accept infants.

Benefits of Degree Completion

Women who pursue additional education following their child’s birth increase their odds of repartnering with a college-educated man by 62 percent.  Attending college helps unmarried mothers form networks of similarly well-educated friends. These friends help shape their decisions about parenting practices and their expectations for their children’s educational success. For example, middle-class mothers with more education are more committed to their children’s education. Families with more education create more structured activities for their children. They emphasize lessons and activities to fully develop children’s cognitive and social potential. These parents also talk to children as if they were adults and reason with them. Such parenting leads children to gain a sense of confidence that has implications for how they interact with other adults and institutions.

Limits of Current Policies

Financial aid policies intended to make college affordable include rules that make it difficult for parenting students to access the money they need.  Current financial aid rules reward students who attend college full time without working, while penalizing those who take fewer classes and integrate work for pay into their schedules.  Policies that make students with drug convictions ineligible for financial aid make it much more difficult for unmarried fathers to participate in post-secondary education.


Policy changes could enhance college participation and completion among unmarried parents. For example, simplifying the aid application process substantially increases a prospective student’s likelihood of attending college and receiving need-based grant aid. 
Dual enrollment programs help move students more seamlessly from high school to college by allowing them to earn college credit while still in high school. That potentially reduces the time and associated costs spent in college. College students in New York and Florida who had participated in dual enrollment in high school remained enrolled in college longer, had higher grade point averages, and earned more credits than comparable students who had not participated in dual enrollment programs.

As intermediate goals, Goldrick-Rab says policymakers could focus on increasing rates of full-time attendance among unmarried parents and reducing the time they spend working while parenting and in school.

For more, see “Unmarried Parents in College” in The Future of Children  vol 20, n 2, Fall 2010, pp. 179-203.