Advising the Single-Parent College Student

Lisa Tehan, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Catherine Buyarski's graduate seminar in academic advising at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis for the fall 2006 term. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Buyarski required each of the students in her class to submit an article to The Mentor for possible publication in the journal.

Single parents are a special population of students who need to be advised differently than traditional students. Academic advisers play a critical role in helping these students manage college in addition to their other responsibilities. Students who are single parents face pressures academically as well as from their parental responsibilities. In this article, I describe the issues facing single-parent students, advantages of being a single-parent student, implications for practice on college campuses, and the ways advisers can assist single-parent students.

Issues Facing Single-Parent Students

A large issue facing single-parent students is time management. Single-parent students generally work hard to balance work, school, and children, sometimes without much help from others. In a study on the effect of sociological and psychological belief factors on the academic success of single-mother college students, multiple participants were concerned about balancing their time. “For participants [of the study], working hard not only meant compromising their family life to meet their academic responsibilities, but compromising their social and personal needs as well” (Stone, Nelson, & Niemann, 1994, p. 579). Scheduling conflicts for single-parent students are also a great concern. Extra requirements for classes, such as night meetings and group work, can conflict with picking up children from day care and going to their children's school functions. It is difficult for students to dedicate a sufficient amount of time to studying while taking care of their children's needs as well.

Financial difficulties are a great concern of many single parents because they are often supporting themselves as well as their dependents. In addition to paying for tuition, there is often stress related to future college loan payments. Another financial issue for these students is child care. Finding child care during the hours needed to work and go to classes can be difficult and very expensive, as well as the cost of usual childhood illnesses.

Advantages of Being a Single-Parent Student

Although there are many challenging issues facing single-parent students, there are also significant advantages. Many single parents are going to college for a specific purpose, as opposed to some traditional students who attend college because it is the pathway their parents and peers suggest. The participants in Stone, Nelson, and Niemann's study (1994) stated that “their children were very important to their academic success and that they were pursuing a college degree in order to provide their children with opportunities that they themselves did not have while they were growing up” (p. 577).

Another significant advantage of being a single-parent student is that many have life experiences that provide a greater context for learning. Because many of these single parents are going to college to obtain a degree leading to better job prospects, they take their education very seriously and benefit from their focus.

Implications for Practice

In order to assist single-parent students, there should be special accommodations in place at universities, just as there are special services for many other diverse populations.

Having specialized academic accommodations for students who are single parents would be very helpful. Distance learning courses can be very helpful to students who are single parents. Being able to do course work from home would be helpful because child care would not be necessary for these courses. Offering weekend and night classes would allow flexibility for employment. Because group work and extra class obligations can put extra stress on single-parent students, “teachers must plan learning activities well in advance so that nontraditional students can make necessary arrangements for child care and job responsibilities” (Allen, p. 4).

Offering courses on single parenthood on campuses where it is increasingly prevalent may reduce stress for these students by providing them with campus and community resources for support. In a study done by Orthner, Brown, & Ferguson (1976) on the emerging family lifestyle of single fathers, the participants expressed that “Lack of information raised their anxiety, and some orientation course would have been helpful” (p. 436). Often these classes are held in the community, but students cannot afford to attend them. In order to provide more support to these students, mentor relationships for single parents should be established. These would include support groups and student organizations (Hassoun & Bana, 2001). Advisers should encourage single-parent students to take advantage of these resources even if they are not experiencing difficulties.

Extending the office hours of campus services offices would be a great help to many nontraditional students. For students who work full-time during the day and attend classes at night, campus offices are often already closed when they get to campus. By extending office hours, single-parent students would have the opportunity to address their concerns without canceling their other obligations. Hassoun and Bana (2001) suggest providing information to single-parent students about subsidized health care and insurance, family housing, and child care to help alleviate financial concerns. In their study, it was also recommended that there be facilities especially for student parents, such as family housing and study areas with entertainment for children. By having facilities and services such as these, single-parent students will feel more accepted and acknowledged on college campuses.

How Advisers Can Help Single-Parent Students

Advisers have proven to be a valuable resource for single-parent students. Because advisers have knowledge of the academic requirements for students as well as the university resources, they are in a position to provide very helpful guidance. By establishing a positive relationship with the student, the adviser can be a long-term support for the student. In Stone, Nelson, & Niemann's study (1994), “Participants often stated that the university's counseling services helped them cope with the demands of completing a college degree and/or with personal problems” (p. 578). In order to develop a positive relationship with students, advisers should discuss their advisees' individual situation and avoid making generalizations. As with any nontraditional population, advisers should recognize diversity within the single-parent group. Some of these differences include degree of family emotional support, degree of financial support from outside sources, the age of the children the students are raising, the student's age, and relationship history. While some single parents have gone through a divorce, some have never been married at all. Age is an important factor in the diversity of single-parent students, because the amount of stress on a young adult single parent can be more overwhelming than that on an older student.

Encouraging students to develop relationships with faculty to further their academic success is one of many ways advisers can help single-parent students. Many students view their professors as unapproachable, and it is important that advisers attempt to disprove this stereotype. Stone, Nelson, and Niemann's study (1994) of single mothers points out that “... developing a professional relationship with faculty was important to acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their educational goals” (p. 578). If students establish a positive rapport with their professors, there may be a greater sense of understanding from professors when issues come up related to child care or other parental responsibilities that conflict with classes.

Another important responsibility of advisers is to make this population of students aware of the resources available to them on college campuses. Not only should the adviser make students aware of these opportunities, they should also encourage students to take advantage of the resources provided. Learning skills workshops would be helpful to these students. “Topics such as time management, study skills, learning to use the learning resources, and other topics suggested by students could be covered in these sessions” (Allen, p. 3).

Because advisers have one-on-one conversations with students on a regular basis, there is the opportunity to discover the services that would be useful to single-parent students. By asking students what services universities are lacking for this special population, advisers can advocate for change on their campuses. Student retention of this population will increase if there are more resources in place on college campuses. By educating themselves about this nontraditional population, academic advisers and other academic affairs professionals have the opportunity to make college more manageable for single-parent students both academically and socially.

References

Allen, B. A. (n.d.). The student in higher education: Nontraditional student retention. Catalyst. Retrieved October 5, 2006, from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/CATALYST/V23N3/allen.html

Hassoun, S., & Bana, S. (2001). Practices for recruiting and retaining graduate women students in computer science and engineering. Proceedings of the 2001 International Conference on Microelectronic Systems Education. Retrieved October 5, 2006, from http://csdl2.computer.org/comp/proceedings/mse/2001/1156/00/11560106.pdf

Orthner, D. K., Brown, T., & Ferguson, D. (1976). Single-parent fatherhood: An emerging lifestyle. Family Coordinator, 25(4), 429–437.

Stone, N. V., Nelson, J. R., & Niemann, J. (1994). Poor single-mother college students' views on the effect of some primary sociological and psychological belief factors on their academic success. Journal of Higher Education, 65(5), 571–584.

About the Author

Lisa Tehan is a graduate assistant in the Office of Community Work-Study, Center for Service and Learning, at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She can be reached at ltehan@iupui.edu.

Published in The Mentor on February 7, 2007, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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