Having a child during high school or college can make earning a bachelor's degree difficult, but the barriers don't have to be insurmountable. With the help of school programs across the country, from residential support systems to campus lactation rooms, there are options available to women and their children. Here are some of the ways child-friendly college and university programs are helping mothers earn bachelor's degrees:
1. Comprehensive women and children programs: For single mothers who want to earn a bachelor's degree, a handful of schools across the country offer residential, social, and academic programs for women and their children. Though age requirements, campus privileges, and childcare options vary by school, each offers a uniquely comprehensive residential support system for women juggling their children and schoolwork.
"Our primary purpose is to empower women, to educate women—not to cut off a portion of the population simply because they have a child," says Katie Kough, director of the Women with Children Program at Wilson College.
At Wilson, a women's college in Chambersburg, Pa., more than 20 women and their children occupy two-bedroom suites in residence halls on campus. At Endicott College in Beverly, Mass., students' children can eat in on-campus dining halls and are occasionally allowed to sit in on a class. Moms enrolled at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., get a weekly break to study, grocery shop, or simply find time to take a shower, as other students on campus volunteer to babysit their children.
The school programs are small in size and, administrators say, increasingly popular; a common issue is too many applicants for spots available. "We need probably 10 times the number [currently available]...so that this very at-risk population of people is not left behind in the scramble to get post-secondary education," says Julie Candela, director of Single Parents Reaching Out for Unassisted Tomorrows at Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College.
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2. Family housing: Though only a few colleges offer programs designed for single mothers and their children, family housing options for undergraduates exist elsewhere. At Mills College in Oakland, Calif., for example, undergraduates with children are given priority for spots in some university-owned apartments. At St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., student parents enrolled in either day or weekend degree programs can live in family housing.
3. Daycare and facilities: "Child care is probably the most critical piece that a student parent needs to be successful," says Sherrill Mosee, author of Professor, May I Bring My Baby to Class? About 5 percent of colleges and universities, such as the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, offer on-site daycare to students, she says.
For schools that do not have the resources to start a campus daycare, which she says often hinders schools' attempts to beef up women's initiatives, Mosee recommends finding community organizations that are already providing child care. Her own organization, Family Care Solutions, Inc., finances off-site daycare for the children of mothers attending school in Philadelphia, Pa.
Some schools, such as the University of Iowa, provide easy access to lactation rooms, another important feature for moms in school, she says. "With more women enrolled in college, there are more family issues that colleges and universities need to take notice of and provide the students the support they need to pursue college and graduate," Mosee says.
4. Support systems: Student mothers and college officials cite support systems, both at school and at home, as a factor integral to achievement. Through the Single Parent Support System at St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va., all mothers and children have a mentor they meet with monthly. At Misericordia University, women are required to find a counselor on campus.
"The women who are successful are the ones that do create a support network, the ones who aren't afraid to ask for help or ask questions," says Wilson College's Kough. "The ones who try to do this completely on their own just really struggle the most."
5. Parenting skills courses: Parenting skills courses are of paramount importance in the comprehensive parent programs at schools like Endicott College, where both mothers and fathers enrolled in the program are now required to attend a series of parenting seminars. And at other schools, mothers say the lessons they learn in the classroom pay dividends at home.
For Aimee Kuelling, a 37-year-old enrolled at Judson University, delving into her child development elective was easier as she watched her son, Tanner, live out the material she was learning in class. Margaret Martinez, a 27-year-old mother of two earning a degree at Mount Mary College, claims she has already passed on to her children the lessons she's learned in college, like the importance of community service.
"They see the value in getting an education and they get some of the benefits that I'm learning now," says Martinez, who now involves her children in volunteer activities like donating toys to needier youngsters at Christmas. "I don't know if I would have taught that to my children had I not been taught that myself."
6. Online and blended degree programs: Online education is a common avenue for student parents too busy to complete a full-time degree on a college campus. Some schools, such as the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, even offer blended degree programs as a compromise for students who crave the college experience but can't spend too much time away from kids and jobs.
Through the University Without Walls Program at UMass Amherst, students can opt to come to campus for some courses or can complete their studies fully online, an option that "you can do while the kids are asleep, while you're at the playground with the kids—at any point in time," says Ingrid Bracey, the program's interim director. "It's at your convenience."
Though the University Without Walls Program is not specific to any one type of student, it attracts a large population of working parents, Bracey notes. "You see this range of very strong women with children who...come back because they could no longer stomach it," she says. "They know what it's like to have a family and then to have to go home and say, 'I'm so sorry, but we don't have any money this week.'"
[Explore a comprehensive list of online programs.]
No matter a mother's route to earning a degree, students surveyed said degree completion symbolizes clearing a significant hurdle on the path toward a better life for their children and themselves. Oftentimes, it also lends a newfound sense of independence that motivates student mothers like Martinez to keep juggling school, work, and family.
"Even with the crazy schedule and even with the sleepless nights, I feel like I'm now in more control of my life than I have ever been before," she says. "If I can survive this, I think I can do anything."
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