A baby changes everything: Helping parents finish school

26 Dec

The structure of the American family is changing. Jennifer Ludden reports in the NPR article, When It Comes To Marriage, Many More Say ‘I Don’t’

The share of all U.S. adults who are married has dropped to a record low 51 percent, according to a new report. If the trend continues, the institution will soon lose its majority status in American life.

The report being released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center finds new marriages dropped a sharp 5 percent last year, which is very likely related to the bad economy. Pew senior writer D’Vera Cohn says it fits with a larger trend….

Half a century ago, nearly 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were married. Today, it’s just 20 percent. But the Pew report finds fewer married people across all age groups.

In their place: more singles, single parents, couples living together — many having children without marrying. In fact, some 40 percent of all U.S. births are now to unmarried mothers. But the driving force in the dropping marriage rate? People who do tie the knot are waiting longer than ever.

The Pew report finds the median age when people finally walk down the aisle is at an all-time high — 26 for women and nearly 29 for men. And it’s higher still for the college educated.

Marriage On The Decline (1960-2010)

Marriage On The Decline (1960-2010)


Based on adults 18 and older. Percents may not total 100 percent due to rounding.

Source: Pew Research Center analysis of Decennial Census and American Community Survey Data

Credit: Nelson Hsu/NPR

“Well, it does not mean that marriage is dead,” says Stephanie Coontz, a historian on family life at Evergreen State College in Washington state. She says many of those 20-somethings will eventually tie the knot. The Pew report finds a robust 72 percent of Americans have been married at some point…

Cohn says you already see this — school forms with separate address blocks for “Parent 1” and “Parent 2,” or employers asked about benefits for unmarried partners. Yet even as marriage declines, Cohn says, Americans still revere it….

“On the one hand, we had nearly 40 percent of Americans tell us they think marriage is becoming obsolete. On the other hand, when you ask people who aren’t married, ‘Would you like to get married?’ they say yes,” Cohn says.

Cohn says Wednesday’s report also points to a troubling marriage gap — the rich get hitched; the working class, not as much. Historian Coontz says it’s yet another consequence of the nation’s widening economic inequality. Wages for those without a college degree have stagnated, weakening their power in the marriage market.

“The sort of incentive to get married — because you could rely on a man whose real wages would continue to rise, who would get a pension at the end of it — that incentive has been undermined as well,” Coontz says.


This trend is troubling because it disrupts the stability of many children not only emotionally, but financially as well. Single parents often have difficulty earning a sufficient income to support a family. It becomes more important for single parents to complete education and/or training programs. In order to increase the well-being of children, parents must be helped to complete their education.

Sara Goldrick-Rab and Kia Sorensen have written The Future of Children journal article, Unmarried Parents in College:

Among all undergraduates, the share of unmarried parents nearly doubled over the past twenty years (from 7 percent to just over 13 percent).7 Unmarried parents make up an especially substantial segment of undergraduates from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. For example, more than one-third (36 percent) of African American female undergraduates nationwide are unmarried mothers, and 15 percent of African American male undergraduates are unmarried fathers. Unmarried parents make up more than one in five Native American undergraduates (21 percent) and 16 percent of all Latino undergraduates (compared with 10 percent of white and 9 percent of Asian undergraduates).8

More than two-thirds of the increase in college attendance among unmarried parents since 1990 is attributable to attendance among unmarried mothers. Although the representation of unmarried fathers has been growing, a greater proportion of the increase in unmarried parents is driven by the attendance of women. Overall, 8 percent of male undergraduates and 17 percent of female undergraduates are unmarried parents.9 Of course, the appearance of these trends may be affected by the way parenting students are counted in federal data.

One reason for the apparent gender disparity among unmarried parents in attending college is that women are more likely than men to choose to begin or reenter college after having children.10 School reentry is common among mothers (even among high school dropouts), and mothers’ rates of college-going tick upward as children get older.11 Data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study indicate that many unmarried mothers wait until they are in their late twenties and their children enter school before entering or re-entering college.12 In fact, 25 percent of women entering college after the age of thirty are not married at the time of entry.13 In addition, parents who are not currently married appear more likely than currently married or cohabiting parents to enter college.14

Despite the fact that more unmarried parenting students are attending college, their attendance patterns, completion rates, and financial circumstances are quite different from those of nonparenting students and, in some cases, from married parenting students and other low-income students.

Rates of College Success
Parenting students who are not married while they are enrolled tend to complete four-year degrees at rates far lower than other college students, on average.15 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. Among unmarried parents, 11.8 percent earned an associate’s degree (roughly the same share as the rest of that cohort), and 30 percent completed a postsecondary certificate (compared with 12 percent of the cohort as a whole). Unmarried parents were much more likely to depart college early, without a timely return to school (46 percent compared with 35 percent).16

One reason for these lower rates of completion is that it can take longer for parenting students to finish degrees.17 In fact, by neglecting these longer time periods to degree attainment, analysts sometimes tend to make ultimate rates of degree completion appear lower than they are. Although delays in completion (and the older age at which the degree is earned) affect labor market returns and employment opportunities, many unmarried mothers nevertheless acquire their postsecondary degrees—but, as Nan Astone and her colleagues put it, they do so “in a discontinuous fashion.”18 According to one study, “one-third (33.7 percent) of low-income single women with children and slightly more than one quarter (28.8 percent) of low-income married women with children take more than 10 years to complete a bachelor’s degree, compared to 15.6 percent of all women, 16.5 percent of all low-income women, and 12.7 percent of all men.”19 Other researchers, examining educational attainment according to early life course patterns, find clear differences in college-going and attainment based on the speed and trajectory of family formation. As table 1 illustrates, 57 percent of individuals who move rapidly into adult roles such as marriage and childbearing attend some college but only 6 percent complete bachelor’s degrees—and they are unlikely to continue pursuing their education at age twenty-four.20 Individuals who do not become parents by age twenty-four and remain unmarried are far more likely to attend and complete college, and many are still continuing their education at age twenty-four….


Figures & Tables



Jenna Johnson has a excellent Washington Post article, How can colleges help teen moms (and teen dads)?

So what can colleges do to help these students? Here are seven ideas from local schools and teen moms:

1) Recruit these young parents: Quite often when a woman becomes pregnant, people stop talking to her about attending college — that is, if they were even pushing the idea in the first place. But a college degree is what could help her get a better-paying job and support her child….

2) Provide as much financial aid as possible: Tuition isn’t the only cost of going to college — there are also books to buy, fees to pay and transportation costs, just to name a few. Plus, every hour that a parent spends studying is one hour he or she is not working. It takes a lot of motivation to keep going to class when you have a family to feed.

The first step is easy: Make sure that teen parents have filled out the FAFSA (likely, as independent of their parents) and are receiving federal financial aid. Several of the Generation Hope scholars have not yet done this and are missing out on thousands in grants….

Beyond that, some schools have set up scholarships that will cover things like transportation or childcare. The College of Southern Maryland provides a number of scholarships for young parents, including the Bradley M. Gottfried “Against All Odds “Scholarship.

And the help can be less formal than a scholarship with an application process. At Trinity Washington University, the Dean of Student Services often gives young mothers Metro fare cards or meal passes for the dining hall. Earlier this semester, Generation Hope leaders heard that one of their students was on the verge of dropping a math class at Montgomery College — because she couldn’t afford a textbook that cost more than $100. Lewis rushed to campus to buy the book for her.

3) Assist with childcare: When I started reporting this story, I figured that the most daunting challenge facing most teen moms in college would be financial or academic. Nope, it’s childcare.

If your campus does not have a childcare center, then help your students apply for local programs or childcare vouchers for low-income parents. But many community colleges and four-year universities have begun to build childcare centers on campus to accommodate the children of faculty and students….

Students at Howard Community College can enroll their children in an on-campus lab school called the Children’s Learning Center. The cost is set on a sliding scale, and many women likely wouldn’t be able to attend class without the service. The program has helped the school increase its retention rate for single mothers in their early 20s, said school spokeswoman Nancy Santos Gainer. More than half of the students who use the center for childcare have a GPA of over 3.0, she said, and 13 percent have a GPA of over 3.5.

4) Support your teen parents: Sometimes that just means smiling and asking how their day is going. Being a teen mother can be lonely, as it’s difficult to make new friends when you have a baby to care for. And some teen moms have been so beaten down by the system as they applied for free prenatal care and WIC or tried to get child support through the court system, that they are afraid to seek out help.

Some ideas for doing this institutionally: Create a student-led support group, match young parents with volunteer mentors, offer a parenting session at freshman orientation, officially add “help teen parents” to the title of someone in the student affairs office, or build a single Web page for teen parents that includes links to all the resources they might need….

5) Help with housing: Along with childcare, housing can also be a challenge for students who are no longer living with their parents. In addition to helping teen parents find subsidized housing in the community, some residential schools also offer affordable “family housing” on campus. This sort of service can not only help undergraduates who are parents, but also older graduate students and young faculty members.

6) Offer a variety of class options: Many young parents have found that online classes work better into their schedules than showing up to campus a few times a week — but that can mean missing out on the traditional college experience. Colleges of all sorts have started to offer a wider range of classes, including hybrid classes (a mix of online and in-the-classroom) and more late-night, weekend and summer courses. They are also setting up satellite campuses that might be closer to where students live or work.

7) Don’t underestimate or pity teen parents: When I sat down to interview one of the Generation Hope mentors, who years ago put herself through Trinity while parenting, one of my first questions was something along the lines of: Wow, how did you do it? She explained that compared to all of the other challenges she had faced in her life, going to college was one of the easiest. She was focused and determined to get an education. She just needed the opportunity and resources.


For a good discussion of why child care is important to students, see the journal article, Contemporary Childcare Issues Facing Colleges and Universities by Marybeth Kyle, William J. Campion, William R. Ogden; College Student Journal, Vol. 33, 1999.

In order for low-income people, particularly single mothers to have a shot at escaping poverty, they must get an education, trade, or vocation. For many, affordable child care is the key determinant of whether they can advance. Alexandra Cawthorne in the 2008 report for the Center for American Progress, The Straight Facts on Women in Poverty describes the issues facing women in poverty. The National Coalition for Campus Children’s Centers has statistics about Children on Campus

College must not only be affordable for many student populations, it must be accessible as well.

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

3 Responses to “A baby changes everything: Helping parents finish school”


  1. Talking to kids about sex, early and often « drwilda - January 1, 2012

    […] A baby changes everything: Helping parents finish school […]

  2. Report: Some good news about high school graduation rates « drwilda - June 30, 2012

    […] A baby changes everything: Helping parents finish school                               https://drwilda.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/a-baby-changes-everything-helping-parents-finish-school/ […]

  3. Dropout prevention: More schools offering daycare for students « drwilda - January 14, 2013

    […] College must not only be affordable for many student populations, it must be accessible as well. https://drwilda.com/2011/12/26/a-baby-changes-everything-helping-parents-finish-school/ […]

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