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6 Things You Should Know About Single Mother Learners on Your Campus

Members of the Delgado Community College design team, including several single mother learners, collaborate to prototype solutions that address the needs of single mothers.


In Spring 2019, the Lab launched the Single Moms Success Design Challenge, a two-year, student-centered design and prototype process aimed at dramatically improving attainment rates for single mothers who seek to obtain a degree or high-quality credential from a community college. In “Designing for Single Mother Learners,” the Lab covers what we’re hearing from single mother learners and how understanding their needs is the first step in establishing a set of criteria that programs must meet to allow for single mother learners to succeed.

Single moms make up 11% of all undergraduate college students, and research shows that college success helps them build family-sustaining careers and contribute to their local economies. Over the past several months, the community colleges participating in the Single Moms Success Design Challenge (SMSDC) – Delgado Community College, Monroe Community College, Central New Mexico Community College, and Ivy Tech Community College – dove deep into understanding the experiences faced by single mother learners. Through a series of design sessions facilitated by the Lab, the schools gained important insights for ideation and prototyping of potential solutions to dramatically increase single mothers’ attainment of degrees and high-quality credentials.

To a single mother learner, her children always come first. While this may seem obvious, we’ve observed that institutions don’t intuitively understand this insight. When designing solutions for this population, institutions must first recognize this core value as fundamental to the single mother learner’s experience. By including single mother learners in our design process and creating space for institutions to understand their unique needs and perspectives, the Lab is paving the way for a new set of college solutions to boost their success. From over a hundred conversations with single mother learners, we’ve identified six things you and your institution should know to better support these students.


1. A degree or credential opens doors to family-sustaining employment and careers.
Single mother learners often return to college so they can better provide for their families.


2. Single mother learners face complex challenges.
While many single mother learners return to school to lift themselves out of poverty and provide for their children, few colleges are designed to holistically support students who face the kind of  life circumstances and parental obligations that these students often experience.


3. Meeting basic needs is essential, but only the beginning.
Colleges can play a vital role in supporting single mother learners by providing resources to address basic needs, financial strain, and child care, but they cannot stop there.


4. Time poverty is a reality and a barrier to college completion.
Single mother learners face time poverty, scheduling limitations, and immense stress in balancing work, family, and school. Flexible educational models and creative collaboration with workforce and community partners could help schools provide career-relevant learning opportunities that give single moms the time and space to learn and work.


5. Empathy matters.
Lack of empathy and understanding from faculty, staff, and other students can have a major impact on single mother learners’ access to support and resources, sense of belonging, and engagement in school.


6. Single moms need clearly defined educational pathways to success.
To help single mother learners keep making progress in their learning, schools should support them in defining paths through college to family-sustaining careers in growing industries.


These insights provide a small window into the wealth of information single mother learners have shared with our SMSDC cohort teams, guiding them toward opportunities for transformational change. For a more comprehensive summary of what we’ve learned so far from single mother learners throughout our design process, please see our cross-campus themes, which hold relevance across many institutions.

Our work centers on impact. As this design challenge unfolds, we’ll assess the impact of educational models that aim to support single mother learners in unlocking their potential, and we’ll share with you what we discover. For now, we recommend taking that crucial first step – talk to single mother learners at your school. Understanding their experiences will help you prepare to design pathways to equitable futures for your students.

Explore these resources to continue learning about single moms and other parents in college:

To learn more about the Single Moms Success Design Challenge, visit our project page