Early Lessons from the College Success for Single Mothers Project

Eight community colleges were selected in June, 2020, to participate in College Success for Single Mothers, a project led by Word Education’s National College Transition Network (NCTN) in partnership with Achieving the Dream and PERG Learning, with funding from ECMC Foundation. The goal of the project is to identify the needs of single mother* students on campus and develop an action plan to address their needs and expand key practices and services to enhance their success in college and careers.

Each college has convened a cross-functional task force that leverages diverse expertise from members who represent faculty, administration, institutional effectiveness, early childhood education, student services, and other key departments. Each task force will develop an action plan aligned and integrated with the college’s broader strategic vision to expand key practices and supports, and work on improving equity, inclusion, and student success outcomes.

Collecting Baseline Data

The first year of the three-year project involved a comprehensive quantitative and qualitative data-collection and needs-assessment process to inform the colleges’ action plans using PERG’s Family Friendly Campus Toolkit (“Toolkit”). The Toolkit is a collection of data-collection tools, described in more detail below, that are easily customizable by each task force. Participating colleges are implementing new approaches to collecting and using data to inform planning and decision-making. We share some early lessons from the project here.

A goal of this initial comprehensive data-collection process is to establish a baseline understanding of parenting students, in general, and single mothers in particular, in order to better address their needs. Rather than make this process a one-time event, the intention is to integrate collection and review of student-parent data into ongoing operations and student success metrics to ensure that institutional effectiveness is viewed through the lens of parenting students, among the other lenses used.

Institutional Data and Limitations

The Toolkit provides a template for reviewing any student data that the institution already collects that can be disaggregated by parenting and relationship status and analyzed to understand the demographics, academic experiences, and financial needs of single mothers and all student parents. Examples of institutional data include student information gleaned from Perkins reporting, admissions, and FAFSA .

Some of the participating colleges collect and report enrollment data for subsets of parenting students, but only when required by specific funding streams and for targeted programs. Few collect this information college-wide. One college includes a question about parenting status on its application but doesn’t routinely include that data in its institutional review.

One source of institutional data that colleges draw on for this project in order to broaden their view of the numbers of students with dependent children, is FAFSA data (de-identified). However, FAFSA data aren’t reliable for establishing an accurate or comprehensive baseline of student parents because only 66 percent of college students complete a FAFSA and as many as one in seven who are eligible for some form of aid do not complete a FAFSA 2 .

Each of the sources of institutional data has its limitations, and no single source can be relied on to provide an accurate count of single mothers/student parents, especially since all rely on students to self-report. Therefore, it’s important to institutionalize multiple methods at key junctures.

Student Surveys and Focus Groups

To tell the story behind the institutional data and give voice to single mothers and all parenting students, participating colleges are conducting student surveys and focus groups. The Toolkit provides sample survey and focus group questions that colleges built on and customized to identify single mothers and all parenting students and to learn directly from them about their life circumstances and experiences as students. Additionally, colleges are learning the extent to which parenting students are aware of, need, and use available campus and community supports, in order to identify gaps in support to be addressed.

Strategies for Engaging Students in Focus Groups and Surveys

Recognizing that existing sources of institutional data are incomplete, participating colleges sent the survey to all students, not just those participating in specialized programs or identified by single data sources, in order to reach as many parenting students as possible. They used creative and broad-based dissemination strategies to reach and engage as many student parents as possible. These are some of the strategies that colleges found effective:

  • Plan ahead for the survey and focus groups to take longer than anticipated. A few of the participating institutions required surveys to go through an approval process (i.e., Institutional Review Board) or wait in a queue with surveys from other projects. Others ran into weather delays in scheduling focus groups, or unexpected changes in staffing.
  • Ask for help from other faculty, staff who can serve as “trusted translators” and share the survey, the reason why it’s important, and encourage parenting students to participate. Reach out to students participating in any targeted programs and ask for their help in reaching out to other parents beyond those programs.
  • Where policy and funding allow, compensate students in some way for their time and expertise. Offer incentives, such as electronic cash cards or gift certificates, and/or enter them into a drawing for a larger cash prize.
  • Explain why the survey is important and how the information will be used to assess and respond to the needs of parenting students and single mothers.
  • Weigh the pros and cons to an anonymous survey: Identifiers enable you to align the survey data with institutional data on academic outcomes over time; identifiers enable colleges to develop a more robust outreach strategy to share information specific to student parents and single mothers and invite input into new programming in the future. At the same time, students may be more circumspect if they are asked to identify themselves and need to be reassured that their individual, personal information is confidential.
  • Compare survey results with the institutional data available on student parents and single mothers, but keep in mind that it’s impossible to determine whether any of these self-reported, voluntary sets of data provide a full count. Consider the survey and focus group results as a means to tell the story and supplement institutional data, rather than try to match up the survey data to the institutional data.
  • Some colleges also used the survey to recruit parenting students and single mothers to participate in follow-up focus groups to dig deeper into the details of their life experiences and experiences as students.

Importance of Transparent Messaging

Participating in a survey, focus group and/or reporting one’s parenting or relationship status in an application are all voluntary and may make some students uneasy for a variety of reasons, such as concerns about privacy, stigma or bias.

Prospective students may decline to disclose their parenting status in an application out of fear of discrimination. They may feel more comfortable disclosing parenting status at the point of enrollment. Further, because applications are already quite lengthy, institutions are reluctant to add more content, and students may skip over optional questions to save time.

It’s important that colleges are transparent in their messaging about why they seek information, how they aim to use it to support parenting students, and why sharing such information can be beneficial to parenting students. Providing information about campus and community supports for parenting students in the request for information would be one step in demonstrating sincerity and commitment to assist.

Next Steps

This project was conceived before the COVID-19 pandemic and launched in the early months of the first shutdown. The pandemic makes even more acute the need for systemic responses and targeted supports for single mothers and all parenting students. Participating colleges joined the project because they recognized the imperative to do more to support these students’ success. What they’ve learned about the challenges, persistence, and resilience of single mothers and all parenting students has deepened their commitment to the work.

“The project to date has really raised the level of awareness among our team about the specifics and impacts and needs of single mothers — that, in and of itself, is important, but what we do with it is the most important.” – Task Force Convener

We will continue to share lessons gleaned as the colleges make meaning from the data they’ve collected and develop action plans to address the needs that single mothers and parenting students have voiced through this work.

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*The project is focused on single mothers, but colleges are encouraged to collect and analyze data on all parenting students, as long as the data can be disaggregated to understand the distinct needs of each parent group.

1 Juszkiewicz, J. (2014, April). Community College Students and Federal Student Financial Aid: A Primer. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED557996.pdf 

2 Reeves, R. V. and Guyot, K. (2018, July 5). FAFSA Completion Rates Matter, But Mind the Data. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/fafsa-completion-rates-matter-but-mind-the-data/