As a new semester begins and college professors polish their syllabi, I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to also consider the climate of their courses – that is, do the syllabus requirements and course activities take into account that some of your young protégés will likely have more pressing life commitments than football games and Greek Rush? The answer is likely complicated, but well worth considering.
In a 2012 report to Congress, The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance presented evidence that single mothers are the fastest growing student demographic, and a more recent report from the U.S. Department of Education projects that women’s enrollment in college will increase 15 percent by 2024. Based on my own analysis of data drawn from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, it appears likely that much of this growth will be driven by single mothers enrolling for the first time. The same data indicate that about 20 percent of undergraduate women students are single mothers, so if you are teaching college courses this fall, the chances are high you will have single mother students in your classroom.
Since many of you are parents, too, much of this won’t surprise you. But I ask you to consider what it would be like if you were sitting in those seats while also caring for your families, and it will be likely that much of the following will not surprise you.
Sociologist Amanda Freeman penned a piece in the Atlantic yesterday and reviewed the many ways that single moms face a “higher education dilemma.” She discusses the barriers that single mother students face in simply getting enrolled in school, and impossibilities of finding child care, housing, time, and even support from their professors.
Likewise, I interviewed 30 single mother students and asked them to share their motivations for pursuing a post-secondary education. Their reasons were as diverse as the women themselves, but a common theme is they believe a college degree will bring added value to the lives of their children by improving their financial security and uplifting their status in society. In other words, they view going to college within the framework of their role as mothers. They convey an uneasy relation to the single mother label, because this label has historically been posited against the ideologies of individualism and personal responsibility – which leaves them feeling economically vulnerable and socially marginalized. They view a college degree as a way to earn social legitimacy and reverse the patterns of discrimination their families contend with.
I pursued this line of research because I was a single mother while I was in school, and I designed my project to give voice other single mother students. I asked my informants to talk about their experiences on campus, and many shared stories of inflexible deadlines, conflicted commitments, and what Duquaine-Watson (2007) called a “chilly climate” in the classroom. Although single mother students have a significantly higher risk of dropping out, none of them believe their professors have nefarious intentions or intend to push them out. However, they suggest that it would be more feasible for them to persist in school successfully if their professors changed a few things up – and these are small things that do not compromise the integrity of the course or violate the boundaries of fairness.
Drawing on the talk of the women in my study, I present the following list of five things a professor can do to help me stay in school (from the perspective of a single mother student):
- Acknowledge I exist in your syllabus. I am making enormous efforts and sacrifices to be in your course – if I am running late or miss a homework deadline because my child was ill or needed to have a green bean extracted from his ear, I’ll find a way to make it up to you. Please put it in writing that you will make provisions for this possibility by stating explicitly that students with family responsibilities should contact you by email regarding missed or late work.
- Rethink your phone rules. When you make the rule that cell phones must be turned off in class, consider that I need to be available if my child is running a fever or gets trampled by a herd of elephants while I am listening to your lecture, and that will take precedence over your wisdom. I’ll put it on vibrate, but its got to stay on.
- Help me to network with others like me. When assigning group projects, devise a way for students with children to work together. If I have to meet with these strangers for periods of time outside of the classroom, I will be much more engaged and able to learn if my colleagues are willing to put Powerpoints together at Chuck E. Cheese’s instead of the library.
- Consider that I’m financially strapped. I understand we need to have books in order to learn, but please don’t force me to make a choice between giving my daughter a new My Little Pony for her birthday or an expensive supplemental style guide. She is going to win. Every time. I’ll look the style guide up online or borrow it from another student.
- Reach out to me and find out who I am. I know you have hundreds of students and it’s impossible to connect personally with each and every one of us. Even so, it’s likely that I’ll never tell you I’m a single mom, because I’m afraid you will think I am less committed to my studies. I’m not – most of us are more committed than other students. The women who have gone before me are more likely to have persisted if they had personal connections with their professors, and your recognition of me as a student facing overwhelming obstacles to be in your classroom means I will likely stay around longer –and eventually graduate.
Happy Fall Semester!
Perry Threlfall completed her PhD in Sociology at George Mason University in May 2015. Her research focuses on the institutional and structural forces that influence inequality and mobility in single mother families. You can read her occasional blog at the Single Mother Sociologist found at smsresearch.net.
Duquaine-Watson, Jillian M. 2007. “Pretty Darned Cold”: Single Mother Students and the Community College Climate in Post-Welfare Reform America.” Equity and Excellence in Education, 40: 229–240.