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.
al — August 21, 2015
I may sound unsympathetic, but to me you - the generic single mom you - seem to be letting one (very important) aspect of your life define who you are. Some comments (re yours):
1. Many students face challenges, of very diverse kinds, and it is really very difficult to refer to each possibility in a syllabus. For example, some with no children may be working two jobs to try to make ends meet while studying, others may have a sibling or (young) parent die during a semester, and so on. A good academic, a good university, will accommodate these kinds of challenges. At the same time, perhaps we can become a bit less sympathetic after a student's ninth grandmother unexpectedly dies when a term paper is due.
2. In classes with well-mannered students stopping a lecture to look at the student whose phone is ringing, while all the other students do too, is usually sufficient. If urgent, the student can leave the room to take the call. Emergencies can arise in anyone's life. Regarding the possibility of your child being stampeded by a herd of elephants, these days this is only a realistic possibility in the Washington, D.C. area. [ : - ) ]
3. You have to take most responsibility for networking yourself. As well, do you think you can be the best sociologist you can be if you principally interact with others like yourself, in similar situations?
4. None of us is going to solve the problem of sometimes extortionate profit margins of some publishers, and some publications are pretty important for one's career, in whichever direction it ends up heading. As well, I would not discount the potential value of a child learning he or she cannot have everything, and the potential benefits for future motivation in beginning to learn that what one wants is most likely to be obtained by hard work.
5. You have to reach out and you have to learn to work without recognition, in hope that your work might be recognized later. It may be; it may not be. If you need recognition before you begin, I think you will have problems getting anywhere.
I am not unsympathetic. My father got his Bachelors with two children and a working wife. My mother-in-law got her Ph.D. with three children and a disabled husband [and then had a great career in the Federal Government before moving into academia]. As well, I was a single parent to a child from about 10 years old onwards. And then there is Rosabeth Moss Kanter. She got her Ph.D. with at least one child in tow. I believe this was the stimulus for her MA on the 'Organizational Child' [child care related], which served as a springboard for her later work [e.g., her classic Men and Women of the Corporation].
Life is tough, virtually impossibly tough for some. By all means, advocate for the kinds of reforms common in civilized societies such as Sweden, but in the meantime single parents have to do the best they can with what they have.
Best wishes for your future … you are off to a good start!
Perry T. — August 21, 2015
Thanks for your thoughtful comments and kind words! While I do not speak for all sociologists, my approach to research has been to document change and try to communicate ways that institutional practice can respond to that change in ways that mitigate conflict for the most people. The details can be quibbled (phones, etc..), but I am reflecting the actual things that the women in my study said would make it more likely they would be able to stay in school, and I think they have the right to be heard. We all know people who have overcome the odds, but we can’t let statistical outliers define how we respond to the mean – and the average single mother student is significantly more likely to drop out, which is bad for society in countless ways. The “traditional” college student is changing, and so must the institution.
Recommended reads #58 | Small Pond Science — August 21, 2015
[…] a professor, here are five really simple things you can to do help single parents in your classes. Keep in mind you might have a single parent among your students but not be aware of […]
FS — August 21, 2015
@al -- I think I see what you're getting at, but quibbling with the specifics of the authors piece doesn't really address the issue here. The issue is that a lot of us teaching in higher education (Professors, lectures, TAs) make the assumption right at the start that a majority of our students are over-privileged 18-to-22-year-olds, and that college is the largest and most important responsibility in their lives. What this author points out is that there are SIGNIFICANT and GROWING demographics of students for whom this is NOT the case, and as educators we need to be more sensitive to the realities of these students lives.
As to the specifics of your comments, I find some of them a little unfair as well. Take point one: for the most part, every university I've taught or studied at already has policies in place for students experiencing the sort of hardships you describe, e.g. working two jobs or watching a parent die, because these are acknowledged and understood potential disruptions to student life. These students, and their problems, are not invisible to the university. But no university I've ever worked or studied at has had a policy for single parents missing work for a child emergency. In fact, the institution where I did my PhD has no maternity leave for grad student TAs: you're responsible for your classes the day you give birth and every day before and after, no exceptions. This is the sort of unrealistic institutional blindness that needs to be corrected to give student and working mothers a fair shot, and comments like yours, that sweep that difference and blindness under the rug by saying "everyone has problems," hurt more than they help.
al — August 22, 2015
Excellent points! By all means use your sociological imagination and expertise to give voice to those without one. That said, universities have many kinds of customers [yes, this is how administrations tend to define students] and institutions can be very slow to change. In the meantime, there have been many, many 'statistical outliers' over past decades who have achieved their goals so perhaps your next study might be to look at characteristics, of both individuals and institutions, that have helped some in very difficult situations to complete where others have not found this possible. best, al
al — August 22, 2015
-> FS. [My earlier (second) comments were to the author.] You make good points as well. Irrespective of whether a university had/has a policy for a particular challenged group or not, I have always tried to be accommodating to individuals. Sometimes this was abused but that's life. If a university wanted to fire me if I bent (if not broke) the rules for a student having problems, including older students and single mothers, … well that's life too. My main point was not to blame the victims, so to speak, but rather to suggest that while pushing for greater sensitivity and change [such as in the appalling 19th century conditions for many TAs and Adjuncts, 'Amazonian' conditions [cf. recent NYTimes article on Amazon and discussion on Inside Higher Education], students in challenging situations have to do all they can to complete. To be sure, this is not easy for some, perhaps many, and for sure universities could and should be doing more.
al — August 22, 2015
Perry - It is amazing what one can stumble on if one occasionally scans the world media:
Might be a useful contact for the future. best, al