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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Unmarried Parents in College
Sara Goldrick-Rab Kia Sorensen

College Access and Success among Unmarried Parents

During the past fifty years, the hope of attending college has taken root among young Americans across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. Between 1972 and 2004, the share of African American high school seniors who expected to attend at least some college rose from 85 percent to 94 percent.5 The share of high school seniors in the bottom quartile of the socioeconomic distribution expecting to attain more than a high school degree rose from 66 percent to 89 percent.6 The share of unmarried parents experiencing at least some form of post- secondary education has also increased significantly over the past few decades, though the change has been more notable among unmarried mothers than fathers.

Rates of College Participation
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.

According to some analysts, the main reason why women who enter college at later ages have lower rates of college completion than women who enter at younger ages is that they are more likely to enroll part time,21 and part-time enrollment necessarily extends time to degree. Another study that tracked the college enrollment of low-income women (some of whom were mothers) from 1970 to 2000 found that degree attainment continued to tick upward after the usual six-year mark—rising, over that thirty-year period, to a 71 college completion rate.22

In addition to staying in college longer, unmarried parenting students are much more likely to have delayed college entry (85 percent did not enter right out of high school, compared with 32 percent of other students). And they tend to enroll without sufficient academic preparation. Eight percent begin college without a high school degree; 18 percent, with a General Educational Development (GED) credential (compared with 6 percent of all students).23 Only 5 percent have taken at least one Advanced Placement course before college (compared with 20 percent of other students), and nearly half (45 percent) score less than 700 on the ACT/SAT (compared with 18 percent of other students). As a result they are much more likely to require at least some form of developmental education at the start of their postsecondary experience.

Likely because of those barriers, unmarried parenting students are more than three times more likely than average to be enrolled in short-term vocational postsecondary programs, which are much less likely to conclude with a college degree.24 Given their weak academic preparation and lack of financial resources, unmarried parents often choose a community college (49.1 percent of all enrollment of unmarried parenting students is in that sector), where they make up 16.4 percent of the student body.25 They are underrepresented at four-year institutions (only 6.4 percent of undergraduates at public four-year colleges and 8 percent of those at private not-for-profit four-year colleges are single parents).26 Carol MacGregor posits that unmarried mothers enroll disproportionately in community college because they "are more likely to have to make up for an educational deficit." 27 But the decision may also reflect financial constraints, because parenting while attending college, particularly without a partner, involves distinct economic disadvantages.

More than half (59 percent) of unmarried parents attending college earn less than $10,000 a year, with 38 percent earning less than $5,000 annually. They therefore overwhelmingly attend colleges and universities where tuition and fees are less than $2,000 a year. But as college costs rise, the impetus grows to try and "do it all"—that is, to raise children while both working full time and attending college full time. For example, national statistics indicate that in 2007–08 three-fourths of all unmarried parents who were enrolled in college full time were working at least fifteen hours a week; and 30 percent were working forty or more hours a week. By contrast, in 1989–90, less than half (48 percent) of unmarried parents enrolled full time in college worked at all.28 Many students are unaware that working while attending college can compromise other sources of income. For example, the federal calculations of eligibility for student financial aid are affected by an "income protection allowance" (IPA). The IPA sets an income threshold above which up to half of a student's earnings is included in his or her expected family contribution (EFC). By increasing a student's EFC, the IPA can serve to decrease (or even eliminate) eligibility for Pell Grants. In effect, students may be penalized for working to meet their unmet financial need—a penalty that, as we show below, can be substantial. For this reason, the IPA is commonly known as the "work penalty" (though an empirical relationship to college persistence or graduation has not been established). While the IPA has increased over time, particularly for independent students (which includes all students who claim dependents), it has not been eliminated and continues to affect need analysis calculations. 29 Some argue that student earnings should not affect Pell Grant eligibility for families earning less than $25,000.30

Thus, while unmarried parents are more likely than other students to apply for federal aid (40 percent of unmarried fathers and 76 percent of unmarried mothers apply), their expected family contributions are growing because of their greater proclivity to work, in turn reducing the amount of aid for which they qualify. Overall, 60 percent of unmarried parents (43 percent of unmarried fathers and 66 percent of unmarried mothers) have an EFC of $0. But the average EFC for an unmarried parenting student swelled from $800 in 1989–90 to $2,451 in 2007–08. From 1989–90 to 1999–2000, the proportion of unmarried parents receiving financial aid while enrolled full time declined from 94 percent to 79 percent. 31 The problem is that earnings from work rarely fully offset declines in financial aid, and earnings require time to generate. As a result, national data indicate that for 87 percent of unmarried parents attending college in 2007–08, there was a gap between their verified budgets (as reported on the federally mandated aid application) and their expected family contribution and all financial aid grants they received. For 25 percent of those students, the gap was $11,500 or more. For comparison purposes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the annual cost of raising a child under the age of five to be $11,000.32

One reason why unmarried parents face such large gaps between their verified budgets and their EFC and financial aid is that they are less likely to borrow money (at least from federal loan sources, as reported in national data). Given their higher costs of attendance, it is remarkable that cumulative debt levels are about the same for unmarried parents as for all other students.33

Another challenge affecting unmarried students stems from restrictions on the Pell Grant related to students' academic preparation and degree plans. Specifically, to receive a Pell Grant, a student must possess a high school diploma or GED or pass an approved "ability-to-benefit" test (a test of basic education). In addition, the student has to indicate an intention to earn a degree (rather than try out a few classes), enroll in at least one class for credit (developmental courses typically do not carry credits), and make satisfactory academic progress (typically a C average). The Pell can be received for up to thirty hours of noncredit developmental coursework, but at least one credit must be taken in a given semester. Given the academic backgrounds of many unmarried parenting students, these requirements likely affect their Pell receipt.

In summary, although a significant share of unmarried parents enroll in college, they often run into difficulties of various kinds and fail to complete degrees. Often they must delay their initial enrollment or interrupt their studies, both of which decisions decrease their chances to complete their degrees.34 Mothers are more likely to enroll in community college, partly because they struggled academically in high school and partly because they can't afford a four-year college. And while they are attending school, they spend long hours at work, in some cases sacrificing their ability to take full advantage of available financial aid. Thus, although in one sense they are successful—having made it to college—they are also squeezed for time and money in ways that might compromise both the quality of their educational experiences and the outcomes for their children.