Single Parents Buckling Under Student Debt

Robyn Tellefsen | June 20, 2012

single parents and college tuition debt financingI often marvel at the amount of work a single mom friend of mine has to put in in order to pursue higher education. Without a spouse to help shoulder the load, she’s left to manage her career, her master’s degree program, and her daughter – all by herself. She does it, but it’s exhausting, not to mention expensive.

If you go by the numbers, getting your degree before you have kids is the least expensive option, and it’s still pretty doable when you’re married with kids. Entering college as a single parent, however, adds a whole new dimension of debt.

New analysis of government data by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that single parents – who comprise nearly 12 percent of college students – have less money to contribute to the cost of college, have much greater unmet need after receiving financial aid, and amass higher levels of student debt than other students.

Those findings aren’t surprising, but the comparisons are a bit shocking – 62 percent of single parents have an expected family contribution (EFC) of $0, with no financial resources to devote to their educational expenses. Compare that to just 18 percent of married parents who have an EFC of $0. One year after graduation, single parents have 20 to 30 percent more debt than other students, and 10 years after graduation, they still owe more than three times as much debt as their classmates.

It’s enough to make you want to throw in the towel. And, unfortunately, that’s what happens in many cases. Research shows that, with limited access to affordable child care, difficulty balancing the demands of school with the demands of work and family, and financial limitations, student parents are more likely than traditional students to drop out of school – which means that they are more likely to be burdened by student debt without the benefit of a degree.

Of course, where you go to school makes a difference. Student parents at private colleges, particularly for-profits, accrue much more debt than do student parents at public colleges. In fact, the average annual loans taken out by student parents at for-profit colleges are more than 10 times greater than those taken by student parents at community colleges. Level of debt burden is a critical factor to consider when you’re choosing which school to attend.

Despite the odds, I know my friend is doing what she needs to do for herself and for her daughter. Studies show that if she is successful in completing her college education, her daughter is that much more likely to pursue a college degree, too. She may be burdened by debt now, but investing in her education now is a way for her to pay it forward for her daughter’s future as well as her own.

I can only hope that the availability of financial aid (grants, scholarships, and low-interest loans) will keep pace for those who really need it – single parents who are holding on to the promise of higher education to make a better life for themselves and for their children.

–Robyn Tellefsen


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