Four years ago, Michael Schieding was months away from graduating high school but already had something more important than any diploma: a son. He paid his bills working at the local Jiffy Lube in Peabody, Mass., but wanted to start a career. He thought about attending a trade school, but considered a full-time university out of the question -- too much hassle. Changing the oil, replacing oil filters, Schieding thought he was stuck.
Then his guidance counselor, who heard he had joined a single-parent student support group, called him about a program at Endicott College, in nearby Beverly, Mass. He and his child could live on campus in affordable housing, and, as a result of Endicott's fund-raising, some of the costs of caring for his son would be reduced. Schieding is set to receive his diploma -- a B.A. in psychology with a criminal justice concentration -- this spring. And he will have $25,000 in overall debt, despite Endicott's roughly $36,000 a year  price tag and the expenses of caring for a child.
Endicott has since repackaged the program -- called “Keys to Degrees” -- so other colleges can offer single parents like Schieding a similar opportunity. Single-parent programs are not new, and Inside Higher Ed has written about them in the past , but when Eastern Michigan University kicks off its own Keys to Degrees program this summer, Endicott’s will become the first to be reproduced. Following that, the program will expand again when it is brought to two more Michigan universities in 2011.
Endicott chose Eastern Michigan as its expansion site after analyzing institutions across the U.S. to determine where a program could have the greatest impact. The high rate of single parenthood in areas close to Eastern Michigan made it an obvious choice, and Endicott approached the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the cereal company's 80-year-old philanthropy arm, for help with funding. It gave Endicott a $400,000 grant, which included a provision for the program to expand to two other universities in Michigan, Kellogg's home state.
"By helping the parent, we thereby help the child," says Greg Patterson, Kellogg’s communications manager. "It’s a dual generation strategy.”
It is easy to see why Endicott chose the region. Detroit, 30 minutes to the east of Eastern Michigan, has the second-highest rate of children living in single-parent households among U.S. cities -- 70 percent . Congressional districts surrounding Eastern Michigan have some of the country's highest single-parent populations.
Eastern Michigan will enroll 10 single parents per year for a highly tailored university experience. Although relatively small, the program has a substantial target demographic. In 2008, 1.9 million single parents attended a higher education institution -- 12 percent of all students, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
The program is year-round, with a maximum of 40 total students enrolled at any one time, and graduation takes three years. Students are required to attend full-time. These variables are deliberately chosen. Having students commute every day, explains Donna Buonopane, an Endicott administrator who is overseeing replication of the program at Eastern Michigan, “is disruptive."
A program for single parents cannot be thrown together. Many parts have to be carefully set up to ensure that the students' and their children's lives are synced and cared for. “You really want that population to be successful,” says Elise Buggs, Eastern Michigan’s Keys to Degrees director.
Maximizing Student Success
Buggs says that during the drafting phase of the program, the question on her mind was, "How do I make life easier for the single parents?" After all, these will not be students whose parents drop them off and drive the minivan home. These are the parents, and the proverbial minivan will be parked.
“I know it’s hard as a student, period. But to add [parenthood] to the mix....” says Buggs. “I will definitely share my cell phone with them, because sometimes things get hard when the crunch is coming [with] midterms and finals and really trying to regroup and not lose yourself. Sometimes, they need someone to listen to them. And it’s not always 8 to 5.”
Eastern Michigan already has close to 1,250 undergraduate- and graduate-level single parents, so it has ample support services for them, its officials say. Implementing the program will entail bringing already-hired staff together to work closely with the Keys for Degrees students.
The campus’s children’s institute,  located at the heart of campus, will provide 9-to-5 day care and free classes in parenting skills (“child literacy” and “health and snacking” are two). Other workshops  offered at the Holman Success Center, an on-campus learning center, will give free training in practical skills, such as note-taking, time-management, and memory techniques.
Housing will be provided in individual two-story townhouses outfitted with free Internet. Playground areas are within no more than a few minutes' walk. The specifics for a meal plan are still in development, but Buggs says children will probably eat dinner in campus dining centers. The day-care center serves food during work hours.
“Keys to Degrees programs are going above and beyond the structures in place of other institutions,” says Ryan Davis , a Ph.D. student in the Higher Education Program  at the University of Maryland at College Park, who has written extensively about barriers to college faced by members of historically disadvantaged groups.
Statistics bear out Davis's assertion. “Sixty-one percent of women drop out of community college if they become pregnant and have their child before finishing their education,” says Sherrill W. Mosee, author of a book  about college-attending single parents. “And that’s because there are no support services. They have no idea where to go and what to do." Factor in all the paperwork and costs, and "it’s overwhelming," she says. At Endicott, 12 of 17 students from the program's original class are expected to have graduated by this spring, with three-quarters of those graduates continuing their education after.
The Higher Education Alliance for Residential Single Parent Programs, a partnership organization run by Barbara Siergiewicz, coordinator of Endicott’s “Keys to Degrees” program, says the organization currently considers seven universities ' single-parent programs to be "residential" and "comprehensive." She looks forward to adding Eastern Michigan to the list this summer.
“What we’re trying to do is to make it where they do not have to have much debt, if any,” says Lynette Findley, Eastern Michigan's assistant vice president of retention and student success and the overseer of Eastern Michigan's Keys to Degrees program.
Statistics show they will need the help. Fifty-nine percent of single parents receive Pell Grants -- the key federal financial aid program for needy students -- compared with 22 percent of non-parents.
Between the Kellogg grant, Pell Grants, food stamp assistance and local business fund-raising, tuition and fees will be negligible, according to Findley. She expects at least half of housing costs to be funded. "The goal is to not have these costs," she says. Endicott throws a giant golf tournament fund-raiser each year to help pay for all of the expenses associated with the program; Eastern Michigan is considering one, too.
Eastern Michigan can also apply for a little-known federal program created for student parents, “Child Care Access Means Parents in School.”  First funded in 2001 and authorized through the Higher Education Act, its budget is a bare-bones $16 million a year -- or about $10 per person, given the roughly 1.5 million single parents in higher education. Except few colleges and universities take advantage of it. In 2009, only 160 institutions received funds, meaning an average of roughly $100,000 per college, according to Kevin Miller, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Health care -- for parents and children -- is another amenity Eastern Michigan is striving to make affordable. The university plans to make use of a composite of programs and services to reduce barriers to care. The health center has a variety of options it could connect a student to: a county health insurance program, Michigan's MIChild health  insurance plan, a drug assistance organization , or the support of local clinics that provide child health care (the campus health center does not see children). A student comprehensive health plan is available for $315 per semester; at an additional $1,500 per year, coverage for a dependent child can be added to the plan. Counseling and psychological services are available to students at no cost as well -- although the university's staff lacks a child or family psychology specialist.
Eastern Michigan will accept applications for the program until early April. After that, the university and Endicott will work together on the in-state expansion.
If Michael Schieding’s experience is any indication, more attention to single parents is good news for the Michigan economy.
“I was able to get a summer position right after my freshman year," he says. "They kept me on part-time during the school year. Then I worked for the Salem Police Department looking at how crimes are investigated. I was able to take a lot from what I learned in class and apply it. Two computer systems, law enforcement software -- after being taught how to use them, I felt a couple steps ahead.”