A survey, to which 31 of 46 colleges responded, underlined the view that "it was not appropriate to single out lone parents as a specific target group, and lone parent students commented on the dangers of stigmatisation".
On the other hand, the report states, "staff and students did bring out the distinctive needs of lone parent students, and the importance of colleges being responsive to these needs".
The researchers, from Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian universities, noted:
"While there is a danger of stigmatising lone parents if programmes are specifically focused upon this group, failure to track these students makes it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of policies designed to increase their representation."
To date, the Executive has committed pound;24 million to support lone parents in education, but the research found that, of 21 colleges which responded specifically to this issue, only five could track lone parents in their information management systems.
The answer to the "stigma" problem, the study suggests, is to place lone parents on the same footing as other adult returners who are also "uncertain learners". It commends the practice in one college whose "gateway" programme includes support that is helpful to a broad range of such students. This includes shorter courses in which all expenses for travel, childcare, books, equipment and fees are covered.
Flexibility in the timing of classes, such as starting them after school begins and stopping before the end of the school day, could help lone parents juggle the competing demands of childcare and learning, the authors say.
They also call for a fresh look at the complexities of financial support systems which the study found could be confusing to potential and current students. The report acknowledges that students had to be given sufficient information so they could make proper study choices, but without being weighed down by the information. Specialist financial advisers may be one solution.
The study states that lone parents found the financial arrangements particularly "complex and daunting" as they considered moving from non-advanced to advanced courses. This could put many off making the transition and there was a need for "a substantial positive improvement".