The COVID-19 pandemic has sent college enrollment plummeting across the country, but few learners have felt the impact more than student-parents. According to a study by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, students who were caregivers were 13 percentage points more likely to suspend their studies during the pandemic than those who were not. For single mothers in particular, the challenge has been immense, with many forced to juggle study, work and childcare in relative isolation with little support and few resources.
As a single mom, I know this juggling act all too well. Working, going to school and raising my two young boys, one of whom lives with Down syndrome, is a challenge on the best days. When COVID-19 sent us all away from college and work for the foreseeable future, the odds sometimes seemed insurmountable. This was the case for millions of single mothers across the country. Even before the pandemic, just 28 percent of students who are single mothers have obtained a diploma or title in six years. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the challenges we face.
With 20 percent of all female students being single mothers, the past year should serve as a wake-up call for colleges and universities. Higher education institutions must do more to support the 2.1 million single mothers trying to graduate.
Single mothers have enrolled in higher education in record numbers in recent years – over the past two decades their numbers at university has more than doubled. Yet only 31% of single mothers have obtained a bachelor’s degree or more, a significantly lower number than married mothers and women in general.
Indeed, students raising children are 10 times less likely get a bachelor’s degree in five years. With the many challenges they face, it’s not hard to see why. Even before the pandemic, nearly 70% of student parents lived in or near poverty. And in addition to financial poverty, they also experience what researchers call “time poverty,” a phenomenon in which a person has very few hours a day for rest or entertainment.
Most student parents work at least 20 hours a week, a third of them full-time. Time demands for single mothers are particularly important, with 43 percent working 30 hours or more per week. University-enrolled single mothers spend full-time almost nine hours a day on childcare and household chores. Students with preschoolers can only spare 10 hours a day for studying, eating, sleeping or any other type of leisure.
Yet earning a degree can change the lives of single mothers. Research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found that poverty rates are on average 33% lower for each additional level of education attained by a single mother. While 41% of single mothers with a high school diploma live in poverty, only 13% of those with a bachelor’s degree live in poverty.
Institutions need to step up
Unfortunately, for years, higher education has not sufficiently supported its student-parents, let alone the women raising their children alone. What steps should colleges and universities take to help these women who are struggling so hard to graduate?
As a single mother enrolled in the College of Health Professions while working there as an admissions counselor, I had a distinct view of both the demands of going to college as a working parent and what institutions can do better. It’s clear that single mothers need flexibility and support. They need faculty and student services that respond quickly to their questions and needs, and they need structured, efficient programs that limit the time it takes to complete them while providing flexibility in how they are completed. Single mothers also need career counseling services that not only help them find that new, better paid job, but also help them learn the job skills needed to work in their new environment.
Online learning and hybrid programs can be a boon for working parents, especially if classes are asynchronous and allow students to log in and participate in classes where and when it’s most convenient for them. Likewise, 24-hour digital counseling and other student services can help mothers get the support they need when they need it. It is crucial that these learners do not wait for an answer to their important questions. They need answers, and they need them fast. When a single mom says a certain time is the only time she’s free, she really means it.
Institutions need to better understand and respond to these needs. They must ensure that single mothers always know what services are available to them – from financial help to mental health counseling – and how to easily find these different services. Access to affordable child care is crucial. Additionally, financial support beyond tuition assistance, such as types of emergency grants which have been a popular tool during the pandemic, can make all the difference.
Promising examples are starting to take shape, notably thanks to the Education Design Lab’s Single Mom Success Cohort, which works to develop innovative and scalable solutions to dramatically improve completion rates for single mothers. At Monroe Community College, for example, these solutions include a close partnership with the Child Care Council to help ensure that single mothers have access to quality child care and information about any subsidies they may be eligible for. Monroe is also providing access to a $500 emergency grant to her single mothers, nearly 89% of whom are eligible for Pell, to meet the most immediate needs that otherwise threaten to derail a learner’s success.
Constant communication about available services is also essential. Frequent email and text reminders can help learners stay on track. You cannot drive a horse through water, but you can make the path to the water as clear as possible.
The fact is, for single mothers, higher education is truly transformative. Institutions must step up and make the promise of college a reality for the millions of single mothers working to secure a better life for themselves and their children.