- Colleges can help single mothers succeed by providing them with basic needs supports, building inclusive environments on campus and giving them flexible educational experiences, according to a new report from the Education Design Lab.
- The Education Design Lab, a nonprofit organization focused on education and the workforce, is helping four community colleges launch pilot programs to better support single mothers through college, with the aim of reaching at least 6,000 of these learners by 2024.
- The findings released Monday are based on interviews with more than 100 single mothers in college and nearly 70 college employees. The report's authors encourage other institutions to similarly gather insights from single mothers to spark changes in their policies and practices.
The initiative's early findings have important implications for other colleges, especially those with large populations of single mothers. Single mothers are prevalent on campus, making up 16% of all undergraduate women in the 2015-16 academic year, according to a 2019 paper from the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Single mothers tend to have much to gain from a college education. Nearly nine in 10 of them who are also college students have incomes at or near the federal poverty line, the IWPR paper noted. Single mothers can be expected to earn $479,318 over their lifetimes with just a high school diploma. But their lifetime earnings jump by $256,059, to $735,377, if they earn an associate degree and by $625,134, to $1,104,452, if they earn a bachelor's degree.
Yet this group faces considerable challenges in college. Although having children often spurs them to enroll in school, children can also be what makes it difficult for mothers to graduate because higher ed was not designed with single mothers in mind, the Education Design Lab report contends.
Just 8% of single mothers complete an associate or bachelor's degree within six years of enrolling, compared to roughly half of women who aren't mothers, according to IWPR.
The four schools spearheading the Education Design Lab pilots are Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque; Delgado Community College in New Orleans; Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis; and Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. They're hoping to increase single mothers' attainment of college degrees and high-quality credentials by 30%.
The four colleges' initial interviews with single mothers offer insight into what these students need to be successful.
The report recommends that colleges have support models that help connect single mothers to services such as child care and help them know which career opportunities will be available on their academic paths. Central New Mexico Community College, for instance, is delivering career coaching, case management and academic advising through the same dedicated advisor.
It's also key that colleges help single mothers feel a sense of belonging on campus. To do so, Monroe Community College is adding content about this group's experiences into student and employee training.
All four colleges are taking steps to add flexibility to classes and other support services. This is vital for single mothers, the report says, as they're often balancing school with work and family.
Ivy Tech has created courses that give students a choice each week about how they would like to attend, whether in person or virtually. If online, learners can also choose between synchronous and asynchronous modalities. Similarly, Monroe is offering online tutoring 24 hours a day.
The report also points out that few colleges have systems to track students who are parents, much less single mothers. In contrast, Monroe Community College regularly updates records on students' parental and marital status.
"Understanding their experiences and bringing them directly into decision-making processes will lay the groundwork for change that supports them and so many other learners in creating the futures they want for themselves and their families," the report's authors wrote.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated details about Monroe Community College’s recordkeeping. The college has collected data on marital and parental status each semester since 2003.