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Student parents make up 22 percent of all undergraduates, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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When Mikah Jorgensen gave birth to her daughter in January 2021, she struggled to stick with the degree program she’d started two years earlier. Without sufficient childcare, she had to reduce her course load.

Today, she has a 1-year-old daughter and, thanks to a new pilot program, is working to finish her psychology degree at Triton College, a community college outside Chicago. She aspires to become a therapist.

Jorgensen is part of the Academic Coaching pilot from New Moms, a nonprofit organization that provides support services for young moms and their children who are experiencing poverty or homelessness in the Chicago area. The program, which started last month, gives 25 mothers enrolled at City Colleges of Chicago—a system of seven community colleges and six satellite sites—a monthly $500 stipend, which they can spend on whatever they need, whether it’s food, clothes or other essentials. The program is meant for single moms 24 and younger pursuing a long-term academic certificate or associate degree.

The pilot also provides the mothers with individual and group coaching, transportation, and childcare support. Jorgensen said the extra $500 has helped her buy clothes for her daughter, as well as pay to fix her phone when it unexpectedly stopped working.

“The program is really helping me to stay goal-oriented, and it’s just over all helping my outlook on the future,” Jorgensen said. “I’m happy for the program. But the amount of hope that the program gives me that I will be able to graduate is bigger than it was before.”

Mothers participating in the program work with coaches from New Moms to select the institution within the City Colleges of Chicago system that best matches their goals and schedules. The mothers can remain enrolled in the program for up to three years or until they complete their degree, with additional follow-up support offered postgraduation.

The goal of the program is to increase degree attainment for young moms in the Chicago area, said Gabrielle Caverl-McNeal, director of employment and academic coaching at New Moms.

“We’re really thinking about how to intentionally invest in postsecondary persistence, because we know that those investments have a long-lasting, positive influence on families,” Caverl-McNeal said. “So our strategies are rooted in behavioral science, and we know that reducing sources of stress, cultivating relationships and really helping them strengthen core skills, which we refer to as executive skills, can really have positive impacts.”

New Moms is just one of a number of programs created by nonprofits and higher education institutions to help student parents finish college. Advocates say with support, this long-ignored cohort can make huge gains in degree attainment that benefit them and their families.

Student parents are not an insignificant group; nationwide, they make up 22 percent of undergraduates, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found. That number is even higher for Black women, who are more likely to be single mothers than women of other races or ethnicities.

In Illinois, where New Moms launched Academic Coaching, only 8 percent of students who are single mothers complete an associate degree within six years, compared to 60 percent of students without children, according to data from the IWPR.

Getting a degree is hard enough without children, Caverl-McNeal said. The Academic Coaching program also hosts professional workshops on parenting and career development, in which the young mothers work on their résumés and cover letters and learn how to speak about their skills.

“We know that moms and babies just thrive when their environments are less stressful,” Caverl-McNeal said. “And we know that what makes it less stressful is more money. And also the support that they can get if they feel like they have a community to lean on, that’s really going to help pave the way and keep them motivated towards that goal of getting the degree.”

Chapin Hall, a policy research center at the University of Chicago, will monitor and evaluate the program to see if giving single moms extra money helps them finish college. They plan to publish a report with the findings.

“We really are studying if this cash support helps moms pursue their goals and hopefully expedite them towards their degree,” Caverl-McNeal said.

The Pandemic Exacerbated the Challenges

In a 2021 survey of 11,195 U.S. college students, Claire Wladis, a professor of mathematics at Borough of Manhattan Community College, found that student parents had significantly less time for college than their childless peers—around four hours less per week. She said student parents—especially mothers of preschool-age children—often find themselves struggling with “time poverty” to complete their degree.

“I think student parents are in a bit of a double bind, in that they have less time for college, but it can be particularly important to them, because of their kids, to get a degree for financial reasons and to set a good example for their children,” Wladis said. “So they’ll often spend even more of their already limited time resources on their education, but it’s often not enough to make up for the gap.”

Among parents of children between 1 and 5, mothers had around eight fewer hours per week to spend on their studies than fathers, Wladis said. She noted that the vast majority of student parents said they did not have enough time or enough childcare to cover the time they wanted to do schoolwork.

“Another factor that also came up is a little bit more complex, which is that many students with children have to work to pay for family living expenses—their children need a roof over their heads, they need health care, they need clothing,” Wladis said. “None of that is in the financial aid formulas, typically, so student parents are having to work to pay for those family expenses while going to school, while they have the added constraints of perhaps limited access to childcare.”

Portia Polk, director of learning and advocacy at Generation Hope, a nonprofit devoted to student parent success in higher education, said that even before the pandemic, student parents had fewer resources and less support than childless students. Disparities were even more pronounced among student parents of color or those from low-income backgrounds.

“With that foundation, COVID-19 has only increased the gap in resources and support for student parents while emphasizing their perennial challenges,” Polk said. “For example, even though many campuses, K-12 schools and childcare centers are back in person, having to quarantine or go virtual for days or weeks can cause major issues for student parents who need to go to class and may not have childcare in place.”

Generation Hope offers a scholar program that provides teen parents with mentoring, training, tuition assistance and a network to help them finish college. Additionally, the organization started a FamilyU technical assistance program last summer, which partners with institutions across the country to increase the number of student parents who attain degrees.

Polk said many student parents, especially those who work in customer service industries, lost their jobs or had their hours significantly reduced during the pandemic, which further strained their already difficult financial situations. She added that the pandemic also highlighted the digital divide among student parents, since many didn’t have laptops or access to Wi-Fi to do coursework remotely.

During the pandemic, Generation Hope distributed emergency grants worth over $60,000 to student parent families and connected them with community resources, Polk said. The organization also created a Higher Ed Toolkit for institutions to support student parents, outlining steps colleges and universities could take to support their return to in-person learning.

“Given that many of the aforementioned challenges existed before the pandemic, we have emphasized the need for long-term, sustainable support for student parents within our FamilyU cohort,” Polk said. “We’ve spent a great deal of time, for example, discussing and developing plans for student parent data collection on their campuses, understanding that, regardless of the pandemic, identifying student parents is the first step in acknowledging their presence and meeting their needs.”

Institutions Grow Student Parent Programs

Some institutions, including Endicott College in Massachusetts, Wilson College in Pennsylvania, Portland State University in Oregon and the College of Saint Mary in Nebraska, provide their own programs for student parents.

Misericordia University in Pennsylvania offers a support center for single moms called the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children program (WWC), which started in 2000 and supplies free housing, free books, scholarships, meal plans and other amenities. The program is open to single moms of three kids or fewer for four years.

The university is planning to add another house on campus for up to four single-mom families, which will be ready this spring. Katherine Pohlidal, director of the WWC, said adding the building will make Misericordia the largest single-mother program in higher education in Pennsylvania, serving up to 20 single-mom families on campus.

“We’re really happy that we have a university that’s so responsive to the needs of single moms, especially moms in poverty,” said Pohlidal. “Knowing how the pandemic has doubled down on this population and really impacted them, to be able to offer more opportunities for more moms is great news.”

Between 2013 and 2021, 37 single moms graduated from the WWC program; 80 percent have achieved a master’s degree or more. Pohlidal hopes expanding single-mom housing will serve as a model for other higher education institutions to create more services for student parents.

“It’s really important that higher education start to weigh in a lot more heavily on student parents and what they might need and how we can adjust and accommodate them more readily so that they can become successful with their access to college and their careers,” Pohlidal said.

Stacy McCarter, a senior education student with three children, is part of Misericordia’s WWC program. When McCarter enrolled in 2018, she was shocked that the institution provided so much support.

“I didn’t even know programs like this existed. I didn’t even think to look for programs like this,” McCarter said. “I kind of just was doing whatever I had to do to get my degree, which was working in the daytime and going to school at night and making sacrifices with my small children.”

When the pandemic started, McCarter had to stay home with her kids, so she couldn’t work to pay for necessities or save money for her children’s future. However, when her children’s school reopened, she was able to quickly get back to normal, she said—thanks to WWC, which provided her family with housing, food and other essentials.

“I looked at other mothers and other families and the stress they were under, with just simple things like being able to get the supplies they need,” McCarter said. “And we didn’t have to worry, which allowed me to really focus on my academics and focus on the needs of my children and my own self-care as well.”

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