The COVID-19 pandemic has sent enrollment tumbling at colleges across the country, but few learners have felt the impact more than student parents. According to research by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, students who were caregivers were 13 percentage points more likely to suspend their education during the pandemic than those who were not. For single mothers, in particular, the challenge has been immense, with many forced to balance college, 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 class and raising my two young boys—one of whom lives with Down syndrome—is challenging on the best days. When COVID-19 sent us all home from college and work for the foreseeable future, the difficulties sometimes felt insurmountable. That was the case for millions of single mothers across the country. Even before the pandemic, just 28 percent of students who are single mothers earned a degree or credential within six years. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the challenges we face.
With 20 percent of all female students being single moms, the past year must 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 obtain a degree.
Single moms have enrolled in higher education at record numbers in recent years—over the past two decades, the number of them in college has more than doubled. Still, just 31 percent of single mothers have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, a significantly lower number than married mothers and women overall.
Indeed, students raising children are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years. With the many challenges they face, it’s not difficult to understand why. Even prior to the pandemic, nearly 70 percent of student parents were living in or near poverty. And on top of financial poverty, they also experience what researchers call “time poverty,” a phenomenon in which a person has very few hours in a day for rest or leisure.
Most student parents work at least 20 hours each week, with one-third working full-time. The time demands for single mothers are especially acute, with 43 percent working 30 or more hours per week. Single mothers enrolled in college full-time spend nearly nine hours a day on childcare and housework. Students with preschool-aged children can spare just 10 hours per day for studying, eating, sleeping or any kind of leisure.
Yet earning a degree can be a life-changing proposition for single mothers. Research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found that poverty rates are an average of 33 percent lower for every additional level of education a single mom attains. Whereas 41 percent of single moms with a high school diploma live in poverty, just 13 percent of those who hold a bachelor’s degree live in poverty.
Institutions Must Step Up
Unfortunately, for years, higher education has not adequately supported its student parents, let alone women raising children on their own. What steps should colleges and universities be taking to help these women, who must struggle so hard to obtain their degrees?
As a single mom who was enrolled in the College of Health Care Professions while also working there as an admissions adviser, I had a distinct view into both the demands of going to college as a working parent and what institutions can do better. It’s clear that single moms need flexibility and support. They need faculty and student services that respond quickly to their questions and needs, and they need structured and efficient programs that limit the time needed to complete them while offering flexibility in how they are completed. Single moms also need career services that help them not only find that new better-paying job but also give them the professional 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 on and engage with coursework wherever and whenever it is most convenient. Likewise, around-the-clock digital counseling and other student services can help moms get the support they need when they need it. It’s crucial these learners are not waiting for a response 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 is free, she really means it.
Institutions must be more understanding of and responsive to such needs. They should ensure single moms always know what services are available to them—from financial assistance to mental health counseling—and how to easily find those various services. Access to affordable childcare is crucial. In addition, financial support beyond tuition assistance, like the kinds of emergency grants that have been a popular tool during the pandemic, can make all the difference.
Promising examples of this are beginning to take form, including through the Education Design Lab’s Single Moms Success Cohort, which is working to develop innovative and scalable solutions to significantly improve completion rates for single mothers. At Monroe Community College, for example, those solutions include a close partnership with the Child Care Council to help ensure single mothers have access to high-quality childcare and information about the subsidies they may qualify for. Monroe also provides access to a $500 emergency grant for its single moms, nearly 89 percent of whom are Pell eligible, to be responsive to the most immediate needs that otherwise threaten to derail a learner’s success.
Constant communication about available services is key, as well. Frequent email and text reminders can help keep learners on track. You can’t lead a horse to water, but you can make the path to the water as clear of obstacles as possible.
The fact is that, 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 moms working to secure a better life for themselves and their children.