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4 Ways Community Colleges Can Address the Needs of their Single Mother Students

March 08, 2022

By Rosario Torres, Program Officer, Career Readiness

Over the last half decade, research and direct service programs funded by ECMC Foundation have given us critical insight into the size, demographics, and needs of the one in 10 U.S. undergraduate students who are single mothers. Key data points uncovered by this work stand out: 9 in 10 single mother students live at or near the poverty line. Nearly one in three Black women and one in four Native women in college are single mothers. Nearly half of student parents (42%) attend community college and completing an associate degree can halve poverty among single mothers.

And there is this one: only about one in 10 single mother students complete their associate degree on time.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day (March 8) is #BreakTheBias. Despite the fact that student parents, particularly single mothers, are a sizable student population, a recent Generation Hope survey found that one in five student parents feel unwelcome on campus, with Black and Latino student parents more likely to say they felt unwelcome than white student parents.   Single mothers know the bias and stigma they are up against, but they are driven to enroll in college, particularly community college, to make a better life for themselves and their families. “I have to kick it into high gear,” said Sydney, a single mother student whose story was profiled on an episode of Ascend at the Aspen Institute’s 1 in 5 podcast. “The odds are already so high against me, being a single mom and a Black single mom at that.”

Community colleges play a critical role in preparing adult learners for the jobs that will fuel our recovery, offering access to fulfilling careers that pay a family-sustaining wage, including those in logistics, health sciences, and the skilled trades. That’s why we have nearly doubled our initial commitment to single mother student success, committing $10 million over the next five years to increasing the share of single mother students who attain an associate degree on time.

Over the last few years, several community colleges have made a commitment to break the bias toward single mother students on their campus. Combined, ECMC Foundation grantee partners have provided technical assistance to 15 community colleges across the country, serving approximately 19,000 single mother students. These technical assistance projects are an integral component of ECMC Foundation’s Single Mother Student Success portfolio, supporting the development of promising institutional best practices, processes and policies that improve outcomes for single mothers in college.

Here are 4 promising strategies based on learnings from our grantee partners that are helping community colleges improve outcomes for their single mother students:

  1. Incorporate student voices and perspectives into institutional decision-making and program design.

“Their children are both what drives them to enroll in college and what makes it so challenging to complete, given that higher ed was not designed with them in mind.”

 - Education Design Lab authors in “Design Insights: Single Moms Success Design Challenge

Education Design Lab infuses human-centered design approaches into its work with colleges to improve outcomes for single mother students. Working with four community colleges, the team guided the selected colleges through a design phase that focused on deepening their understanding of their single mother students’ experiences. Based on those insights, the colleges then piloted interventions, such as providing emergency aid or courses targeted specifically to single mothers, aimed to address the specific needs of their single mother students. The Single Moms Success cohort aims to achieve a 30% increase in attainment of degrees and high-quality credentials by single mother learners at each participating school, impacting at least 6,000 single moms by 2024.

Colleges found that making their learning environment work better for single mother students also helped other students. Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, for instance, developed the Learn Anywhere model as part of its Single Moms Success work. When the pandemic hit, the college was able to rapidly scale the program to almost 10,000 students across the institution, making college completion possible for more students during the crisis.Learn Anywhere…fundamentally changed the way we think about learners as a whole at Ivy Tech,” Chris Lowery, Ivy Tech’s Senior Vice President of Workforce, Careers, and Adult Strategy, told Education Design Lab in its summary report of the project.

  1. Collect data on the parenting and partnership status of students.

“I really wish you could tell your advisor, like: ‘Hey, I'm a parent,’ and then they can be like, ‘Here's the resources, here's expectations, here's what you're allowed…’ Even just that, just knowing what your boundaries are, is incredibly helpful.”

- Michaela Martin, student parent, tells 1 in 5

World Education, Inc. received funding to help eight community colleges build their capacity to broaden and expand key practices and services that can enhance single mothers’ career readiness and success in college. The goal is to expand the colleges’ capacity to support the persistence and completion of single mothers and student parents. One of the first areas of support that World Education and its partners PERG Learning and Achieving the Dream offered their participating colleges was improving data collection—both quantitative and qualitative—on student parents to inform better decision-making on campus programming, policies and processes. Few colleges collect information on the parenting status of their students, creating blind spots around which supports will provide the greatest return on investment and help students complete.

World Education worked with each college to create a task force across institutional functions, including representatives from faculty, administration, institutional effectiveness, early childhood education, student services, and other key departments to develop an action plan using PERG’s Family Friendly Campus Toolkit. The free and publicly available toolkit provides sample survey and focus group questions that colleges can customize to better understand the full spectrum of needs of single mother learners.

“There is no more beautiful moment at a CUNY graduation, when you have a parent walking to the stage with their little three-, five-, seven-, eight-year-old to their hand to get that diploma. If we can replicate that feeling on a daily basis on our campus, we will be doing the right thing for our student parents, but we would also be elevating our entire higher ed communities.” CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez said about the impact of CUNY’s Kingsborogh Community College participating in World Education’s College Success for Single Mothers project.

  1. Improve student persistence and completion by fostering a more family-friendly culture on campus.

“It’s amazing the difference it can make knowing that your school cares about your success.” 

– Lesley Del Rio, student parent, writes in Hechinger Report

A survey by Generation Hope found that 40% of student parents felt isolated and many reported that they did not see any family-friendly characteristics on campus. Another survey from Ascend at the Aspen Institute and the JED Foundation found that more than half of student parents felt less welcome on campus, which contributes to their mental health strain and can threaten their educational success.

Generation Hope received funding to pilot a technical assistance program, FamilyU, to help postsecondary institutions implement dedicated programs, adjust policies, and change campus culture to improve outcomes for student parents. Informed by focus groups with student parents across the country, FamilyU has a specific focus on “creating a culture of belonging” that can foster a more welcoming environment for student parents. One FamilyU institution, Montgomery College in Maryland, hosts an annual single student parent conference to build community and connect this population to resources and tools. Other colleges include student parents in marketing materials and orientation plans. As Generation Hope noted, “Visibility and consideration go a long way to increase feelings of belonging by college students.”

  1. Explore flexible coaching models that can better meet student parents where they are.

“I think I am more grounded in myself and who I am as an individual...as a Black woman, a mother, a student.”

- Shaquana Graham, a single mother who attended Bronx Community College and participated in LIFT, to the “1 in 5” podcast

LIFT’s technical assistance program trains community college staff to provide LIFT’s signature hybrid coaching model to support low-income students, student parents, and specifically, single mother students. When the pandemic forced many colleges to move instruction and services online almost overnight, LIFT moved quickly to shift to virtual coaching for the families it supports. What they found was that the flexibility provided by virtual coaching increased participation – without the need to travel for in-person meetings, attendance at coaching sessions increased by 17%. LIFT is now working with two community colleges, including Bronx Community College, to execute a hybrid coaching model that blends the flexibility of virtual coaching with the in-person relationship-building that families need.

So on International Women’s Day and beyond remember: single mother students are an incredible untapped resource for colleges.

Here’s one more data point that jumps out: single mothers are more likely than any other group of women to have started but not finished a postsecondary degree, suggesting that a bit of additional support can make a measurable difference. From including images of single mothers in campus materials so that they feel more seen and welcome, to implementing new programs and policies informed by the perspectives of single mother students, colleges have a range of options that can not only #BreakTheBias, but make a measurable difference to the success of their students.


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