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An Incredible Return on Investment: Why We Invest in the Success of Single Mothers in Higher Education

November 20, 2020

By Rosario Torres, Program Officer, Career Readiness

More than 1 in 10 college students in the United States is a single mother. Among these single mother students, a disproportionate amount are women of color and nearly half (44%) attend a community college. Community colleges can play a vital role in providing accessible and affordable education and training opportunities that offer pathways to good paying jobs, particularly for single moms who are both family breadwinners and caregivers.

The Evidence is Clear: Investing in Single Mothers’ Higher Education Pays Off—For Everyone

As part of a research project supported by ECMC Foundation, the Institute of for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found that nearly 9 in 10 single moms pursuing higher education have incomes at or near the poverty line. Obtaining a degree or certification beyond a high school diploma can especially help individuals break out of poverty by opening up access to jobs that lead to higher earnings and a better quality of life. Investments made to uplift the educational aspirations of single mothers result in substantial benefits not only for women and their families, but also for the communities in which they live, spurring local economic growth and providing skilled talent to local and regional employers.

Unlike non-parenting students, single mothers face numerous financial and time challenges in their pursuit of a higher education that further delay their postsecondary success. Completion rates for single mothers are stark—only 8% of single mothers complete their degrees on time.  

In addition to improving access to financial aid and case management—supports that would help other groups of underserved students—insight from our partners indicates that childcare is significant factor in college success among single mothers. A recent student survey from Generation Hope found that more than 60% of respondents missed at least one day of class their last semester due to lack of child care. Another study showed that access to on-campus child care tripled graduation rates among student mothers. Student parents also struggle to cover their basic needs: this year’s #RealCollege survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice revealed that more than two in three (68%) parenting students reported being housing insecure in the previous year and more than half (53%) reported being food insecure in the prior month.  

Innovative Solutions to Improve Community College Success for Single Mothers

This research underscores the critical need for strengthened student supports for parents, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has magnified inequities through reduced work hours and layoffs. As we enter an economic recession with a tighter job market, improving access to middle-skill, high-wage career opportunities for single mothers is even more critical. Further research from IWPR demonstrates that single mothers who earn an associate degree can earn $256,000 over their lifetimes. Those earnings can increase up to $1.1 million with a bachelor’s degree.

Since 2015, ECMC Foundation has been investing in the success of single mothers in higher education at community colleges because we believe that their success is central to closing gender and racial equity gaps in higher education. Here are a few ways our grantee partners are working to move the needle for single mothers:

Technical Assistance to Community Colleges

“Colleges are collecting new data and using it in new ways to transform institutional policies, programs, attitudes, communications, and community partnerships in support of single mother students. They recognize that supporting single mothers’ success is integral to achieving their student success and equity goals. Their commitment to this work has remained unwavering, despite the challenges of COVID.”  - Sandy Goodman, Director, National College Transition Network, World Education, Inc.
  • World Education Inc. is providing technical assistance to strengthen data collection at a group of community colleges to identify and provide targeted services to single mother students. This work builds on World Education’s 2019 ECMC Foundation-funded report, No Matter What Obstacle is Thrown My Way, which suggests enhanced data collection as a critical element in supporting colleges and other stakeholders to better understand the distinct needs and experiences of single mother students, among other findings.
  • Education Design Lab is leading four selected community colleges through a hands-on Single Moms Design Challenge to prototype, pilot and test new innovative program models that dramatically improve completion rates for single mothers on their campuses. For example, at Ivy Tech Community College, the I. PASS program was designed with the needs of single mother learners in mind. The program includes designed learning supports such as an introductory Single Moms IVYT first term course, flexible classes with a “learn anywhere” model for select courses/sections and advising services such as a Single Moms Mentorship Program and access to a Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).

Capacity Building for Direct Service Programs

  • The Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona and Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, launched their new Pathways: Elevating Self-Sufficiency for Single Mothers, a two-generation pilot program that supports single mothers working toward earning a one-year, credit-bearing certificate in a career field—such as mechatronics, logistics, computer-aided design--that pays a self-sufficient wage. This pilot will test a new model that takes care of childcare needs, while also providing dedicated comprehensive student supports for the single mothers, including tuition and cash assistance.
  • Project Self Sufficiency supports highly motivated, low–income single parents in their attainment of economic self-sufficiency through education, personal development and job training. ECMC Foundation provided funding to Project Self Sufficiency in 2016 to expand their program and provide case management, provide financial support and basic resources to assist student parents in achieving self-sufficiency.
  • Generation Hope provides mentoring, resources and services to help D.C.-area teen parents become college graduates and help their children enter higher levels of school readiness. Generation Hope received funding from ECMC Foundation to develop a curriculum to provide technical assistance to colleges across the country that will help them better serve student parents all while helping the organization build an earned income stream.
  • Jeremiah Program (JP) families (primarily led by single mothers of color) are disproportionately experiencing the economic and emotional toll of the pandemic. Many have already lost their hourly, low-wage jobs making the already-difficult tasks of fulfilling their families’ basic needs and prioritizing their postsecondary education even harder to achieve. ECMC Foundation provided support to help JP increase internet bandwidth and infrastructure and expand virtual programming and curriculum. In 2017, Jeremiah Program received funding to conduct an environmental scan in each of its communities to assess labor market trends and develop more sophisticated financial modeling tools to inform strategic decisions for the organization.
  • Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center (FRC) received funding to collect academic information such as retention, graduation and transfer data to better understand the experiences and successes of student parents on their campus. With improved data and marketing materials, the FRC will be in the position to actively disseminate their model and more effectively provide technical assistance to other institutions looking to support students with children. Additionally, the project will inform how the FRC serves its students and assess its overall impact and share findings with system leaders and policymakers in California.

Awareness Raising

  • Roadtrip Nation, Ltd. provides self-discovery resources to empower individuals so that they can identify their interests, explore the stories of real-world professionals, and discover career pathways aligned with their unique ambitions and skills. They received support to conduct an interactive experience for single mother college students that was captured in a documentary airing nationally on public television and online. They also hosted a screening series that amplified the voices of single mothers and those that support their educational journeys.
  • Ascend at the Aspen Institute received support from ECMC Foundation to support innovative programs at the city, county, or state level to increase the credential completion rate for student parents, build the capacity of community-based organizations supporting student parent postsecondary success, and create a digital clearinghouse of resources to support student parents. The Postsecondary Success for Parents (PSP) Initiative, a movement and catalyze investment in supports for parents pursuing postsecondary education – specifically single mother students. PSP Parent Advisors led the Parent Powered Solutions Fund awarding grants to build the capacity of six community-based organizations working to leverage student parent voices and expertise (also funded by Omidyar Network, Community Foundation of Sarasota County and others). This process was developed through a participatory grantmaking model, which allows individuals with lived experience to be directly involved in the decision-making process about how funds are allocated.

Other ECMC Foundation grantees, including Operation Restoration, Capital Idea Houston, and LIFT, support many single mother students through their training and education programs.

More Research and Resources on Investing in Single Mothers’ Higher Education

As institutions mobilize to move the needle to close equity gaps, the needs of single mothers must be central. Here are a few tools and resources from our grantee partners and other student parent champions that can help institutions and policymakers reimagine higher education through the lens of single mothers.

Single Mother Voices



Other Resources

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