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Announcing Our New $10 Million Investment in the Educational Success of Single Mothers

April 13, 2021

By Jennifer Zeisler, Senior Director, Career Readiness, and Loraine Park, Manager, Learning and Impact

Five years ago, the ECMC Foundation Career Readiness team set out to learn more about single mothers who were pursuing postsecondary credentials. We knew that nearly 4 million college students -- representing one in five undergraduates in the United States -- were raising children. Since then, ECMC Foundation has invested $6.4 million across 13 grants to better understand this population—who they are and what supports can help bolster their success. We learned a lot and saw positive progress, but more needs to be done to achieve the transformative change single mothers in higher education deserve.

Understanding the Unique Needs of Single Mothers in Postsecondary Education

Based on work we supported from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, we now know that there are 1.7 million single mothers pursuing an undergraduate degree, the largest subset of the student parent population that represents one in 10 of all U.S. undergraduates, and nearly half (44%) attend community college. Nine in 10 single mothers in college live at or below the poverty line and spend an average of nine hours per day caregiving on top of school and, often, work. Facing significant financial and time demands, just 11% of single mothers enrolled in an associate degree program complete their degree on time. Their success is also deeply intertwined with racial equity, as nearly one in three Black women and one in four Native women in college are single mothers.

A college degree can make a life-changing difference for single mothers and their families, a fact that single mothers inherently understand when they enroll. Gabby, a single mother who participated in Roadtrip Nation’s A Single Mom’s Story, put it this way, “I have a good job, it’s not a horrible job, but it could be better cause you can’t go very far without a degree…I’m going back to school because a degree is important.” And she’s right: single mothers who successfully earn an associate degree will make $256,000 more over her lifetime than those with a high school diploma and are nearly half as likely to live in poverty.

Seeding and Testing Solutions that Help Single Mothers Succeed

We also learned that, while single mothers are less likely than other women to hold postsecondary credentials, they are more likely  than other women to have started but not finished a degree, indicating that additional support can make a measurable difference.

In addition to funding research and evaluation, ECMC Foundation also invested in direct service programs and technical assistance for institutions to gain more insight on the innovative solutions that can best support the success of single mothers.

To address the time and resource constraints that single mother students face, ECMC Foundation supported three direct service programs that offer financial supports, access to basic needs such as housing and food, and case management for more than 300 single mothers each year. All three programs take a two-generation approach by supporting access to stable, high-quality childcare, which not only aids healthy child development, but has been shown to triple graduation rates among single mothers. It’s clear that these supports matter: in one program led by grantee Project Self-Sufficiency, while 73% of single mothers enter with an annual income of less than $10,000, every single mother who completed the program left with an annual income over $40,000.

ECMC Foundation also provided support to three organizations offering technical assistance to community colleges focused on supporting single mother students and improving their completion rates. Together, ECMC Foundation grantee partners supported 15 institutions that serve more than 19,000 single mother students.

These successes are encouraging, but more needs to be done to allocate resources to support single mother students, who are often still an invisible student group, and include them in policy and program development. With 40% of student parents feeling isolated on campus, grantee World Education, Inc., told us that, “You have to make sure everybody on campus knows that these students are here and that these supports are here and that we are committed to their success just like every student -- that they're not invisible and they're not alone.” This has been especially true during the pandemic as story after story shows single moms facing impossible choices between their families and their education.

Getting to 25% Attainment: Our New $10 Million Commitment to Support Single Mothers

As the only national funder focused on single mother students, ECMC Foundation’s initial $6.4 million investment laid the groundwork for needed systemic change. , including significant increases to the federal CCAMPIS program.

Building on what we have learned, ECMC Foundation is committing $10 million over the next five years with the goal of increasing the share of single mother students who attain an associate degree within six years of enrolling at a community college to 25%. We know that it is possible to move the needle: attainment rates for single mother students have nearly doubled from 7% to 12% over the last decade with modest investments and focused programming.

To meet this goal, we will focus our investments to:

  • Connect to the 25% associate degree attainment goal
  • Rely on the learnings of the portfolio to date and align to the Career Readiness strategy and theory of change
  • Center on equity and target community colleges and organizations supporting community college students
  • Support grantees with non-financial resources beyond grant funding

We are directing our investments toward community colleges and organizations supporting community college students, focusing on career and technical education when appropriate, to reach the greatest share of single mother students, nearly half of whom attend community colleges. As the country rebuilds from the pandemic and economic recession, community colleges will be central to training our workforce for in-demand jobs essential to our recovery, including healthcare, information technology, and the growing green jobs sector. To ensure an equitable economic recovery, single mothers must have access to these good jobs that pay that lead to fulfilling careers and allow them to support a thriving family. 

These investments in single mothers will benefit all of us, not just from billions in increased tax revenue, but also in the future health and well-being of the next generation. Ensuring that single mothers realize their educational dreams also helps us see measurable progress on racial and gender equity, not just in higher education, but in society as a whole.

Single mothers enroll in college determined to gain a degree that can unlock a better life for themselves and their children. They sleep less than students without children and worry about food and housing on top of finishing their schoolwork. They make investments of their time and emotional well-being to attain a degree. It is time we make a bigger investment in them.

We are grateful to our 10 grantee partners whose work informed and inspired our strategy to increase single mothers’ postsecondary attainment:

Watch our video to learn more about our commitment to improving outcomes for single mother students and the work of our grantee partners.

Do you have an innovative idea that will increase the associate degree attainment rate for single mother students? Submit an LOI.

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