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Single Mothers in College: Growing Enrollment, Financial Challenges, and the Benefits of Attainment

October 17, 2017

By Maggie Snyder, ECMC Foundation


Good news: More single mothers are attending postsecondary institutions than ever before. In fact, between the 1999-00 and 2011-12 school years the rate more than doubled. Today, more than two million moms are pursuing postsecondary education.

But while many single mothers enter college hoping to earn a credential and/or degree, few go on to graduate, according to findings from a recent report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, an ECMC Foundation grantee partner. Between 2003 and 2009, only 28 percent of single mothers earned their degree or certificate within six years, compared to 40 percent of married mothers and 57 percent of female students without children.

The report titled, Single Mothers in College: Growing Enrollment, Financial Challenges, and the Benefits of Attainment finds part of this discrepancy is caused by the unique set of obstacles facing single mothers in college, such as financial insecurity and time constraints due to obligations like child care and working.

Financial insecurity is especially high among single mothers. Unlike many married mothers who have financial support from their partners, single mothers take on most expenses on their own. Additional expenses to support dependents, such as child-care, are a financial strain. The majority of single mothers in college (63 percent) live at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty line. Furthermore, in contrast to married moms, twice the number of single moms (81 percent) are unable to contribute any money to their college education or have family who can pay.

Within this group, financial insecurity is most pronounced among women of color and those attending for-profit institutions versus non-profit two- and four-year colleges. Some women of color – Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native – are also more likely to be single mothers compared to their White and Asian/Pacific Islander peers.

Postsecondary attainment is also lower among single mothers because they are often working outside of the home and/or caring for their children, resulting in less time to dedicate to their studies. More than 43 percent of women at two-year colleges with dependents report they are very likely to drop out of school because of their dependent care obligations. Additionally, for single moms, any amount of paid work outside of the home is associated with declines in degree attainment suggesting that while work is necessary to live, it makes being a student more difficult.

Given the wealth of evidence pointing to the benefits of postsecondary attainment — economic security, family well-being, better health outcomes, to name a few — the report calls for state, federal and institutional interventions and supports to improve postsecondary degree/certificate completion among single mothers. Recommendations include improving child-care affordability and accessibility, increasing financial aid and offering targeted scholarships for single mothers.


Research for the report was made possible with support from ECMC Foundation. It is part of a larger project that is examining the costs and benefits of increasing educational attainment among single mothers.

IWPR Download Single Mothers in College: Growing Enrollment, Financial Challenges, and the Benefits of Attainment. >

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