Investing in Higher Education for Single Mothers to Transform the U.S. Economy

By Jennifer Zeisler
December 13, 2021

Investing in higher education for single mothers to transform the U.S. economy

Before it’s too late, we must address a critical gap in this country’s economic recovery strategy: help for single mothers in college. These determined mothers understand the connection between their education and their families’ long-term financial security, and they have proven that they are ready and willing to take on the work that will fuel our future. It’s time for the philanthropic sector to follow their lead.

Over the last five years, ECMC Foundation has funded efforts to improve educational outcomes for single mothers, who represent more than one in ten undergraduates in the United States. We have learned that with a bit of additional support, single mothers can help drive equitable economic growth. As the only national foundation focused on the college success of single mothers, we have also learned that too few funders are making this type of sound investment. Women of color, who disproportionately pursue degrees while parenting, bear the brunt of this lack of investment. To achieve gender and racial equity in the years to come, more funders must commit to ensuring that single mothers have access to the education they want and need.

As we know from the economic recovery from the Great Recession, many jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage require educational attainment beyond high school. Single mothers are distinctly aware of the economic calculus of enrolling in college: Nearly half attend community colleges, where they pursue degrees in health care, information technology, and other middle-skill sectors that have the potential to fuel the country’s economic engine. They know that earning a college degree pays off, and they are right: Single mothers with an associate’s degree are nearly half as likely to live in poverty as those with a high school diploma.

But as the pandemic has made painfully obvious, it is difficult for parents, especially mothers, to work without access to child care. This is especially true for single-mother students, who must balance care, work, and school — and was true long before the pandemic. Facing high poverty rates and having limited time to devote to their studies due to work and family demands, fewer than 10 percent of single-mother students graduate on time.

In fact, single mothers are more likely than any other group of women to have started but not finished a postsecondary degree. This suggests that additional support for single-mother students can make a measurable difference, not only for them but also for the nation’s educational attainment goals. Put simply, we will further perpetuate racial and gender disparities in our education and workforce systems unless we start investing in this population. Furthermore, we will miss out on the talents and contributions this significant segment of the population has to offer. Student parents get better grades than their non-parenting peers, which indicates that their low degree completion rates are a reflection of policies and practices that are failing them, not a lack of aptitude.

“Me having to go to school and work and not get as much time with [my daughter] is hard, yes,” said Sydney, a single mother student, on “1 in 5,” a podcast about student parents. “But I am only doing it to set us up for success.”

Women like Sydney are the very students we should be investing in — driven, gifted, and eager to fill in-demand positions as the U.S. economy recovers.

The lessons we have learned through our investments offer insights for future work that more funders can advance. Based on our learnings, here are three suggestions for how philanthropy can get more involved:

Single mothers need better access to child care, housing, transportation, and other basic needs to persist through degree completion. Access to reliable child care has been shown to triple graduation rates among single mothers; yet, on-campus programs have steadily declined over the last two decades. In one program run by Project Self-Sufficiency, which provides child care to single mothers in college along with case management and financial assistance, nearly three in four single mothers saw their annual income quadruple to $40,000 once they completed the program. The return on this investment is significant: For every dollar we invest in supports for single mother students, the country would get back as much as $5.50, not including the generational impact from their children’s improved well-being.

To inform better decision making, postsecondary institutions must start collecting and analyzing data on the parenting and partnership status of their students. Infrastructure designed to enable baseline data collection and continuous data collection practices is critical, for colleges can support improved outcomes only if they understand their students and their needs. Yet, very few colleges track the parenting or partnership status of their students, although organizations like World Education, Inc. and Education Design Lab, have started working with cohorts of colleges to better identify and serve single mother students. Our grantee partners have worked with fifteen colleges serving more than nineteen thousand single-mother students, but more funders can help us reach the nearly 1.7 million other single mothers enrolled in colleges across the U.S.

Policies and practices must be informed by the lived experiences of single mothers in college. Equipped with reliable data and compelling stories, advocates and students successfully made the case for at least $42 million more in federal funding targeted to student parents, while groups like the Women’s Foundation for the State of Arizona have secured additional funding at the state level for programs aimed at improving access to child care and other supports for student parents. Single mothers in college sit at the intersection of many of the systemic issues that our recovery policies must address, including the care crisis, college unaffordability, and racial and gender inequity. It is essential that the voices of single mothers be heard in the public policy debates that will shape our future.

As we debate how to “build back” in the wake of the pandemic, we must rebuild our systems of learning and work to better support the success of single mothers, who move mountains on a daily basis to pursue their degrees while working and parenting. If more funders join us in targeting their resources toward this population, we may be able to advance the systemic change needed to ensure our economic future is grounded in gender and racial equity.

There are few silver bullets in philanthropy, especially for an issue as complex as economic mobility, but investments in single mothers can pay off many times over. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented opportunity to rebuild our economy and social structures to be more equitable. Let’s not let it pass us by.