Report shines a light on additional racial inequities
by MEREDITH KOLODNER September 20, 2017

The number of single mothers in college more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, but a minority of those mothers who enrolled actually graduated, according to a new report.

More than two million single moms were college students in 2012 – close to one in five of all women in college. But as more of these women sought degrees over the past decade, a matrix of financial obstacles got in the way, according to the report released Wednesday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. These hurdles include working full- or part-time, the high cost of daycare (and decreasing availability of it on campuses) and housing.

Most states have struggled recently to boost the number of residents with degrees, both to alleviate poverty and to grow their economies. The report suggests that programs aimed at addressing the needs of single moms as well as other college students could help.

“The reality is that a growing share of today’s families are headed by single mothers,” said Barbara Gault, executive director at IWPR and one of the report’s authors. “To the extent that we can improve their educational attainment, they will be in a much better position to support their families.”

While 57 percent of women without children and 40 percent of married women graduated from college with a certificate or degree within six years in 2009, the same was true for only 28 percent of single mothers, according to the report.

Part of the issue is the hours that single moms must spend at work and taking care of children – 54 percent of single mothers in college work 20 or more hours per week and 43 percent work 30 or more hours per week. A recent study found that working more than 15 hours a week negatively impacts students’ grades.

Some moms say the high cost of childcare is part of the reason they have to work so much. The report notes that the annual cost of center-based daycare ranges from $4,000 in Mississippi to close to $13,000 in Massachusetts. Parents who have relied on a federally funded campus-based childcare program, which President Trump wants to eliminate, have said they wouldn’t have graduated without the low-cost care.

Gault argues that helping single moms earn degrees could also help to chip away at the persistent racial gap in college education, since black women are much more likely than white or Asian women to be single parents while they’re in college (see Figure 3).

The financial burden for single moms persists even when they do graduate, the report found. Single mothers who earn B.A. degrees graduate owing about $30,000 in student loans on average, compared with about $24,000 for all women graduates.

The most recent data in the report is from five years ago, but the report’s authors said they believed the disparities were much the same today and if anything may have increased, since there has been no systematic national effort to address the obstacles facing single moms trying to earn degrees.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.