The number of single mothers enrolled in college more than doubled in just a little over a decade and was twice the rate of growth of overall undergraduate students, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Yet, the number of campuses with child care options has declined.
Researchers looked at data for 10,000 student parents with children under the age of 6 who were enrolled at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York between 2006 and 2014. Seventy-one percent of the students were female and 60 percent were single parents. Nearly four percent of the single mothers used MCC’s campus child care center. Researchers found that parents who used the child care center had substantially higher persistence rates from the fall semester to next fall semester — 71 percent compared to 42 percent of students who did not use the center. On time graduation was more than three times higher for those who used the center than those who did not.
Research shows single mothers often struggle to graduate on time. Only 28 percent of single mothers graduate with a degree or certificate within six months, according to the report, and 55 percent stop attending school before they can earn any credential. Single mothers are also less likely than childless peers to spend time sleeping, exercising, and other activities that help them stay healthy and excel in school. But child care is expensive. The national median cost of child care for an infant is more than a third of the median annual income of a single mother over the age of 25.
Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, senior research associate at IWPR, said it’s rare that colleges even have this much data on single parents and that it’s “revolutionary” in itself that MCC collects it.
“This is the only analysis we’ve been able to do comparing those groups because most colleges aren’t collecting data on single parents,” she said.
Reichlin Cruse said child care centers can be a win-win for universities and parents. Universities with early childhood programs can provide students in those programs with opportunities for training while making it easier for student parents to succeed in college.
“We need more spaces to train quality child care providers and place them in opportunities in local communities so the fact that child care centers are actually on the decline is concerning because it could serve a lot of different purposes,” she said.
Single mothers are also more likely to attend for-profit colleges, with 30 percent of single student mothers attending those institutions. That is three times the rate of female students without children who attend for-profit colleges. The reason for that disparity may have something to do with the perception of more flexibility at for-profit colleges, thanks to very good marketing and the availability of online classes. But the degrees offered by many for-profit colleges aren’t associated with good-paying jobs or even jobs in the students’ chosen industry. Since single mothers tend to have lower incomes and can bring in financial aid, for-profit colleges want single mothers to attend their colleges.
“For-profit colleges have marketed themselves as being institutions that are great for adults, great for parents, and great for single moms. Their marketing campaigns are pretty impressive. But unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate to degrees that confer good jobs and leads to higher debt,” Reichlin Cruse said. “Single mothers are frequently targeted by for-profits and by commercials and online ads.”
“Online courses are somewhat a mixed bag,” she added, “On one hand, they allow for some flexibility but is it really possible for a single mom with a young kid or two at home to really focus on an online class? She still needs child care and supervision of those kids to really be able to devote time and energy to do well in school and get the work done.”
Unfortunately, many colleges with better career outcomes don’t provide the campus child care necessary to help single mothers graduate on time, if they stay in college at all. And the economic benefits single mothers experience benefit everyone. College graduates contribute more in taxes than people with high school diplomas. And it’s a matter of equity. Single mothers need to have access to the same opportunities other students have, since a degree is becoming increasingly necessary to secure a job with decent wages. Researchers say that more than 6 in 10 jobs in the United States will require some postsecondary education by 2020.
“She still needs child care and supervision of those kids to really be able to devote time and energy to do well in school and get the work done.”
The lack of on-campus care for single mothers is indicative of a national problem that results in lower labor force participation for women. According to the Economic Policy Institute, if child care expenditures were capped at 10 percent of family income, it would boost women’s labor force participation and increase GDP by $210 billion. The increased tax revenue and reduced public outlays that came as a result would could provide more funding for early childhood care and education schemes.
Reichlin Cruse said she’d like to see additional funding for Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS), a federal program that supports low-income parents’ participation in college through campus-based child care. Congress increased funding for the program from $15 million to $50 million for the next fiscal year, but Reichlin Cruse said more is needed to meet the needs of student parents. Governments can also ensure that more Early Head Start and Head Start programs are available on college campuses.
“The Head Start model has really strong parent engagement services so not only would you be giving student parents a well rounded-support system in addition to child care, but those programs could help introduce low-income parents who aren’t attending the school to new opportunities to pursue higher education,” Reichlin Cruse said.
The Child Care Development Fund, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides funding to states for low-income families to access child care. States could let college enrollment be used to count toward work requirements for Child Care Development Fund child care assistance to ensure single mothers have access to child care and can continue to attend school.
“Not being able to get child care because of the work requirements is one of the main barriers for them keeping them from going to school,” she said.