Divided We Learn

OPINION: Most single moms who enter college don’t finish; here are four ways to reverse this shocking trend

Breaking through the barriers

A single mother holds her son while she waits to receive her diploma during her graduation ceremony from college.

More single mothers are enrolling in college but most of them aren’t graduating.

This is sobering news. And it justifies the kind of investment in social programs that lifts up these vulnerable women in education.

In my work as a scholar, a student and a campus professional, I have identified four policy solutions that stand to favorably impact single mothers in college.

Another view also informs my assessment: that of my former position as a mother and domestic-violence survivor living in poverty.

Related: Number of single moms in college doubled in 12 years, so why aren’t they graduating?

“In the school where I work, one mother of seven children learned that her fed

These measures also address some of the other issues of nontraditional and student learners:

1. Establish and fund state-supported college success programs that sponsor low-income individuals in education using the high growth/high wage model.

For instance, Maine’s state Competitive Skills Scholarship Program offers $6,000 per academic year in tuition gap benefits, full childcare benefits, and a stipend and transportation reimbursement, effectively eliminating many barriers to education for nontraditional students, including mothers.

But with only 40 new enrollees a year, it’s clear that few people even know that this underfunded and under-enrolled program exists.

2. Direct welfare-dependent moms who participate in workforce development activities into full-time study leading to a bachelor’s degree, with full support in the areas of childcare, housing assistance and stipends. In four to six years you can realize hundreds of single mothers and families exiting the welfare system with sustainable jobs.

Related: With number of student-parents up, availability of campus child care is down

3. Use a more appropriate assessment model to advise student moms to train for occupations that will provide sustainable wages. For instance, a mother with four kids should not be getting an associate’s degree in early childhood education. The degree takes two years to earn. Since most of most childcare workers I know in Maine make from $9 to $11 an hour, the degree may not represent an effective path off welfare.

Additionally, those mothers are not told that they can continue (with appropriate articulation agreements in place) and can transfer those credits to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree. With mandatory participation requirements, competent advising and cooperation with state institutions, many welfare recipients and single moms could be on their way to real financial independence.

4. Streamline systems and share information. Many welfare-dependent individuals are both familiar with and turned off by a system that requires them to devote many long hours to certifications, verifications, interviews, case management, re-inspections and reapplications.

The time burden of these activities represents a deterrent to many mothers in school who would otherwise benefit from several of these programs. Instead, these mothers often choose to forgo school or rely on costly student loan debt.

In the school where I work, one mother of seven children learned that her federal student aid loan refund had disqualified her from receiving food stamps.

Understanding and evaluating how welfare and social program benefits can impact student aid is critical. Students should not be penalized in the benefit system for receiving loans. Title IV funds should not be counted as resources across the board. (Housing and Urban Development, Supplemental Security Income and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children all carry this policy. However, the state of Maine hasn’t caught up yet.)

Related: A mother and son go from homeless to college

Many barriers exist between college access and degree completion for nontraditional students and single moms. Competing priorities, family responsibilities and the economic structure of jobs and social services all contribute to the contexts in which many women need to navigate their own higher education journey, often with little help and no information.

As a woman who is finally on the other side, I know that many single mothers do not possess the acumen and resilience required to do it alone, and many institutional barriers are designed to bring us down — and keep us there.

The new study, news coverage including Meredith Kolodner’s work in The Hechinger Report and new work in the policy area can help single mothers find a path out of poverty.

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

Robyn M.L. Young is a graduate student at the University of Maine where she studies higher education in the contexts of student development, and also works for TRIO, the collection of federal programs that work to ensure college access to low income, first generation and working class students.

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Robyn M.L. Young

obyn M.L. Young is a graduate student at the University of Maine where she studies higher education in the contexts of student development, and also… See Archive

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