Single mothers represent 11% of undergraduate students in the U.S. They bring a unique set of strengths as college students and are assets to their schools and communities, despite the challenges they face juggling multiple family, work, and educational obligations. Single mother students have a great deal to offer colleges that invest in them, and this investment is especially worthwhile at a time when enrollments are declining and colleges and states strive to meet ambitious college completion goals. In celebration of Mother’s Day, World Education’s National College Transition Network (NCTN) brings you the voices of single mother college students and staff from community college programs that help them persist.
“Determined,” “resilient,” “persistent,” ”resourceful,” and “motivated” are the words used most often to describe single mother students. Maggie, a student at Manchester Community College’s Project STRIDE, said, “No matter what obstacle is thrown my way, I’m always able to somehow find a way over that and …get through it all.” Tria, a student in the KEYS program at Community College of Philadelphia, expressed her determination in this way: “Once I made my mind up that this is going to happen, I am going to do this… I’m going to get it done… I tried not to think about things that caused me to worry about whether I could. Because I knew I had the drive.”
Single mothers are determined to create a better life for their children. They want to be role models for their children and convey the value of education and the opportunities it can open. Lori Wayson, Coordinator of New Directions at Holyoke Community College, describes that determination this way:
What I hear over and over and over again from single moms, is that they’re here because they want to be a role model for their children, and… that gets them through so much. If they have struggles or they’re having a hard time with a class or things aren’t working out today for whatever reason, they continue to go….They are so strong and so dedicated, and they want to make a better life for their kids.
Many single mother students experience guilt because they are unable to spend more time with their children and be as attentive or present as they wish to be, juggling school, work, and family. They remind themselves that persevering in their educational goals will benefit their children in the long term.
Admiration for single mothers’ determination, motivation, and resourcefulness does not preclude recognition of the enormous challenges they face and the need for comprehensive personal and financial support systems. Single mothers are very often living in poverty, and this is the basis for the most severe challenges they encounter, including food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness, lack of affordable high-quality childcare, and lack of reliable transportation. One setback leads to another in a spiral of costs. As Steve Christopher, Assistant Vice President of Student Accessibility & Social Support Resources at Austin Community College, describes,
The most disruptive of the challenges, I think are their having to handle the unexpected…could be anything from house apartment repairs, you know, the air conditioning went out and I have to be here to let them in…sick child, that’s a big one. And we’re seeing more and more car repairs…Now we say our students are one flat tire away from dropping out…They get a flat tire and can’t afford to get a new one, so I can’t get to work… I just got fired, now I can’t get to school…and everything just unravels very quickly.
Being a low-income single mother often means dealing with bureaucracies that may be complicated and even demeaning, given the many constraints and compliance requirements. For example, those who are receiving public assistance are expected to go to school and to work, while fulfilling expectations for appointments with agency caseworkers and taking their children to appointments and activities. All of these requirements create competing demands for their time and attention, already stretched to the maximum. Kimberly Daniel of the Community College of Philadelphia affirmed: “The courage, the perseverance, the persistence, and the pride people still try to maintain in a life that in a way it beats you down every day.”
Single mother students display a seriousness of purpose that is not common in younger students and many serve as role models for traditional-aged students. As Mary Ann Haytmanek of Northampton Community College put it, “I’ve had faculty members say that to me, ‘I love when I have one of your students in my class, because the younger students are going to see her asking questions and realize it’s okay.’”
Many of the programs profiled include activities, such as workshops and discussion groups, designed specifically for single mothers and student parents to support each other. Tiffany Bailey, a student in Portland Community College’s Project Independence, described how she has grown as a result of participating in a supportive community of peers:
I’m striving just through this term to be a better person and to be an example for the other women. This one woman who went through a major loss with her husband after 17 years the other day said, “You know sometimes I hear your voice and I think, what would Tiffany do?” That means everything in the world to me – getting that validation from other women… I want that connection.
The Single Mothers’ Career Readiness and Success Project is an 18-month project funded by ECMC Foundation. The goal of the project is to identify and document community college services and strategies that support student parents (especially single mothers) for educators, policymakers, funders, and investors.
A report, profiling 18 community college programs that provide specialized, targeted support services for single mothers specifically, or student parents, in general, will be available in July 2019. For more information, contact Sandy Goodman, NCTN Director, firstname.lastname@example.org.