It seems like a no-brainer—if a single mother wants to improve her income and career prospects in the long term, she should enroll in college. More single mothers are going to college than ever before: In 2012, about one in five female undergraduates and 11 percent of all U.S. undergraduates—nearly 2.1 million students—were single mothers, more than twice the population that attended college in the 1999-2000 school year. According to a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, this rate of growth more than doubled that of the general undergraduate population.
But while these statistics sound like good news all around, a closer look reveals some truths that aren't so rosy. An alarmingly large share of single mother students—30 percent—are enrolled in for-profit schools, making them more than three times as likely to attend for-profit institutions as female students who don’t have children.
These numbers are “tragic,” said Holden Thorp, provost at Washington University in St. Louis and co-author of the forthcoming book Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership Between America and Its Colleges and Universities. “These students have been victimized by a predatory system that’s an embarrassment to higher education in America,” he told me in a phone interview. “The data on the job prospects and earnings pretty much show that a for-profit degree doesn’t give you any advantage.” The average six-year graduation rate among for-profit colleges is 23 percent, compared to 59 percent at public institutions and 66 percent at private nonprofit schools. And because for-profit degrees usually cost far more than comparable degrees from community colleges and public universities, students who attend for-profit schools are more likely to have to take out loans to afford their education. They are also far more likely to default on those loans than those who attended nonprofit or public institutions, in part because the economic benefits conferred upon those with other college degrees don’t transfer to graduates from for-profit schools.
Single mothers are particularly susceptible to the sales tactics that draw students to for-profit colleges. Advertisements hawk flexible schedules and specific skills that seem directly applicable to the job market—skills that students could glean from far cheaper community-college programs that don’t advertise quite as aggressively. The disproportionate number of single mothers sucked in by the for-profit college industry contributes to the population’s extraordinarily low graduation rate: Just 28 percent of single mothers who started school between 2003 and 2009 got a degree or certificate within 6 years of their start dates. Married mothers graduated at a rate of 40 percent, and 57 percent of non-parent female students graduated in the same time period.
Thorp says going to college and not getting a degree is “the worst thing that can happen to a student in higher education.” Adults with some college education but no degree have about the same unemployment and earnings statistics as those with no college education at all, but they have the added disadvantage of having taken time out of the workforce and accumulated some debt. “If you don’t finish, you’re better off not going at all,” Thorp said. “Unfortunately, the way the system is set up, the students who need the most help are going to the schools that have the least money—and especially have the least money devoted to things like academic advising, the kinds of things that help students advance to their degree.”
Financial constraints and child-care responsibilities that necessitate flexible scheduling are two of many factors that might encourage a single mother to choose a school with fewer resources and a lower graduation rate. (Demographic factors also come into play: Single mothers are more likely to come from low-income families and those without a history of higher-educational attainment.) Those same factors contribute to the high college drop-out rate among single mothers. The IWPR report notes that 63 percent of single mothers in college live at or below the federal poverty line; in 2012, the average single student mother had $6,600 in unmet college tuition need, $2,000 more than that of the average married student mother. Nearly two-thirds of single mothers in college spend at least 30 hours a week on child care, 54 percent spend at least 20 hours a week on paid work, and 43 percent work at least 30 hours a week on top of child care and schoolwork. Previous research has shown an association between any amount of paid work and a decline in graduation rates among student parents, while non-parenting students can work up to 15 hours a week without having an effect on their likelihood of getting a degree. “This suggests that students have a finite number of hours that they can dedicate to paid and unpaid work outside of school, and for parents, that work allotment is consumed by unpaid dependent care responsibilities,” the report states.
There is no shortage of incentives for the government to invest in the degree attainment of single mothers. College graduates pay more in taxes, need fewer public benefits, contribute more to the economy, and raise higher-achieving kids, regardless of family demographics or income level. But the current system is only exacerbating the web of challenges that prevent single mothers from graduating from college. The Trump administration is getting ready to loosen rules that would have curbed abuses and fraud committed by for-profit colleges, and its proposed child-care plan falls far short of anything that would make a real difference in the lives of struggling parents. Without meaningful intervention on both of these fronts, single mothers’ prospects for greater economic stability through education will only get worse.