Investing in Single Mothers’ Higher Education: Costs and Benefits to Individuals, Families, and Society

Postsecondary education is a reliable pathway to economic security and is increasingly important to securing family-sustaining employment. For single mother families, who make up a growing share of U.S. families, and who are especially likely to live in poverty, college attainment is a game changer for improving family well-being and meeting the demands of a changing economy. College credentials are associated with a host of positive outcomes, including increased earnings,[2] higher rates of employment,[3][4] improved health,[5] increased civic engagement,[6][7] and improved outcomes among the children of college graduates.[8]

“Addressing the needs of single mothers in college is critical to making meaningful progress toward racial/ethnic equity in education.”

Single mothers, whose families stand to gain disproportionately from the benefits of postsecondary degrees, face substantial obstacles to college completion, including financial insecurity and heavy caregiving burdens. Just 8 percent of single mothers who enroll in college graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with 49 percent of women students who are not mothers.[9] The vast majority of single student mothers have low-incomes (89 percent) and no money of their own or from their families to cover college expenses. They are also likely to incur substantial student debt, in part due to the high cost of child care—which costs the equivalent of roughly one-third of working single mothers’ median annual incomes[10]—and their disproportionate enrollment in for-profit institutions.[11] On average, single student mothers spend nine hours each day, or 70 hours each week, caring for their children and doing housework.[12] Child care, in addition to being expensive, can be difficult to access, and has been declining on college campuses around the country.[13][14] 

Single mothers’ low completion rates are particularly concerning given the high proportion who are students of color: 37 percent of Black women, 27 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native women, 19 percent of Hispanic women, and 14 percent of White women in college are single mothers.[15] Addressing their needs while pursuing college degrees is critical to making meaningful progress toward racial/ethnic equity in education.

“I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree and be stable, and provide my son with a better home, with a better future… I couldn’t do that with just a high school diploma.”
– Single student mother interviewed by IWPR

To better understand the benefits of college for single mothers, and the costs of investments in supports that can improve their success, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) estimated the economic returns to college attainment for single mothers and their families, and for society more broadly, and how those benefits compare to investments needed to promote single mother success. This report is part of a series of publications presenting findings from this cost-benefit analysis.[16]