Nearly one in three Black women in college are single mothers. This is especially true in community colleges where, according to a forthcoming Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) analysis of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) data, nearly 42 percent of Black female students are mothers. Of this group, close to 78 percent identify as single. Often these women attend college for a variety of reasons, including personal fulfillment and economic security. Most (76 percent) identify as first-generation college students (IWPR forthcoming), which is unsurprising given the long-standing discriminatory practices that have historically excluded Black women from higher education.
“College campuses were not designed with student parents in mind.” This is now a common refrain echoed among student parent success advocates. It must be acknowledged, too, that the U.S. system of higher education was not designed for women, Black people, anyone parenting while in college, or those who experience life at the intersections of all three of these identities.
As we honor the important contributions Black women make to higher education year-round, we provide a few brief reflections on what Black women, mothers, and single mothers have faced, and continue to endure, while attempting to navigate our nation’s system of higher education.
- Black women have been present on colleges campuses since the 1860s. Though racial and gender discrimination in higher education excluded them from certain schools and programs, Oberlin College was among the first to admit women of all races, and Mary Jane Patterson was the first Black woman to earn an undergraduate degree.
- Many Black women were forced to attend vocational schools focused on domestic sciences, instead of baccalaureate programs.
- Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), such as Fisk University and Howard University, were among the first to provide Black women co-educational opportunities to take college-level courses.
- For decades, baccalaureate programs, especially at state colleges, discriminated against Black women and systemically limited their access to higher education. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Black women, many of whom were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, were admitted but were met with racial and gender discrimination, and excluded from most forms of student engagement.
- The 1970s to 1990s were a mix of progress and continued setbacks as racial segregation cases and affirmative action rulings continued to systemically impact Black higher education.
- Little research exists on the intersections of Black women in college and parenting identity during previous eras. However, it is well-documented that in the 1990s Black single mothers were pushed out of higher education through the period of sweeping welfare reform. Work-first policies that required recipients to work to receive benefits and eliminated enrollment in education as an eligibility criterion, made it challenging for Black mothers to receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Family) and attend college, which reduced the number of Black women in higher education.
- Black women enroll at higher rates and are more likely to be single mothers in college than non-Black women. Yet equity gaps in college completion remain.
- Black women in community colleges are thriving in many ways. For example, on average, they have slightly higher GPAs (2.64) than Black women without children (2.49) (IWPR analysis of NPSAS data). However, many still encounter adverse racialized and gendered experiences navigating complex higher education systems and engaging with staff, faculty, and administrators.
- Most Black mothers are more likely to attend community college, in many cases due to cost and proximity.
- Black single mothers are often isolated from their campus community. As a result, they often experience challenges accessing the resources necessary for persistence, causing them to rely on family for support.
- Racial and gender stereotypes related to motherhood and reliance on public assistance—many constructed in the welfare-reform era—persist today and heavily influence Black mothers’ access and experiences.
A Call to Center Black Single Mothers in Higher Education
Reflection is a key phase in the cycle of strategic planning, campus assessment, and, ultimately, institutional transformation. In this case, reflecting on higher education’s past provides an important backdrop for considering how campus leaders should approach efforts to improve educational success for Black single mothers.
To better understand the contemporary experiences of Black women in community college, it is essential to rely on data and evidence to inform practical approaches, while also recognizing they face unique hurdles to educational attainment due to the systemic barriers associated with their racial identity, gender identity, economic standing, and parent status. Developing equity-minded approaches to student parent success requires naming racial and gender inequities along with the barriers faced by students with children more broadly.
If we truly desire to see a system that works for all students, Black single mothers, who are the largest subgroup of student parents, must be included in the wider discourse and in broad-based and individualized efforts to increase equity in degree attainment outcomes.
IWPR, with support from ECMC Foundation, is committed to investing in the educational success of single mothers and developing more equitable pathways to degree attainment. Forthcoming IWPR research in this area will include a fact sheet and report with data and evidence to support institutions in transforming their campuses in ways that better support Black single mothers.