College for single mothers – an anti-poverty strategy

One Pagers

By Susan Green, IWPR Affiliated Researcher

The “college wage premium” – or the higher pay that college graduates are likely to earn compared with those with only a high school diploma,  can be particularly significant for low-income students, including single mothers. In a first-of-its-kind analysis, IWPR documents the dramatic benefits of college graduation for single mothers, their families, and society as a whole. These advances more than outweigh the costs of investments in child care and other supports for single mother students who graduate with a degree.

College dramatically cuts poverty…
Getting a college degree is associated with many positive outcomes. College graduates are more likely to be employed, earn more throughout their lifetimes, enjoy better health, and engage in civic life. These salutary effects tend to continue into the next generation, as children of college graduates often do better in secondary school and are more likely to attend college themselves.

Single mother families, who are particularly prone to living in poverty, can benefit disproportionately from earning a college degree. The report shows that, with each additional level of education, single mothers’ chances of living in poverty drop by about one-third. Roughly one-in-ten single mothers with a bachelor’s degree lives in poverty, compared with over three-fifths of single mothers with less than a high school diploma. Single mothers with only a high school diploma are over three times as likely to live in poverty as single mothers with a bachelor’s degree.

… and college benefits single mothers, their families, and society …
College spending is a shrewd investment for single mothers. Over their lifetimes, single mothers get their money back 16.45 times over for obtaining an associate degree and 8.5 times for earning a bachelor’s degree. In other words, for every dollar a single mother graduate spends on an associate degree, her family sees $16.45 in higher earnings; for a bachelor’s degree, each dollar invested brings her family a return of $8.50.

These higher incomes can help single mothers support their families, pay a child’s college tuition, and retire to financial security. Single mother graduates also contribute significantly to the economy. Because they earn more over their working lives, these graduate mothers pay higher taxes than do their high school-only counterparts – in real terms, an average of about $36,000 more for associate degree holders and roughly $84,000 more for those who earn bachelor’s degrees. Higher earnings also translate to fewer public benefits used by single mother graduates and their families.

… but single mother students face many obstacles to finishing college
Achieving a college degree poses special challenges for single mothers.  Most single mother students have  low incomes and lack family or personal savings to draw upon to help cover college costs. At the same time, these students confront higher financial hurdles than their non-parent counterparts. Most notably, single mothers must pay for child care, which is expensive and often difficult to find. This out-of-pocket expense is in addition to the the more than 50 hours per week they spend providing child care themselves, which limits the time available for school work or a paying job.

Supportive services for single mothers, including child care, are sound investments.
Society benefits more than it spends by investing in services for single mother graduates. Child care assistance, including the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS) can be vitally important. After 15 years of essentially level funding, support for that program more than tripled in 2018. Single mother students and their families eagerly await further expansions of this critical support. Long-term, the impact for single mother students, their families, and the nation could be profound. Further research will be needed to calculate all of these effects. IWPR looks forward to contributing to that work.

The full report is available here.