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New study provides state and national data on the share of single mothers in college and how investment in supports, such as child care, pay off after they graduate

Washington, DC—A new state-level analysis released today by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) finds that every state in the country would see economic and social returns on investments in higher education for single mothers, who currently number nearly 2 million undergraduates in the United States. In addition to a briefing paper outlining trends nationally and across states, IWPR also released 51 fact sheets sharing its findings for each state and the District of Columbia.

IWPR estimates that single mothers make up between 7 percent (in Oregon, California, Vermont, and Washington) and 12 percent (in Arizona) of state undergraduate student bodies. When single mothers reach graduation day, the benefits are significant. For example, altogether, currently enrolled single mothers expected to earn a bachelor’s degree pay roughly $6.6 billion more in taxes over their lifetimes than if they just had a high school diploma, and they save $1.3 billion in spending on public assistance programs.

But the vast majority of single mothers in college (92 percent) do not graduate on time. Single mothers are more likely than all other women to have started college but not earn a college degree, in large part because they face a range of financial and time obstacles to completing their educational programs. Nearly nine in 10 single mothers enrolled in college have incomes at or near the federal poverty line and nearly two in three work 20 hours or more each week, despite estimates that single mothers in college spend nine hours, more than a full-time workday, caring for their children and their home each day.

Investment in college pays off for single mothers:

  • Single mothers earn roughly $256,000 more over their lifetimes with an associate degree and $625,000 more with a bachelor’s degree than what they would have earned with a high school education.
  • For every dollar they spend on their education, single mothers get back $12.32 for an associate degree and $7.77 for a bachelor’s degree.
  • Single mothers in some states see even bigger returns: for every dollar spent on her associate degree in New Mexico, for example, a single mom will get back $21.

Investment in supports that help single mothers graduate pay off for society:

  • Single mothers with college degrees pay more taxes. Among the cohort of currently enrolled single mothers who are expected to earn a degree or some college education, additional lifetime taxes paid add up to a total of $75 million in Wyoming, on the low end, and $9.2 billion in California, at the high end, when compared with the tax contributions they would be expected to make with only a high school diploma or equivalent.
  • Society saves on public assistance spending. In total, the cohort of currently enrolled single mother students who earn degrees or some college credit is expected to save society nearly $20 billion in public assistance spending. At the state level, savings for the cohort of single mothers enrolled in 2015-16 who are expected to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree or some college education range from nearly $21 million in Alaska to $1.7 billion in California.
  • Investing in supportive services for single mothers pays off. Investments made in child care, case management, and financial aid for all currently enrolled single mothers pay off multiple times over, for the country as a whole and for every state. For every dollar spent on child care for single mother students, the United States would get back $4.30; it would get back $5.48 on investments in case management; and it would get back $5.05 on providing additional financial aid to single mothers.

IWPR Study Director Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, commented on the findings:

“Single mothers are the exact population that colleges, communities, and policymakers should be investing in. They are deeply aware of the connection between earning a higher education and building lasting family economic security, but the current system of higher education is not set up to promote their success. Despite extreme demands on their time and finances, and the lack of services, like affordable, reliable child care, that would help them meet their needs, single mothers are highly motivated to provide a better life for their children and to accomplish their educational and career goals. This research shows that we all stand to gain when investments are made in supporting their ability to achieve these aspirations.”

Economist and IWPR Study Director Jessica Milli, Ph.D., commented on the findings:

“If states want to boost their economies and meet the workforce demands of the future, they must invest in policies and programs that can help single mothers attend and complete college. Not only will states get higher earning workers who are able to contribute more in taxes, they save on public assistance spending. Their investment will also continue to pay dividends for future generations.”

The paper concludes with policy recommendations for supporting single mothers’ college success, including making it easier for student parents to receive state child care assistance, encouraging greater collaboration between the early care and higher education systems, making campuses more family friendly, among others.

Read the national briefing paper, Investing in Single Mothers’ Higher Education: National and State Estimates of the Costs and Benefits of Single Mothers’ Educational Attainment to Individuals, Families, and Society, and find fact sheets for each state at

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that conducts and communicates research to inspire public dialogue, shape policy, and improve the lives and opportunities of women of diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and experiences. IWPR also works in affiliation with the Program on Gender Analysis in Economics at American University.