By Rachel Karp

The number of single mothers in college has grown tremendously over the past decade. In the 2011-12 academic year alone, nearly 1.3 million single mothers were enrolled in two- and four-year institutions. But only 8 percent of single mothers who enroll in college graduate with a degree.

In a recently-released analysis, IWPR found that the economic returns to single mothers’ investment in a college education are enormous—for them and for society. Single mother graduates of two- and four-year colleges have lower poverty rates and higher annual and lifetime earnings than single mothers who do not attain college degrees. This means huge earnings gains for them and their families, as well as for society at large through increased tax contributions and reduced receipt of public benefits.

For Single Mothers:


College Cuts Poverty

With each additional level of education, single mothers’ likelihood of living in poverty declines by an average of 32 percent. IWPR estimates that for single mothers who were enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, over 21,000 would have left poverty after earning an associate degree and over 10,500 would have left poverty after earning a bachelor’s degree.

College Increases Earnings

Single mothers with associate degrees who work full-time, year-round earn $8,000 more than those with only high school degrees. Single mothers with bachelor’s degrees who work the same amount earn $18,500, or 62 percent, more.

These increases add up: over a lifetime, single mother graduates with associate degrees who work full-time, year-round earn nearly $329,500 more, and single mother graduates with bachelor’s degrees earn over $610,300 more, than those with only a high school diploma.

These increased lifetime earnings lead to substantial returns to single mother graduates from their own investments in two- and four-year degree programs. For every dollar a single mother graduate spends on an associate degree, her family gets back $16.45 in increased earnings; for a bachelor’s degree, each dollar invested brings her family a return of $8.50.

According to student mothers interviewed by IWPR, the desire to ensure their families’ future success played a key role in their decisions to attend college. One single mother student said:

I wanted to get a bachelor’s degree and be stable and be able to provide my son with a better home, with a better future…. I couldn’t do that with just a high school diploma.”

Another said:

I just wanted to get out of that cycle [of poverty], and I knew that I had to be a positive role model for my children so that they wouldn’t fall into that cycle and they know that, okay, it’s great that you graduate from high school, but there’s more work to be done.

3 girls graduating college

For Society:

Reduced Poverty Saves on Public Benefit Spending

The benefits of degree attainment extend beyond single mothers and their families. Each single mother graduate saves society over $1,800 in public benefit spending for herself and her family over a four-year period compared with those who do not have college degrees. For single mothers enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, IWPR estimates this totaled $309 million over four years following degree attainment.

Higher Earnings Increase Tax Contributions

On average, each single mother with an associate degree contributes over $36,200 more in taxes over her lifetime than a single mother with only a high school diploma, and each single mother with a bachelor’s degree contributes over $84,200 more. For single mother graduates enrolled in the 2011-12 academic year, their total lifetime tax contributions are estimated at $7.8 billion more than if they had only earned high school degrees.

Investments that Help Single Mothers Graduate Pay Off

photo-1494451930944-8998635c2123Investment in services that would help single mothers graduate—such as child care, case management, and financial aid—would be more than compensated for by these increases in taxes and reductions in public benefit spending.  Investment in these services for a single mother pursuing a bachelor’s degree would cost an estimated $55,800 for the time that she was enrolled in college—much less than the $86,000 she would contribute in taxes and public benefit savings over her lifetime. An investment in these services for a single mother who graduates with an associate degree would cost an estimated $37,600, which would be offset by the $38,100 that she would contribute.

Without sufficient supports in place, single mothers face a range of obstacles to achieving college success. For many, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. One single mother shared how hard it was to find time to complete schoolwork and care for her family:

11 o’clock is when I start doing my homework until like four in the morning and then I have to wake up again at six in the morning.”

Another described the challenge of balancing school, family, and finances for both:

It’s just like Jenga: you take one piece out and it all falls down.”

Lack of access to child care often makes the tower tumble:

I felt like if I don’t have child care, I’m not going to be able to obtain my degree and I’m going to stay poor and I’m going to be living in the projects the rest of my life.

Investing in services that can help single student mothers persist in college can improve their college completion, benefit them and their families, and contribute to a stronger economy. As IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault has said, “Short-term investments in single mothers’ college success pay off enormously, and across multiple generations, after they graduate.”

Read even more about why we should invest in single mothers’ higher education in IWPR’s full analysis.