A hand up for single mothers

Monroe Community College graduate Maryin Tolon Valdes benefited from the college's STAR Power scholarship, which helps single parents. (Photo: MCC)

Single mothers who enroll in community college don’t exactly lead a cushy life — and that can work against their ultimate success unless colleges help address their challenges.

According to a recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, of the 2.1 million single mothers who enroll in college each year, nearly 90 percent are low-income, 43 percent work over 30 hours per week, and 40 percent said that dependent care obligations seemed “likely” or very “likely” to cause them to drop out. Yet, one in three student parents maintains a GPA of 3.5 or higher.

In addition, the study found that of the number of single mothers in college more than doubled between 1999 and 2012, and nearly half of them (44 percent) were enrolled in community colleges, comprising more than one in five (21 percent) of women overall at two-year schools.

Into the breach have stepped a variety of programs, ranging from individual college efforts to national funding streams, aimed at encouraging single mothers — and, in some cases, fathers and/or married parents — to stay in school.

In April, the national nonprofit Education Design Lab selected four large community colleges — Central New Mexico, Delgado (Louisiana), Monroe (New York) and Ivy Tech (Indiana) — to lead a pilot program to test and scale strategies aimed at boosting completion rates by 30 percent in the next five years.

In February, the Biden Foundation and Achieving the Dream announced a joint effort to promote promising practices and innovative programs to retain adult women learners — including parents — in community colleges. The program will include roundtables, research reviews, a white paper to highlight the needs and partnerships to create resources.

And that same month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a Family Empowerment Community College Pilot Program, a three-year effort to support up to 400 single parents annually who attend SUNY and CUNY community colleges with on-campus child care, individual advising and education supports including tutoring, career counseling and articulation assistance to four-year schools.

Child care at Mount Wachusett

Some programs to support single mothers and other parents at community colleges date back. And the only dedicated federal funding source focused on supporting student parents received a major boost in fiscal year 2018 as funding leaped from $15 million to $50 million. The Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program awards four-year grants to institutions that fund on-campus centers and/or enrollment at nearby centers.

Mount Wachusett Community College (Massachusetts) has a $69,000 grant that provides between 20 percent and 60 percent of child care costs for 24 students per semester, says Ann Reynolds, CCAMPIS advisor and academic disability counselor. Students can be fathers (and one or two usually are) and in theory they can be married or cohabitating, Reynolds says, with eligibility for the program based on whether or not they can receive Pell grants.

With CCAMPIS funding since 2008, the college has an on-campus day care center, run by an outside agency, that provides direct services to children of preschool age, Reynolds says. Students with babies and toddlers, who comprised 10 of the 24 this spring, can use their grant funding off campus. In addition to CCAMPIS, some students are eligible for Head Start funding and/or a private grant the college — and some are ultimately able to cover 100 percent of costs.

Mount Wachusett students who go on to University of Massachusetts (UMass)-Amherst are now able to continue their CCAMPIS funding because that school recently received a grant, Reynolds says. Two students, one a single mother and the other a married mother, have made that “smooth transition,” she says.

“A very strong reason they chose UMass was the continuation of CCAMPIS,” Reynold says. “In a perfect world, we can establish more states that have the help at the community college level and also up at the bachelor’s level, so our students have somewhere to go.”

Mount Wachusett is currently in the midst of a comparative study to determine completion rates of students receiving CCAMPIS funding versus those with children who do not. What Reynolds can say is that the 14 students supported by CCAMPIS who just graduated had an average GPA of 3.48, “many of them in the toughest majors.”

Family center at Los Angeles Valley

Another program based on private funding is the Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley College, which sits next door to the child development center that provides basic day care services, and which gives parents a family-friendly place to hang out, study and more.

“Child care is incredibly important to our students, but it’s the tip of the iceberg,” says Marni Roosevelt, director of the center, noting that, for example, students cannot take their children to the campus library when they have a group project. “We give them space so they can do group projects here. We look a little bit like a child development center, in that we have activities out for kids to play with — but their parents are always here.”

A former child development professor, Roosevelt conceived of the idea for the Family Resource Center after hearing about the challenges faced by student parents. Entirely grant-funded, the center serves about 1,000 student parents per year, who pay nothing, Roosevelt says.

“If the dad or mom picks up the kids at 3 o’clock from school, they might hang out at FRC, the adult doing homework, and the child doing homework or playing,” she says, while the 130 student-parents with younger kids in day care just bring them next door. “We try to figure out what our families need and be able to provide that service. … We firmly believe that if we keep our student-parents strong, they will complete. (Otherwise,) they will quit school; they won’t quit their families.”

The center includes a kid-friendly study lounge, student interns who supervise the children for college credit, an infant-toddler play group, academic tutors for math and English who can help parents or their school-aged children, a licensed family therapist and a social worker, and free baby products and school supplies as well as a textbook lending library.

“They’ve been able to combine a lot of different low-touch services for parents in one space,” Cruse says. “They’ve been able to blend funding from a lot of different sources.”

Scholarships at Monroe

Monroe Community College (MCC) in New York has raised $468,000 in private funding through multi-year pledges to fund $2,500 scholarships for single student-parents with financial needs that go beyond tuition, an effort that began in 2013 when a donor offered to seed the fund with $100,000 if the college could match it — which it did in just a few motivated months.

To date, the MCC Foundation has awarded these STAR Power scholarships to 32 students, including 10 this year, who all have been single mothers to date, although it’s not limited to women, says Gretchen Wood, executive director of the foundation.

Since MCC’s annual tuition of $4,380 is often covered partially if not entirely by Pell grants, the scholarships are aimed at “the other challenges that single parents are facing — child care, transportation,” she says. “We know there are so many financial challenges for people who are struggling as single parents, and obviously financially strapped.”

Recipients are also invited to meet with women on the STAR Power committee that evaluates their applications and are willing to serve as mentors, Wood says.

“For those who can take advantage, it’s a nice opportunity to connect with a person who’s successful in the community and give them a practical opportunity to learn,” she says.

To date, of those who have been in the program and slated to graduate, 92 percent have done so successfully, Wood says. “That’s obviously very promising.” And across campus, a study by IWPR found that students who used MCC’s on-campus child care center — not limited to single parents — had a graduation rate more than three times parents who did not.

But such statistics are hard to come by at the state or local level, Cruse says.

“We need data to understand their experiences,” she says. “This one school happens to be doing it right, and it shows the true impact.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.