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Helping single mothers succeed at college


Catherine Clarke
speaks at a fundraising event for Harper College’s Rita and John Canning Women's Program.

​Catherine Clarke needed a way to help herself and her four children. Clarke had been a homemaker for 14 years, raising her children, before she left her husband due to domestic violence issues.

Clarke knew she didn’t have the right skills for today’s workforce. She also knew that any minimum wage job she qualified for wouldn’t be enough to support her family.

“I knew something had to change,” she said.

Finding direction

Clarke enrolled at Harper College (Illinois) and took full advantage of the college’s Rita and John Canning Women's Program. The program provides educational, career and personal support to single parents, displaced homemakers, non-traditional career seekers and others.

Through the program, Clarke found “a career path that fit my passion,” was able to get scholarships and grants to fund her education, and gained back some of her confidence. She graduated from Harper with a 4.0 grade-point average and is now a junior at Elmhurst College, with a goal of someday getting a master’s degree in counseling. 

“It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that being a participant in the program changed my life,” Clarke said. “It changed my opinion of myself and what I was capable of.”

It is one of the few programs addressing this need in the state that survived the recession, thanks to funding from a variety of sources, including the college and private funders Rita and John Canning. The program also leverages partnerships with organizations in the community, such as the Salvation Army and a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Last year, the Women’s Program served 475 students with a “small but mighty” staff, said Kathleen Canfield, director of the program. The entire college has contributed to the “tremendous success” of the program, she said.

Participants take part in an orientation, learn test-taking and study skills, build their self-esteem and build relationships with others in the program.

An ‘overlooked population’

The Women’s Program was featured in a recent report by Women Employed, a nonprofit that works to improve women’s economic status. The report looks at what community colleges are doing—and can do—to remove barriers for low-income, single mothers and to improve their chances of completion.

Single mothers are an “overlooked population” with the odds stacked against them, said Meegan Bassett, senior policy associate for Women Employed.

“When you look at the risk factors for people not being able to graduate college, low-income single moms have just about all of them,” Bassett said.

But they are also highly motivated students, she said, particularly motivated by their children.

Making services available at accessible hours and places can help single mothers who, like Clarke, are trying to juggle multiple demands on their time.

Reducing time to degree also is a must, according to the report. A review of credit requirements can ensure that “prerequisites and the number of credits required for graduation are relevant to student educational and career paths.” Creating program maps that include part-time options can help students stay on the path to a good-paying career. And for those students who don’t know what path to take, connecting them to career exploration resources early can help them avoid taking unnecessary classes.

Reducing economic barriers also can lead to quicker completion. Often, an emergency can completely sidetrack a low-income student. Emergency grants can help. Affordable on-campus childcare can remove another financial barrier for single mother students and eliminate possible transportation problems.

Women Employed offers an online self-assessment tool for colleges and universities to evaluate how well non-traditional and parenting students are being served.

While community colleges have very broad missions and don’t always have the resources to help every specific population, the recommendations in the report could help other nontraditional students, as well, Bassett said.

“Low-income single moms face incredible odds. If colleges put some of these practices in place to help them graduate, it will benefit countless other students as well,” she said.

One day at time

Clarke still struggles with balancing classes and schoolwork with taking care of her family, but now she has an extended network helping her. She still struggles financially—she occasionally has to visit the local food pantry—but she knows that, with her education, that won’t last forever. 

Clarke is taking things one day at time, one class at a time, one problem at a time, and her experiences have made her and her family stronger.

“My kids have seen me stay up late to get done what I needed to get done, and they’ve seen me graduate with honors,” she said. And Clarke has seen her teenage sons improve at school.

She still has a way to go before getting her degree, but Clarke has not ruled out going back to Harper College and helping other women like her through the Women’s Program.