The number of single mothers in college more than doubled in 12 school years between 1999 and 2012, to reach nearly 2.1 million students — or 11% of all undergraduates — according to a new briefing paper from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).
Women of color in college are especially likely to be single parents. Nearly two in five African-American women (37%) and more than one-quarter of American Indian/Alaska Native women (27%) are raising a child on their own while in college, more than twice the rate of Caucasian women (14%). Nearly one in five of Hispanic and multiracial women students (19% and 17%, respectively) are single mothers, while Asian/Pacific Islander women are least likely to be raising children in college (7%).
“Making colleges more accessible to single mothers is critical to achieving equity in educational outcomes on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender,” said IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault, Ph.D. Single mothers face financial challenges to attaining a degree.
• Nine in 10 single mothers in college have low incomes, with nearly two-thirds (63%) living at or below the federal poverty level.
• Single mothers of color have an average of nearly $600 more in unmet need — the amount a student must pay out-of-pocket to cover college expenses after family contributions, grants and need-based aid are taken into account — than their white counterparts.
• On average, single mothers who earn a bachelor’s degree have nearly $30,000 in student debt one year after graduation — $4,800 more than women without children.
Intense time demands also create challenges to completing school.
• Two in five mothers at community colleges say that they are likely or very likely to drop out of school due to caregiving obligations.
• More than half (54%) of single mothers work at least 20 hours per week in addition to going to school and caring for children. For students with dependent children, any amount of paid work is associated with declines in degree attainment, while non-parents can work a nominal amount (less than 15 hours per week) without diminished college success.
• Single mothers are half as likely as women students without children to graduate: Just one out of four single mothers who entered college in 2003 earned a degree or certificate by 2009, compared with 57% of women students who were not parenting.
“Balancing child care, coursework and paid work can make college an impossible juggling act for single mothers. These women are giving all that they can to finish college and make a better life for their families. We can do so much more to make it easier for many of them to succeed,” said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and co-author of the paper.
Postsecondary education is associated with better health, reduced poverty and improved outcomes for children of college-educated parents. Given the socioeconomic challenges faced by single mothers in and outside of the college context, increasing their educational attainment is critical to strengthening family well-being and economic security. Greater funding for campus child care through new or existing programs, or new sources of targeted financial support for single mothers, would help increase their degree attainment rates.
“A college degree can transform a single mother’s life and set her family up for success. We have a shared responsibility to serve this growing community and ensure the upward mobility of generations to come,” Reichlin Cruse said.
Read the new briefing paper, “Single Mothers in College: Growing Enrollment, Financial Challenges, and the Benefits of Attainment,” 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.