Most people who know Mary White wonder when she has time to sleep. It’s a fair question given her schedule.
The 28-year-old spends her Mondays and Tuesdays in class or studying for her nursing program at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Mass. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, White has eight-hour clinical days and studies when she can find the time. She also picks up at least three 10-hour overnight shifts a week at a group home for psychiatric patients. Add to that taking care of her four-year-old son and it’s hard to see where White finds any spare hours in the day.
“I think I fight though the sleep because I don’t have any time to sleep,” White said. “I just keep telling myself there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Though her experience may seem extreme, White’s hectic life is fairly typical of the 2.1 million single moms in college, a group that’s more than doubled over the past several years, according to a report published Wednesday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on women’s economic issues. Single moms now account for more than 11% of college students,up from 7.8% in 1999.
Despite the size of this group, “this is a population that gets almost no attention and is not talked about in conversations of higher education equity and success,” said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, a senior research associate at IWPR and author of the report.
That may be part of the reason why single mothers are more likely to struggle to make it through school than married women or women without children in college. Just 28% of single moms who entered college between 2003 and 2009 received a degree or certificate within six years, IWPR found. That’s compared to 40% of married mothers and 57% of women in college without children.
That’s in part because they face extreme time poverty, as White’s experience illustrates. They’re typically juggling work and family responsibilities. “Anything on top of that is just too much, they’re only human,” so setting aside for schoolwork can be difficult Reichlin Cruse said.
Some colleges are working to better serve this group through steps as small as keeping children’s toys in staff offices so that a financial aid counselor’s office is a welcoming place for a student’s child, Reichlin Cruse. Others are taking larger steps, including offering housing specifically for single parents. Some single moms, like White, also benefit from federally-subsidized campus child-care programs, though the number of those across the country is shrinking.
Affording college can also be a struggle for this group, particularly because the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, the form colleges use to determine how needy a student is when it comes to paying for college, doesn’t fully account for the costs of raising a child or the lost wages that may come with leaving a job or scaling back hours to attend school.
What’s more, one-third of single moms in school attend for-profit colleges, according to IWPR research, which tend to be more expensive and are more likely to provide dubious outcomes.
But despite the challenges single mothers may face in school, they’re flocking to college, Reichlin Cruse said, because of the benefits a degree can offer in today’s economy. “As the importance of higher education has grown we’ve seen more single mothers realize that’s the route that they have to take if they want to provide for their families,” she said.
That drive to offer her son a financially stable life is what motivated White to take extra courses so she could finish her prerequisites for nursing school as fast as possible, she said. Shortly after she began taking those courses, she left her son’s father.
“That was really when I was, like, ‘I’m a single parent, I’m on one income, I need something that is going to provide for myself as well as my child,’” she said.