Let’s Support College Student Mothers During the Pandemic — and Beyond

Opinion | Higher Education

Let’s Support College Student Mothers During the Pandemic — and Beyond

By Tanya Spilovoy     Aug 2, 2021

mother with daughter
Mix Tape / Shutterstock

Although the pandemic has been devastating for everyone, it’s been especially hard for college student mothers. Many were forced by school and day care closures to prioritize care and remote learning for their children over their own education and careers.

“Between cooking meals to feed my children throughout the entire day, keeping up on household duties, ‘mommying,’ doing my own college courses, and teaching … there was never enough time,” says Memoree Skinner, an elementary special education teacher, graduate student, and mother of three.

As the primary caregivers in many families, mothers also found themselves responsible during the health crisis for tending to sick loved ones.

“One of my children did become COVID-positive. This created a challenge as I was forced to monitor the remainder of the household members around the clock,” Skinner says. “This quarantine time lasted for what seemed like a lifetime and forever. I never prayed so much in my life.”

Indeed, the past year was so challenging for women that the leader of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research renamed the recession a “shecession.”

But as a higher education researcher, I know that when it comes to the difficulties facing student mothers, the pandemic prompted changes of degree, not of kind. As I learned while researching my dissertation on success strategies for mothers in online programs, although college recruiting materials make it look easy for women to “do it all”—work, go to online classes, and parent—the realities are much different.

And yet, women who pursue college while raising children often have a lot of hope. That’s what I heard recently while interviewing student mothers who shared their lived experiences during the pandemic.

“It was a strange time full of mixed feelings. I was happy to be completing my degree and really proud of myself, but I was also worried about the pandemic, social unrest, and my kids' mental health,” says Shanelle Graves, mother of four, who completed her degree in May. “In a lot of ways, I saw the pursuit of my degree as the shining light in the middle of the darkness around us.”

Helping more mothers achieve their higher education goals should be a priority for colleges and policymakers. The time to take action on behalf of student mothers is now.

Student Mother Struggles

Nearly 10 percent of U.S. undergraduate students, or 1.7 million students, are single mothers, according to a 2019 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The data also show that nearly 9 out of 10 single student mothers live near or in poverty, and only 8 percent earn a degree within six years. Other research from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice indicates that student parents—the majority of whom identified as female and minority—experience high rates of food and housing insecurity.

These stressors can take a toll on people’s mental health. Stressed student parents tend to be unaware of and rarely access mental health centers on campuses, according to a recent report from the Jed Foundation and Ascend at the Aspen Institute.

While college student mothers have always faced challenges, the pandemic was especially damaging to these women’s academic and career success. More women than men have opted to reduce their number of postsecondary classes or have dropped out altogether, according to survey reports by the U.S. Census Bureau. And a 2021 IWPR policy brief shows the pandemic has been especially devastating for Black, Latina, Native, and Asian-American women.

In the past year, almost 3 million women have left the workforce. Women who were able to work from home also struggled to balance their personal academic pursuits with the needs of their families.

“My biggest challenge was learning how to assist and teach the girls in the virtual learning environment, plus keep up with my own graduate classes and remote work all at once,” said Erika Williams, who works for the Air Force and has three daughters, and who graduated with a master’s degree this year. “It became a juggling act.”

Success Strategies For Student Mothers

Yet new research and new programs focused on student mothers point toward strategies that can help these women succeed:

  • The Community College Women Succeed Initiative at Achieving the Dream is working to improve adult women’s retention in community colleges by elevating their voices and experiences.
  • The monthly webinar Helping STEM Students Thrive brings together national thought leaders who share ideas for broadening the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM education.
  • The Pregnant and Parenting Students Initiative at California State University at Long Beach provides advocacy and Title IX assistance as well as child-friendly study spaces and lactation rooms.
  • United Tribes Technical College, a Tribal College where more than 60 percent of the students are women, has a K-6 school and day care on campus.

Excellent solutions have been proposed recently about how higher education can help to counter the pandemic’s negative effects on women’s career and education success. Sandra J. Doran, president of Bay Path University, has suggested that expanding access to college degrees for more women would make a big difference, since “women with bachelor's degrees will earn $630,000 more over the course of their careers than high school graduates.”

To that end, federal policymakers have proposed support for free community college, an increase in Pell Grants, and more funding for community colleges and minority-serving institutions. The Department of Education’s Open Textbook Pilot grant program and recent large-scale efforts in states and regional compacts will reduce the cost of education and increase academic success through the use of open educational resources.

All of these ideas are good—if policymakers and the higher education community take action.

Individuals Can Make a Difference

While supporting student mothers’ academic success is a complex and challenging undertaking, there are proven strategies that institutions can adopt that make a difference. And although it may require coordination with social services agencies to ensure basic needs are met, many academic strategies do not require a lot of additional money: caring, empathetic, student-centered teaching practices; good academic advising; great instructional design; thorough student orientation and financial aid workshops; and many other human-centered approaches can help mothers succeed in college.

Individuals can make a difference, too. Many women who were student mothers credit their persistence and success to one key mentor who supported and believed in them.

“When I was working to complete my undergraduate degree in teacher education, I was a single mother working as a student teacher (unpaid) while going to school full time. It wasn’t easy caring for my daughter when I was unable to earn an income,” recalls Whitney Kilgore, co-founder and chief academic officer of iDesign. “I almost dropped out of school. If it weren’t for the support of my mentor and now friend of 20 years, Dr. JoAnn Canales, I don’t know that I would have graduated or gone on to continue my education.”

Kilgore recently established a scholarship at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi in honor of Canales to support single mothers enrolled in their student teaching semester—what she believes to be the first such scholarship at the institution.

And of course, some student mothers rely mostly on their own inner strength to succeed in college.

“I am resilient,” says Regina Gong, a graduate student, mother, and librarian. “I’ve learned that I have an infinite capacity to exert a tremendous amount of patience and gratitude. That I can extend grace to another person as much as I can to myself.”

That personal persistence has seen many student mothers through the pandemic, when they found little support elsewhere. For Graves, the mother of four who recently graduated, the past many months served as an opportunity to show her kids how important it is to finish what you start and to never give up on your goals.

“I imagined my kids watching me walk across the stage and being so proud of me,” she says.

What other stories, research, programs, strategies, and policies might support the academic and career success of student mothers? If we are truly committed to post-pandemic economic recovery, social justice, and educational equity, it will take all of us working together to create large-scale, lasting change for student mothers, their children, and society at large.

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