Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Single moms in college have ‘a lot to juggle’ and a new report says they need more help

More than one in five undergraduates are parents, many of them single moms, and colleges and policy makers have to figure out how best to support their educational journeys.

Catherine Monsalvo, 26, is a senior at West Chester University. She has been pursuing her degree while raising her 8-year-old daughter, Lilly Monsalvo.
Catherine Monsalvo, 26, is a senior at West Chester University. She has been pursuing her degree while raising her 8-year-old daughter, Lilly Monsalvo.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Catherine Monsalvo was taking a handful of college courses at West Chester University last year, working part-time as a personal care assistant, and raising her elementary-school-age daughter.

There were times she couldn’t find or afford a babysitter, she said, and professors allowed her to bring her daughter to class.

“She would do her homework or play on her phone,” said Monsalvo, 26, of Ridley Park.

There are a lot of single moms, like Monsalvo, across the country, striving to earn a degree and run a household, says a new report by the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And they aren’t getting nearly enough support to complete their education, leading many to leave school.

Of the 1.7 million single moms enrolled as undergraduates nationwide, the institute estimates more than 53,000 are in Pennsylvania and more than 31,000 are in New Jersey. They represent about 8.5% of undergraduates in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, compared with 9.5% nationally, the institute estimated.

No calculations of the data by state are available, so institute researchers computed the estimates, using other national and regional data sets.

When adding single fathers and those who are married, student parents actually make up about 22%, or 4.3 million, of the undergraduate population, about 55% of whom are single parents, according to an August report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). About half of them leave school without a degree, the report said, compared with about a third of students without children.

» READ MORE: From homeless to college: West Chester University eases the way

“The composition of the student body is rapidly changing these days,” said Jessica Milli, the institute’s study director. “What we’ve been calling nontraditional students are now making up significant portions of the student body, and institutions are really going to have to start rethinking their programs and strategies to better meet the needs of that population.”

The policy ramifications are huge, the institute says, noting that enrolled single mothers expected to earn a bachelor’s degree would pay $6.6 billion more in taxes over their lives than single mothers with only a high school diploma.

Yet, the institute said, only 8% of single mothers earn their associate’s or bachelor’s within six years, compared with 49% of women in college who are not mothers.

Milli said fewer colleges are offering child care on campus even though the demand is there; the report recommends schools look at helping with affordable campus-based child care.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education policy professor at Temple University, said many colleges that serve single parents don’t have the resources to fund all the support that’s needed and government programs that provide help are underfunded.

“This is not a situation where colleges just don’t get it,” said Goldrick-Rab, whose work has focused on low-income college students, many of whom are hungry and homeless.

» READ MORE: For homeless college students, home for the holidays means staying on campus

According to the GAO report, nearly half of student parents said they paid for child care, with a monthly average of about $490. Federal aid that is available to help single-parent students pay for child care isn’t publicized well enough or widely known, the report said.

The institute’s report recommends that colleges do a better job letting students know about the aid, pay closer attention to how many student parents they enroll, and remove obstacles to their studies, such as allowing makeups for absences due to a child’s illness. Federal and state policymakers should make more funding available, the report said

Pennsylvania this year included $2.5 million in its budget for “Parent Pathways,” a program that “seeks to establish community-specific comprehensive models” to help single parents in their pursuit of higher education.

One good model, Goldrick-Rab said, is the “family scholar house” in Kentucky, which combines affordable housing and child care near campus.

» READ MORE: Temple prof donates $100,000 prize to help struggling students

Monsalvo, a senior majoring in social work, said she’s glad the institute study highlighted challenges she’s seen firsthand as a single parent, raising her daughter, Lilly, 8, and getting her education.

“It’s a lot to juggle,” said Monsalvo, a first-generation college student whose father is from Colombia and whose mother is from Jamaica. “My plate is beyond full.”

She and her daughter lived in rented rooms and have moved multiple times. They have been living in an apartment for the last couple of years, she said.

She attends West Chester’s Philadelphia location in the Lit Bros. building at 701 Market St., which was more conveniently located to her work and offered night classes. This past semester, she took one class and served her internship at South Philadelphia High School, where she assisted teen parents. The internship is not paid, so she had to reduce her job as a personal care assistant to two days a week.

“I’m really living off a two-day income,” said Monsalvo, who is vice president of the campus’ Phi Alpha Social Work Honor Society.

She is grateful for the support from her professors, who encouraged her to bring Lilly to class when she had a child care problem.

“That helped me out a lot as a mom,” said Monsalvo, who belongs to “Super Moms of WCU,” a group of West Chester student moms.

She said she would love to help get subsidized day care started at the university’s city campus.

“I know there are other moms who are like me, who just need a few hours of babysitting,” she said.

She also wishes there could be financial support for student parents when they are serving unpaid internships.

Monsalvo plans to pursue a master’s after she graduates in May. Eventually, she plans to get a job supporting others like her.

“I just want to help moms who were my age, knowing what I went through,” she said.