Beneath the surface, a crisis for working women and mothers in college

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on the careers of women, with an estimated 3 million having left the workforce over the last year. The crisis has been especially trying for working mothers, with more than half saying their job performance has slipped during the pandemic.

Fortunately, the news is brighter on college campuses, where women are staying enrolled in college at three times the rate of men. While 8 percent of men over the age of 25 have dropped out during the pandemic, just 2 percent of older women have. This is a continuation of a decades-long trend of women out-enrolling men, but it still comes as a surprise. With women disproportionately handling household and childcare responsibilities, many observers predicted the opposite.

As a first-generation college graduate and a working mom who had my second child days after finishing my final MBA class, I have experienced firsthand some of the barriers these women face. That so many have managed to stay enrolled even as a pandemic only added to their workload speaks to their intense determination. But underneath the surface, there are millions of women kicking like hell just to stay above water.

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At least one in five college students are parents, and more than 70 percent of these students are women. There are more than 2.1 million single mothers in higher education, accounting for nearly 20 percent of female undergraduates.

Even before the pandemic, nearly 70 percent of student-parents were living in or near poverty, and the majority of them worked at least 20 hours per week, with one-third working full time. Single moms enrolled in college full-time typically spent nearly nine hours a day on child care and housework. Students with preschool-aged children can spare just 10 hours per day for sleeping, eating, leisure, and studying — a phenomenon researchers have dubbed “time poverty.”

Students raising children are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years. Just 28 percent of students who are single mothers earn a degree or credential within 6 years.

COVID-19 has magnified these challenges. A Lumina Foundation-Gallup study last fall found that student caregivers were 13 percentage points more likely to suspend their education during the height of the pandemic than students who were not caregivers.

As COVID-19 forced schools to close and learning went remote, many women became de facto classroom assistants, juggling their own work and academics while struggling to keep their children focused and on task as they learned from home. Disruptions in childcare left working moms with little support and backup. As a single mother, I’ve become a part-time teacher for my kids as they learn remotely, and that’s alongside my job leading a nonprofit focused on student success. I can confirm there are not enough hours in the day.

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Institutions and policymakers must take steps now to ensure the pandemic does not fester into a long-term economic setback for women in college and the world of work. Over the last year, billions of federal dollars have been allocated for direct emergency cash grants for students that can be spent on not only course materials but food, housing, and childcare. This kind of emergency financial aid can help to ease some of the financial burden working mothers carry.

Institutions can also better leverage the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program to provide campus-based child care services to student-parents from low-income backgrounds. Self-paced education programs can allow parents to more easily schedule their learning around family and work obligations. And targeted advising and coaching designed with the specific needs of parents in mind can help working mothers seek out necessary resources and develop important skills to manage this balancing act.

Fortunately, there is growing momentum around supporting women and mothers in education. Since 2018, the Community College Women Succeed Initiative has worked to address the many hurdles facing women pursuing a college degree. Originally launched by the Biden Foundation and Achieving the Dream, the initiative now includes a three-year project designed to better identify the needs of single mothers at a diverse group of community colleges across the country.

Meanwhile, the Single Moms Success Design Challenge, organized by nonprofit Education Design Lab, is working to raise college completion rates for more than 6,000 single mothers across a network of six major community colleges. These are promising examples of how colleges and universities can expand their commitment to supporting mothers on their pathway to the degree.

College women have proven remarkably resilient during the pandemic. It’s a testament to hard-fought progress — and to the growing commitment by colleges and universities to address the many challenges that these learners face. But the research on single mothers and working women make it clear their path to success remains a narrow one. The pandemic has revealed just how hard they are willing to fight to stay enrolled. Institutions and policymakers must now do all they can to ensure working mothers are not in this fight alone.

Ruth Bauer White is president of InsideTrack, a nonprofit that works with colleges to improve students' success in college.