More than one in four female undergraduate college students was a mother in 2016, adding up to 2.6 million student-mothers in the US. And moms going to school is not new. Over a lifetime, one-third of all women born between 1957 and 1964 have enrolled in school since having children.
Going back to school, especially completing a degree, helps mothers and their children. Among mothers born between 1957 and 1964, I find those who reenrolled in school completed more education and earned over $2,000 per year more than similar mothers who did not. Their children demonstrated better educational outcomes too, including being 16 percent more likely to earn a college degree.
Positive effects for families were larger when moms completed college degrees
Women who completed two- or four-year college degrees earned more than $6,700 more per year, on average. Their children were 38 percent more likely to finish college, and their children saw earnings gains even in early adulthood.
But less than one-quarter of mothers who went back to school without a college degree completed one. When women went back to school and did not complete a degree, they experienced negative long-term mental health effects, and their children experienced adverse physical health. And children whose mothers enrolled in school were more likely to show signs of behavioral issues. Women who reenrolled in school were also less likely to be married in the long term, for complex reasons described in the brief.
Mothers and their families need more support to meet their education goals
The following five areas of policy focus can help moms realize their educational goals:
- Provide a safe and welcoming campus culture. Recognize and support student-parents on campus, including counting and tracking them, instituting family-friendly campus policies and practices, and providing reasonable accommodations and flexibilities for students balancing families with school (and often, employment).
- Offer advising support. Approach advising holistically, look beyond academic issues and ensure advisors have training in issues specific to student-parents. Advisors can direct student-parents to high-quality education programs and appropriate resources.
- Increase child care access. Expand child care availability, affordability, and support—especially on-campus options and availability during nontraditional hours. Financial aid calculations could also routinely account for child care costs. A recent WorkRise analysis estimated that expansions to the Child Care and Development Fund, a public subsidy program for student-parents, could increase college enrollment by more than a quarter-million parents, increase degree completion by 20 percent, increase family earnings substantially among those who complete, and ultimately decrease child poverty.
- Improve access to financial support. Streamline financial aid for student-parents, leverage other sources of support (such as through the workforce development system), and make supports more accessible through the tax and safety net systems. This may include counting education toward work requirements.
- Provide other social supports. Offer paid family leave, including for students, and clarify Title IX protections for pregnant and student-parents. Also, provide marriage and parenting support and improve coordination between child-serving and adult-serving educational institutions.
In honor of Mother’s Day, what could be better than helping a mom define, pursue, and achieve her educational goals, especially when it also benefits her children?
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.