Single mothers struggle for education

Jeanette Federico, a single mother attending The University of Phoenix, with her son.
Jeanette Federico, a single mother attending The University of Phoenix, with her son.

The absence of on-campus daycare centers, the cost of tuition, and a traditional university structure are factors that tend to isolate single mothers attending college and challenge their success.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, there are over 2 million single mothers attending college in the United States. Women with children tend to leave school with more student loan debt than students without children, according to the 2014 study.

According to Lia Pierse, Helping Hands for Single Moms Tucson executive director, who is a single mother and supported herself through college, a college education is a reliable source of economic mobility for single mothers. Education, however, does not come without its obstacles.

Helping Hands for Single Moms is a non-profit organization that serves low-income single mothers and their families. The organization was founded in 2002 to address the obstacles single mothers face as they earn a college degree. The organization, which began in Phoenix, provides stipends, scholarships and other forms of aid to single mothers.

The lack of on-campus daycare centers is one of the challenges single mothers attending college face, according to Pierse and other single mothers.

“The biggest help to most single moms would be having affordable childcare on campus,” said single mother Lirio Dicochea, a Pima Community College student. “It would make such a huge difference to know that they [colleges and universities] want to make sure you can make it there and be there when you need to be.”

Of the three Arizona universities, Arizona State University is the only one that has on-campus daycare centers. While Northern Arizona University and The University of Arizona provide daycare vouchers accepted at qualified daycare centers in the city, neither has a daycare center on campus.

Aside from the cost of daycare, which can be upwards of $150 a week per child, on-campus daycare centers would relieve single mothers from the added stress of traveling around town to pick up their children after and between classes.

Followed by childcare, unreliable transportation is another significant challenge single mothers face, according to Michelle Pitot, YWCA Southern Arizona chief of staff.

“Little things can really derail a single mom’s education like a car breakdown because you can’t get to school, you can’t get your kids to school, or to their childcare provider,” Pierse said.

Along with the cost of daycare, the cost of raising children, and unforeseen expenses like a car breakdown, the cost of tuition is a significant financial barrier many single mothers encounter.

“Even with student loans, the evaluation for financial aid doesn’t really take into consideration having a family,” said Sarah Netherton, a single mother and a doctorate of nursing practice student at the University of Arizona. “Its [financial aid] really only designed to give one person enough money to survive so even taking out the maximum amount of student loans every semester, I was still really tight financially.”

Like many students, single mothers often rely on student loans to fund their education. However, unlike most traditional students, single moms also have a full time job.

Juggling a full-time job with coursework and childcare requires exhaustive time management, according to Jeanette Federico, a single mother and student at the University of Phoenix.

Federico is completing her degree at the University of Phoenix through online accelerated classes – an untraditional path that she believes fits the unique needs of single mothers. Her hope is that more universities, like the University of Arizona, implement accelerated online classes.

In addition to the financial inaccessibility of a college education, single mothers often feel alienated on college campuses, according to Pierse.

“Going to school as a single mom can be a really isolating feeling,” Pierse said. “People are in their study groups or they’re going out. Moms are just worried about, ‘I have to leave in five minutes to pick up my kid from daycare or else I’m going to be charged.’”

To address the issue of isolation, Helping Hands for Single Moms developed a network, the Single Mom College Community. This network provides the space for mothers to support one another and participate in professional networking. The network also includes mentorship opportunities and motivational speakers.

From dental care to scholarships, Helping Hands for Single Moms attends to the needs of single moms and their children and has assisted over 450 families since 2002. Efforts, including those by Helping Hands for Single Moms, help financially mobilize single mothers.

In 2011, there were 10 million single mothers with children under the age of 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A 2014 study by the Grand Canyon Institute found that “79 percent of low-income single-parent households are headed by women.” In addition, “32 percent of all single-mother households are low-income.”

“In Tucson, the face of poverty really is single moms and immigrants,” said Pitot.

According to Pitot, most entry-level job positions do not support a single mother family and instead tend to support a cycle of poverty, which creates a greater need for a college education.

“The cycle of poverty has to do with people getting off public support systems. They get a job, but then they lose all of their benefits. They don’t have good childcare, they don’t have paid sick leave, they never see their kids anymore and they’re still living in poverty so they get frustrated, they quit their job, and they’re back on unemployment again,” Pitot said. “That’s the cycle of poverty because they can never really get ahead.”

YWCA Southern Arizona has developed programming including professional development and mentorship that attends to the needs of women once they locate a job and wish to advance in their career.

For single mothers, receiving a college education is not a selfish act. Rather, it is almost always an endeavor to elevate the lives of their children.

“Everything they’re doing at this point becomes trying to just help their children out and help them have a better quality of life,” Pierse said.

Kassandra Manriquez is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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One comment Add yours
  1. Thank you for pinpointing that single mothers are educating themselves in spite of the obstacles they face as nontraditional students. I believe single moms are an overlooked target market because of the negative labels society has slapped us with. Perhaps, Universities/Colleges will become conscientious of this demographic and provide amenities to serve them.

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