Earning a higher education is increasingly necessary for achieving family economic security. For single mothers, who are more likely to live in poverty than other women, earning postsecondary credentials can bring substantial benefits, from increased lifetime earnings and employment rates to better health outcomes and chances of success for their children (Attewell and Lavin 2007; Carnevale, Rose, and Cheah 2011; Hout 2012; IWPR 2019a; Magnuson 2007). Single mother college students, however, often face obstacles that can complicate their ability to complete their educational programs. Just eight percent earn a degree within six years of enrolling, compared with roughly half of women in college who are not mothers (49 percent; IWPR 2019a). Greater investments in helping single mothers persist in college and graduate would benefit their families, their communities, and society as a whole.

This briefing paper describes findings from a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) estimating the economic costs and benefits of single mothers’ pursuit and attainment of college degrees. The study estimates the economic returns at the individual and societal levels to single mothers’ attainment of associate and bachelor’s degrees, as well as for single mothers who earn some college education, but no degree, at the national and state levels. It also estimates the returns to strategic investments in supportive services that would be likely to increase single mothers’ college success (an overview of IWPR’s study methodology can be found in Appendix A). State-level estimates of the gains to single mothers and their families, and to state economies more broadly, when single mothers go to college are also published separately in fact sheets for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.[1]

IWPR’s study finds substantial economic gains to families headed by single mothers and to the economy as the result of their college enrollment and graduation. These findings demonstrate the importance of investing in greater access to college for single mothers, including in the supports that can help them be successful once enrolled. The briefing paper concludes with recommendations for how federal and state policymakers and institutions can build on this evidence to create educational environments that promote single mothers’ success through improved data collection, greater access to key supportive services, clear campus policies for students with children, and leveraging existing social safety net programs to support parenting college students.

Read the full national overview.

[1] Fact sheets for each state can be found on IWPR’s website: