Penny Fox did not complete high school. Single mother of two, jobs you can find tend to be retail, at stores like Walmart and Home Depot.
But Fox wants better paid work. want a career. To get one, she’s been taking classes at Arizona College – intermittently – for 10 years.
“I was a kid in nursery school,” Fox says. “I slip back and forth into a bad psychological state, and I don’t always finish what I start with. I try to change that.”
What will it take for college to really support this change?
It’s a question Pima Community College and the Arizona Women’s Foundation are trying to answer. Since 2020, they have run a pilot program, called Pathways for Single Mothers, that provides comprehensive services to help low-income women raising children pursue stable careers by obtaining college credentials.
Not just any credentials, however. Specifically workforce training certifications that align with industries in labor-starved Arizona that pay “family-sustaining wages.” That means paying a sum high enough “to make those families self-sufficient and not have to reconsider public benefits,” says Amalia Luxardo, executive director of the Arizona Women’s Foundation. For a single parent with a preschool child in Pima County, the foundation calculates that pay to be about $42,000.
Programs at Pima Community College that fit pay and employment standards include automated industrial technology; Building and construction technology. Information Technology; Logistics and Supply Chain Management.
If these pathways seem like surprising career paths for women, it’s no accident. Pathways encourages mothers to enter industries that tend to hire more men – because these industries tend to pay better. They are also areas where it only takes about one year to obtain an entry level certificate. Anytime a parent gets this certification, Luxardo says, “it really accelerates the path of these families’ ability to move out of the fringes.”
Pathways provides academic assistance to mothers, covers education costs, and pays them a stipend. It also helps with what can be a major barrier for single mothers trying to go back to school: finding childcare. Even program leaders have successfully campaigned to change state law so that parents who pursue a higher education are eligible for general childcare benefits.
As the results of the first year of Pathways show, not even all of this support is enough to ensure that women like Fox can complete workforce training efficiently, affordably and without undue stress. (The coronavirus pandemic that struck soon after the program launched didn’t help either.)
But even if it takes longer than expected to obtain credentials, a program like Pathways for Single Moms makes that goal — and the larger task of changing your life — seem possible, says Monique Ortega, a parent who studies supply chain management through the program.
“I felt like it gave me the confidence not to give in to myself, and I feel like that’s just one of the things a lot of moms go through: We don’t feel like we can do these things,” she says. “It makes it easier, knowing you are not alone. They encourage you.”
Support for single mothers
It is difficult for millions of single mothers in the United States to make a living as a group, they have less education and less income than other women and other mothers. As of 2019, nearly half of young single mothers were earning less than $30,000 annually.
In Arizona, 70,000 single mothers who worked full-time before the pandemic did not have a college degree or bachelor’s degree, according to research from the Arizona Women’s Foundation. More than 30,000 working single mothers obtained only a high school diploma. The types of occupations they tend to enter offer median wages under $30,000, including customer service representative, secretary, retail sales supervisor, cashier, and medical assistant.
Leaders at the Foundation and Pima Community College know that a degree or advanced degree can make more single mothers in Arizona eligible for better pay and less vulnerable to poverty. But for these same women, finding the money to pay and time to attend college courses can be a challenge.
Pathways participants don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, or where they and their children will sleep in the coming days. Most receive public aid, such as food stamps. Many debts, including student debt.
“It’s not uncommon to hear the team come in and say, ‘So-and-so is homeless as of tomorrow,’ or live in her car and job,” says Laurie Kierstead-Joseph, associate vice chancellor at Pima Community College for Basic Adult Education at the college.
Some participants endure other hardships, too. When Fox heard about Pathways for Single Moms, she was living with her children at a shelter for abused women.
That was one of the social services organizations college and institution leaders turned to when trying to recruit up to 20 women into the first Pathways cohort, which began in January 2020 on courses for automated industrial technology, logistics and supply chain management. Program leaders also identified eligible students who have already taken courses at Pima.
“Recruiting can be challenging, although there is a huge need out there,” says Kierstead-Joseph.
Dozens of women ended up enrolling in Pathways that semester. The ages of the women ranged from 22 to 37 years. At least nine of them have children under the age of six. Seven were identified as Latino, two as African or Caribbean, one as multiracial, one as Caucasian and one as “other”.
When starting Pathways, the first type of support mothers receive from students is academic. Their courses use Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, a model that helps students strengthen their math, reading and writing skills as they prepare for a career. Kierstead-Joseph notes that people who take IBEST courses, whether or not they hold a high school diploma, have better completion rates than other students.
Fox appreciates the teaching she has received through the IBEST Pathways courses, which she says is better than the instruction she has received on other courses she has taken in the past.
“When I ask for help, they will help me,” Fox says. “If I had a question, they wouldn’t lose their patience.”
Another form of financial support. The tuition fee for women in the program is paid by the institution. Students receive a monthly stipend, which started at $416 but increased to $815 in November 2021 due to the higher cost of living. An emergency fund is also available, which some participants have used to pay bills, buy food and, in one case, retrieve a reserved car.
More support comes through relationships, whether with advisors at the college and institution or with other student mothers. Program leaders hope that participants will form a network they can rely on when embarking on new careers – as well as a community that provides them with a sense of belonging.
To facilitate this interconnection, Pathways leaders host workshops and activities that bring students, mothers, and their children together.
At a fall gathering in a garden, says Emily Wilson, director of Pathways for Single Moms. “We brought in a professional photographer to take family photos for them, to help make their entire experience a little better.”
Looking for child care
Before Ortega enrolled in Pathways, she had tried to study to become a paralegal. She also tried to train to become a nursing assistant.
“It didn’t work because it wasn’t for people like me,” she says of those programmes. “I needed to work, I needed to be able to pay my bills and keep my kids in childcare, and everything – it was very difficult.”
Finding reliable and affordable child care is a hindrance for many single mothers trying to further their education. Some community colleges have childcare available on their campuses, but the number they offer has been shrinking.
In Arizona, a law provided a benefit for low-income parents to use for childcare costs, but required them to work 20 hours a week to receive the benefit. This goes against the goal that Pathways leaders have set for student mothers: to study full time in order to earn their degrees faster and then re-enter the workforce with better-paying jobs.
“We all know that 20 hours a week in a dead-end job that doesn’t pay well isn’t going to do these families much good,” Luxardo says. “We need to take the weight of childcare off these families so they can focus on getting a job, so they don’t need those benefits again.”
Therefore, the foundation successfully lobbied to change the law in the spring of 2021.
Until this rule change is implemented, though, the foundation has secured funds to help Pathways participants cover the costs of sending their children to quality childcare providers.
But it turns out that this support did not necessarily benefit the student mothers. Among the women in the first group, some women had children of school age who did not need day care. Other women already have their own childcare arrangements. Some preferred to leave their children with relatives and friends – although such care does not necessarily meet official standards of “high quality”. Still, other mothers cannot find open places in a suitable and approved center, possibly due in part to the effects of the pandemic on the early learning sector.
“You should find one in your area [that] It takes both of your kids—and sometimes there’s no opportunity for specific ages,” Ortega says. “I made sure before I started, that babysitting was ready to go.”
Pathways leaders are discovering ways to make quality child care more engaging and accessible for student mothers. Of the 20 new women who registered in January 2022, about half are interested in benefiting from this type of support, Wilson says.
By the end of the year, Pima Community College is set to open a childcare center on one of its campuses.
Soon after the Spring 2020 semester began, the pandemic struck. College courses moved online, childcare became scarce and student mothers found much of their lives disrupted.
Despite the unexpected change in circumstances, the first set of pathways for single mothers were evaluated by the University of Arizona’s Community Research, Evaluation and Development Team.
Of the 12 women who started, three withdrew in the first trimester. Three successfully completed certification requirements during the year – the intended time frame. Four women who did not finish the program on time returned to complete their degrees.
The evaluation found that participants’ food security improved overall during the year. Program salaries have proven to be an important source of income for them.
But there were challenges. Many students felt they were struggling with math courses. College and institutional leaders have had a hard time managing the student mothers’ caseload and providing all the help they need to succeed.
The report asks: “Is there a specific threshold for stability and readiness that a potential participant must meet in order to be accepted into the next group?”
Fox still has semesters to finish. “I haven’t told anyone I’m late yet,” she says. “There is a lot of homework to do every week. I don’t feel like it’s time.”
Ortega also struggled to keep up with the pace, and had to redo some classes. But she eventually got her degree — and decided to keep going. She is now pursuing an undergraduate degree in supply chain management.
“He really encouraged me not to stop,” Ortega says.
When Ortega gets that degree, she knows she has options. She thinks about the opportunities she will address. Although she knows some of her classmates want jobs at Amazon, she’s considering roles at a food bank store, in part because she’s currently volunteering at a diaper bank.
“It’s always good to give back to people,” Ortega says. “Obviously I need to support my kids, but I also want to do something I love.”