Contextualizing the Support Systems of Single Mothers in College: Facilitating Critical Feminist Analysis Using Mixed Methods

Perry A. Threlfall

Advisor: Shannon N Davis, PhD, Mason Korea

Committee Members: Amy Best, Joseph Scimecca

April 23, 2015, 10:30 AM to 07:00 AM


In theory and policy, access to higher education is increasingly framed as a panacea for poverty. Policymakers roundly argue that facilitating access to a college degree performs the double-duty of attending to ideologies surrounding mobility and freedom while also maintaining the cultural doctrine of individualism and personal responsibility. However, these ideologies present conflicts for single mothers, who continue to experience marginalization through the political and cultural scripts of family values, coupled with overwhelming constraints on time, energy, and social resources. 

Single mothers enroll in college at similar rates as their non-parenting counterparts, but they fail to complete their programs at a rate nearly double that of the general college population.  Researchers in a multitude of disciplines have demonstrated that deep support structures are required to confront the restrictions for persistence that single mother students’ face, yet none have contextualized those recommendations intersectionally.  In this dissertation, I respond to the need to fill in the gaps in the existing literature by triangulating the talk of thirty single mother students with survey responses collected from four hundred single mother students sampled from across the United States, in order to detect contextual patterns in social supports and support networks.

The themes of institutional support, family support, peer support, and community support are identified, and the results demonstrate that single mother students have access to and utilize support networks contextually within each of these thematic categories. A theoretical analysis of the findings are discussed using a feminist critical lens, which contributes to previous sociological work that argues for the intersectional analysis of the lived realities of people in marginalized social locations. Finally, I outline implications for institutional and community policy and practice, as well as recommendations for future research in the areas of student development and mobility.  My results suggest that the facilitation of educational inclusion for single mothers must be a priority for feminism as it addresses the conditions of marginalization during a period of profound economic and sociopolitical change.