Babies, Books, and Bootstraps
Non-traditional students are quickly becoming a statistical majority of the undergraduate student population. Furthermore, nearly one-quarter of contemporary undergraduates is a student parent. Emergent imperatives shaped by technological changes in the economy, deindustrialization, credential inflation, the continuing feminization of poverty and the diminished safety net for low-income families have created a mandate for postsecondary education for anyone hoping to move from poverty into the middle-class. Yet, welfare reforms of the past 17 years have de-prioritized, discouraged, and disallowed post-secondary education as a meaningful pathway for low-income parents to achieve economic mobility, even despite a large body of research demonstrating the connections between higher education and: income, occupational prestige, access to employer sponsored benefits, positive intergenerational outcomes, community development, and broader societal gains. While previous research has focused on the impact of welfare reform on access to post-secondary education for participants within the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance program, declining overall TANF participation rates indicate that low-income families are largely turning to more diverse strategies to support their families and pursue higher education. Despite both the recent growth of the population of student parents as a significant minority of the undergraduate population, and the rise of governmental initiatives promoting the expansion of post-secondary education and training to traditionally underserved student populations, very little is known about the comprehensive experiences of contemporary low-income mothers as they navigate college while simultaneously working to balance these endeavors with motherhood and family labor, paid employment and public assistance requirements. This dissertation presents the findings of a multi-method institutional ethnographic research process through which the author collected data regarding the experiences of low-income mothers across the country. This process included conducting in-depth interviews with 31 low-income mothers who were currently enrolled in college or who had been enrolled in college within the past year. Additionally, research journals were collected from an additional 20 participants documenting their experiences across an academic term. In total these participants represented 10 states in three regions of the United States: The West Coast, Mid-West, and Northeast. Secondary data were collected through: institutional interviews with student parent program coordinators, collection of primary materials from programs serving student parents throughout the country, and review of primary policy documents regarding higher education and federal and state welfare policies. As a feminist participatory action research project, participatory methods were employed at all stages of the research process and included the use of two interpretive focus groups within campus-based programs serving student parents that both added to the research findings and to the process of analysis and interpretation. The findings of this dissertation begin by painting the picture of the complex lifeworlds of low-income mothers and their simultaneous experience of role strain and material hardship as they work to balance the responsibilities of college enrollment with mothering, work, and the labor involved in researching, applying for and maintaining multiple public assistance benefits. Next, the author argues that conflicts between higher education policies and public assistance policies as experienced by participants shape the strategies through which they attempt to make ends meet and finance their education and ultimately exacerbate their experiences of role strain and material hardship. The author then moves to explore the impact that these policies have on academic outcomes for this sub-set of students. The dissertation concludes with a discussion of the broader social context in which this takes place: one in which policies have been structured on meritocracy rather than equal opportunity for higher education. This presents a dual-edge sword scenario however in that the American Dream both drives the motivation of low-income mothers to persevere in college despite tremendous hardship and personal sacrifice, while it also serves to frame the very policies that make their quest for higher education so grueling.