Every newly minted college grad clutching a diploma feels victorious. When Yissy Perez dons a cap and gown at Tufts University in May, she will have particular reason to celebrate. She earned her degree in civil engineering the hard way, living a double life as student and single mother to a daughter, now 22 months.
Her living arrangements made that academic journey even more difficult. Like most universities, Tufts (in Medford, Mass., a Boston suburb) offers no on-campus housing for mothers. Home for Ms. Perez has been a dorm. Her baby, Alleyh, lives with Perez's mother and grandmother in Lawrence, Mass., a two-hour commute by bus, subway, and train.
"I only get to see her on weekends," Perez says. "It's very hard for me."
Women now outnumber men in colleges and universities. But for those with young children, the path to a degree – and self-sufficiency – is often blocked by two obstacles: housing and child care.
Now those obstacles are propelling mothers at Tufts and elsewhere to speak up. "We want to start a movement to provide equal housing to everyone," says Griselmarie Alemar, a married Tufts student who is the mother of a 6-month-old son.
As a first step, the Tufts Community Union Senate has just passed a resolution calling for equal access to on-campus housing for undergraduate mothers. The group also gathered signatures from 600 students in support of the measure.
Bruce Reitman, dean of students, notes that the school has worked individually with mothers to meet their needs. That includes legal help, financial support, and counseling. Calling the request to provide housing for undergraduate parents "a new discussion for us," he says, "We can't tell you if it's possible to do that or not. If it's possible, we'll do it. But we've got to have the conversation about what it is they're looking for." He adds that providing a day-care center is particularly difficult.
Beyond housing and child care, these women sometimes face another challenge: stereotypes about young mothers. "Right now in our society it's deemed that if you're a young parent, you're doing it wrong, and you've ruined your life," Ms. Alemar says. "Twenty years ago, if you had a kid at 30, it was [considered] odd. Now if you have a baby before 30, it's odd."
Last fall, Anne Stevenson, a 2006 graduate of Tufts, formed the Tufts Alliance for the Advancement of Mothers to advocate for housing. Explaining that dozens of mothers drop out of school each year because they lack housing, she says, "Without an education, they cannot make a better life for their families."
As she studied for a degree in political science, Ms. Stevenson held two jobs, carried a full course load, and cared for her young son. Because she could not live on campus with him, she paid $1,500 a month for an apartment in a high-crime neighborhood of Somerville, Mass. Even with a full academic scholarship, she accumulated $35,000 in loans and debts.
At Endicott College in Peabody, Mass., seven mothers and their children live in apartments designed specifically for parents. The dormitory features a playroom inside and a play yard outside. Next year a custodial father and his child will join the program.
"Two of the mothers are honor students, and two freshmen made the dean's list," says Jill Sullivan, director of the Keys to Degrees program. "They have quite a stressful schedule and workload, and they get it done."
Richard Wylie, Endicott's president and creator of the program, notes another advantage. "It's important that other students see these single mothers as not just the beneficiaries of federal aid and state aid," he says. "They want to be independent."
Expressing disappointment that more colleges do not see this as an opportunity, he adds, "What would we save in all the subsidies of life if we could give them an education and make them independent?"
Now Endicott and seven other schools with full residential programs for mothers are forming an alliance. "We want the government and other schools to see the need for this and how it can work on a college campus," Ms. Sullivan says. Members include Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa.; College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa.; Texas College in Tyler; Berea College in Kentucky; Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio; College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Neb.; and Saint Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va.
At Baldwin-Wallace, nearly three-quarters of the mothers who start the residential program earn degrees. "People have gone on to become accountants, lawyers, college administrators," says George Richard, director of college relations.
At Berea College, which is unique in that it gives all students full-tuition scholarships, mothers receive financial support, academic support, healthcare, and child care. "In this area of Appalachia, we have a higher incidence of single parents," says Tim Jordan, a spokesman. "When they earn a degree, it breaks the cycle of poverty."
For Katherine Arnoldi, a longtime advocate for college mothers, these schools represent only a beginning. "I'm for opening up access to elite campuses," she says, citing Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others. She considers state colleges the best for mothers, ranking the University of Florida and the University of California, Davis, as her top choices.
Besides the Tufts initiative and the college alliance, there are other burgeoning signs of support.
Ms. Arnoldi has just launched an online magazine, collegemommagazine.com. At American University in Washington, D.C., Danielle Cooney is trying to establish a new sorority for mothers, called Mu Tau Rho, Mothers Together in Parenting. And at Wellesley College, a group called Sisters' Keepers helps students with children. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly named Ms. Arnoldi's website.]
Elizabeth Audley, a 2006 graduate of Wellesley who works with the group, was a sophomore when she became pregnant. Because Wellesley has no housing for mothers, she and her young daughter spent several months homeless. They bounced from house to house, staying with friends and family.
"The whole thing really opened my eyes," she says. "There are so many barriers that still exist for women who are mothers – professionally and educationally."
Yet even some strong supporters of education for young mothers understand the challenges colleges face. "Institutions should do whatever they can to aid in this process," says Chelsea Toder, a co-president of VOX, a branch of Planned Parenthood. But, she asks, "If you provide housing to undergraduate mothers, how about married students? ... [Or] students who have to care for family members? Everyone has things in their lives that limit them, and it is difficult to figure out when you must alter your own life and when a system should be altered for you."
For Arnoldi, it's clear. "Colleges are going to have to appropriate money for housing on campus for pregnant and parenting students," she says. "There are more of them coming, especially now that students on college campuses are older.... And more day care couldn't hurt."