Abstract: (WITHDRAWN) The Intersection of Social Work Science and Postsecondary Education: Maternal Postnatal Educational Attainment and Economic Wellbeing (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

420P (WITHDRAWN) The Intersection of Social Work Science and Postsecondary Education: Maternal Postnatal Educational Attainment and Economic Wellbeing

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Briana Starks, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Background and Introduction

This mixed methods study explores the financial coping strategies employed by low-income student mothers previously or currently enrolled in college. Students with children represent 22% of undergraduates in the U.S. (IWPR, 2019). Prior research has shown that mothers’ degree completion is related to increases in wages and improved labor market outcomes (Zhan & Pandey, 2004). However, less is known about the experiences of student mothers while in college. This study seeks to interrogate the financial coping strategies and negotiations that women with children face while pursuing postsecondary education. Colleges and universities are often understudied in the field of social work, yet these social and economic institutions further stratify economically vulnerable students and their families (Goldrick-Rab, 2016).


This mixed methods study uses an explanatory sequential design. Specifically, my methodology hails from the dialectical pluralism tradition in mixed methods studies (Johnson, 2017). By engaging in dialectical pluralism, I allow space for contradictions and tensions between different paradigms and worldviews (for example postpositivism & feminism) which informed the study design and the analytic stage of the project (Greene, 2007; Johnson & Stefurak, 2013). Using longitudinal data from fifteen years of the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), this study followed (n=2,152) mothers including (n=495) mothers with increases in postsecondary education (PSE). I ran logistic regression models with predicted probabilities across three indicators of economic hardship. The follow-up qualitative phase of the study included 20 in-depth interviews with low-income student mothers who were no longer enrolled in college. Data from the interviews were used to provide an explanation of specific results from the initial quantitative phase (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2018).


Regression analyses reveal that maternal educational attainment was associated with a decrease in economic hardship at later waves (children age 9 and children age 15), but not in earlier waves. Bachelor’s degree completion of mothers was associated with an improvement in conservative depression measures in mothers, as well as a significant increase in familial income. Data from interviews further explained these findings with additional insight into the resources low-income student mothers utilized while in school (including social welfare programs and student loans), as well as provided a nuanced account of their earning and wage trajectory after degree completion.


This study confirms prior studies that highlight the link between maternal educational attainment and increases in earnings (Deterding, 2017). However, the results, particularly from the in-depth interviews, call for revisiting the study of welfare-to-work programs that dominated social work science and research after welfare reform in 1996. This study illuminates the gaps in services from both public benefit programs and PSE institutions to promote degree attainment in low-income women, thereby promoting the wellbeing of low-income children. Too often, studies on student mothers remain bound by capitalist ideologies of success and only consider degree attainment or debt-to-income ratio in assessing whether or not college is “worth it.” This study moves beyond this framework to center the voices of low-income mothers to determine the “worthiness” of their education for themselves.