Poster Paper: Mothers’ School Re-Enrollment: A Mixed Methods Study of Effects and Processes for Both Generations of Mothers’ Return to School

Thursday, November 7, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Exhibits (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Theresa Anderson, George Washington University

This research examines the experiences of mothers and their children when mothers re-enroll in school and the effects of this decision on a broad range of outcomes for each generation in the short- and long-term. The research particularly illuminates "transition effects" (short-term wellbeing trade-offs) for families while mothers are pursuing additional education. It then explores the trajectory of wellbeing indicators for mothers and children for up to two decades after mothers re-enter school using survey data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the Child and Young Adult Supplement. Examined wellbeing indicators extend beyond traditional economic and academic measures to also include physical health, behavior and mental health, and social indicators (such as marriage).

In this mixed-methods study, additional and contemporary insights come from in-depth qualitative interviews with mothers who are pursuing additional education. The qualitative work also highlights concrete policy recommendations that might alleviate transition costs and therefore improve longer-term outcomes for families.

Mothers’ school re-entry is a critical issue in the modern structure of American families, the U.S. higher educational system, and the 21st Century economy. At any given time, about 8% of US households have a mother enrolled in school, and about 30% of minor children see their mothers pursue additional education. In addition, a growing number of college students are mothers. In 2012, 34% of female undergraduates were mothers—3.5 million student-mothers. The rate of undergraduate motherhood increased 18% from 1996 to 2012. Growth in the portion of college students who are mothers—even as the age of college students has remained steady—corresponds with racial and ethnic diversification of higher education. At the same time, various policy and program interventions encourage adults to improve their skills to compete in the modern labor market.

Program evaluations of education and skills training interventions for adults often track outcomes only for program enrollees for a relatively short time. Little is known about how short-term effects of adult-serving educational interventions relate to and evolve into wellbeing decades in the future. And researchers rarely acknowledge other members of the program enrollees’ households that are indirectly affected by the intervention.

Therefore, this research may have implications for policy and practice on at least two fronts. First, the findings can inform policies that make it easier for adult women to continue their education and improve family outcomes. This is particularly important for women of color, who are more likely to experience education disruptions and return to school later in life, and who represent an ever-growing share of higher education students. Second, the research may provide insights to help researchers quantify the likely limitations of evaluations that are focused on one generation for a short follow-up period. This would most directly assist researchers carrying out cost-benefit analyses by quantifying long-term and cross-generational spillover effects.

This study is multidisciplinary, with theoretical contributions from economics, sociology, and human development/education literatures. It strongly relates to the thread of two-generation research that has emerged in policy and program evaluation circles in the past decade.