BEVERLY, Mass. -- Last year at this time, then-21-year-old Monica Hernandez was inspecting catheters on an assembly line, raising her 2-year-old daughter alone and wondering how she'd ever afford their future.
Now she and Kaylee are living free of charge on the seaside campus of Endicott College, where she is studying to be a forensic detective -- which earns up to $70,000 a year. Sharing a house with two other young women and their toddlers, she's part of an Endicott program revived this fall to help single parents pursue advanced degrees without the added burdens of full-time work and high-priced child care.
In Hernandez's case, as for hundreds of other single parents around the country, a newly opened door to education has transformed a grim outlook into a bright one. To unlock that door, participants say, they have needed three keys: motivation, programs to meet their needs and private donors who give money, time and even toys to make it all possible.
''We don't even have to put coins in the laundry machines,'' Hernandez says. ''We love it here.''
Single-parent ranks growing
As a single parent with a drive to get ahead, she is far from alone. According to the Department of Education's latest survey, 13% of the nation's 16.5 million students enrolled in higher education programs were single parents. That's up from 7.6% in 1992-93.
But getting ahead is getting harder. Rising tuition costs are squeezing family budgets just as state and federal cutbacks are redefining what's available for everything from tuition to child care. And for low-income parents, more than one year off work for education is a luxury of the past.
A patchwork of initiatives has cropped up nationwide to help single parents get the degree they need to earn a good living. Yet success stories seldom happen unless others also adopt the single parent's quest for education as a cause of their own.
''This is central to our mission,'' says Sister Jean Messaros, dean of students at College Misericordia in Dallas, Pa. ''We see a college education as the ultimate education, a way to break the cycle of poverty.''
Like Endicott, College Misericordia and Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., have rolled out residency programs for single parents frustrated with the scramble to balance work, parenting and child care. Life is now consolidated on campus, and signs of change are hard to miss.
''We have high chairs in the dining halls and tricycles on the walkways,'' says Lorna Duphiney Edmundson, president of Wilson College, which enrolls 32 mothers with 45 children in its Women with Children program.
At Endicott, life for single parents is a far cry from when Deborah Benoliel dropped out of high school and shared a $500-a-month Boston apartment three years ago. Now, she and her daughter Victorina share a suburban house with two other mothers and their two kids on a wooded lot so quiet ''you can hear the crickets,'' she says.
Nor is life here exactly as it is for most students. The picnic table and mower in the yard seem rather small, unless you're 2 years old. A fuzzy pink phone and purple centipede liven up the living room mantel. And forget Hobbes or Thoreau for this collegiate bathroom reading rack: the sole title is Caring for Your Baby and Young Child.
Providing for family needs, however, is challenging institutions at the bottom line. College Misericordia, for instance, requires about $105,000 a year to support its six mothers and their children, even with a no-cost housing arrangement courtesy of the Sisters of Mercy. Endicott relies on a $20,000 golf fundraiser to supplement other donations, on a campus where tuition alone costs $18,752 a year.
Across the nation, a variety of models have emerged to give single parents a leg up, yet one feature ties them together: a team effort. At least 12 states have scholarships for single parents, but success seems to favor those that can attract ample private dollars.
Case in point: the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund. What began with $2,400 divided equally among eight families in 1984 has become an $870,000 boon to more than 1,500 students. The secret, according to executive director Ralph Nesson, has been twofold: fundraising from local businesses and organizations to get state matching grants, and a steady stream of donations, in excess of $50,000 a year, from the Arkansas-based Walton Family Foundation.
''We've been fortunate to have reliable contributions year after year,'' Nesson says. The program has kept 85% of its students in school.
Less money for child care
Approaches vary from state to state. Activists in Ohio and Missouri, for instance, are launching scholarship programs based on Arkansas' model. Kentucky and California have welfare-to-work programs allowing up to two years of post-secondary education before requiring work. In Minnesota, taxpayers underwrite grants to reduce child-care costs for single parents pursuing an education.
But challenges are similar no matter where single parents live. A chief example is child care. Campus child-care centers watch about 20,000 more children today than 10 years ago, says Gail Solit of the National Coalition for Campus Children's Centers. Night and weekend care is increasingly needed.
However, federal funding for campus child-care centers shrank by almost 40%, a $9 million decrease, between 2001 and 2004. Among those feeling the sting were parents at Borough of Manhattan Community College. After child-care costs rose by $100 to $150 per family a week, at least 12 students dropped out, says Todd Boressoff of the school's Early Childhood Center. ''They can't stay in school,'' he says.
Strong support networks
Even where child care is subsidized, single parents routinely rely on their own networks. All three single parents in Endicott's program, for instance, stay in the area with their own parents every weekend. They are an indispensable help with the kids -- and the miscellaneous costs that keep on coming.
''When you're used to making money, good money, and then no money -- that's a big change,'' says Felicia Wells, who worked office jobs for four years after high school until joining the Endicott program this fall. ''But I put my pride aside . . . Sometimes I ask them, 'Can you buy me a pack of Pampers?' ''
Collective sacrifices seem to bring rewards. Wells says her boyfriend is willing to postpone marriage and see his son only on weekends because ''he believes this is good for all of us.'' The average college graduate earns 38% more than a high school graduate, according to U.S. Census figures.
What's more, single parents have come to campus ''motivated, knowing what they wanted, not just for themselves but for their children,'' says Lynn O'Toole, vice president of finance at Endicott. When the program first existed from 1993 to 1998, she says, single parents had a 3.3 grade point average; the campus average was 2.7.
Endicott single parents have a long road ahead, relying on regular counseling sessions and tutorials to help them thrive. But they know it's worth it.
''More school means more money to me,'' Benoliel says. She knows the alternative, having worked full time at McDonald's. But now she intends to draw on her family's roots in Portugal, Spain and Cape Verde. She speaks four languages and plans to go into international business. ''I've found out it's really expensive to raise a child.''
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