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Postnatal College Trajectories: When and Under What Circumstances Do Mothers Enroll?


by Melissa Radey

Background/Context: In light of increasingly common, non-traditional pathways to college enrollment and potential importance of post-secondary education for family wellbeing, this article examines maternal college enrollment. I employ a sociological application of rational action theory in which costs of reentry, probability of success, and utility of education influence enrollment.

Objective: Recently available longitudinal data provide the opportunity to (a) describe maternal college enrollment during the first 9 years after giving birth and (b) consider the influence of demographic (race, nativity, age), economic (poverty level, employment status, occupation) and social (informal social support, public assistance receipt, household composition, maternal health status) covariates on maternal enrollment.

Research Design: The analysis uses secondary data, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), to examine how college enrollment evolves over the child’s first 9 years (n = 2,330 mothers, n = 7,808 observations).

Data Collection and Analysis: The FFCWS is a longitudinal survey of 4,898 children born in 1998–2000 to mostly unmarried, low-income mothers (the sample is comprised of 75% unmarried mothers and a 25% married comparison group). Through a stratified random sampling design, U.S. cities with populations of 200,000 or more were selected, followed by hospitals within the cities, and, finally, beds within hospitals. Using multilevel models of change, the analysis considers social and economic factors that influence college enrollment, and examines how the influences of covariates change over time.

Findings: One-third of mothers enrolled in college at least once during their child’s first 9 years and college enrollment increased as children aged. Mothers’ enrollment levels largely reflected rational action theory such that enrollment costs and probability for success influenced enrollment. Models illuminated differential rates of change. Safety net access and marital status at the child’s birth became more important in differentiating students as children aged.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Mothers’ interest coupled with the short- and long-term benefits of college enrollment suggest that mothers should receive additional support to finance their educations. Findings indicate the need for policies, including welfare policy reform, to support the growing number of student mothers enrolling in college discontinuously and their high levels of disadvantage.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 5, 2017, p. 1-28
http://www.tcrecord.org/library ID Number: 21801, Date Accessed: 11/22/2017 1:16:17 PM


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