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Helping Single Mothers Earn a College Degree

August 25, 2011

By Vicki Austin, Women and Children program

The Women with Children program at Misericordia University is one direct response to Sisters of Mercy foundress Catherine McAuley’s special concern for women – for their safety, welfare and education.

The Sisters of Mercy founded Misericordia University in Dallas, PA, in 1924 to attend to the educational needs of the daughters of the region’s coal miners. The university established its Women with Children program in 2000 to meet the needs of its current student population.

U.S.census data shows that significantly higher poverty rates are experienced nationally by single mothers.  Women are disproportionately single heads of household and they and their families are substantially disproportionately impoverished when compared to their male counterparts.

A college degree is a necessity for these women if they are to become self-sufficient, contributing members of society, able to support their children.  A mother who earns a bachelor’s degree produces double the income of the mother who is only able to complete a high school diploma.   Each mother/child pair on food stamps and Medicare costs taxpayers $5,328 per year.

Through the Women with Children model, Misericordia University has dramatically increased the economic productivity of participating single mothers and their families within one generation.  Thanks to the services offered by the program, single mothers earn a college degree within five years or less. Women with Children offers on-campus community housing, access to healthy food and excellent child care/schooling, free personal counseling, 24-hour support of a program director, parenting support groups, mentor opportunities, family enrichment programs, and many other social and academic supports.

All proceeds from a Sept. 10 gala celebrating the 10th anniversary and naming of the Women With Children Program will benefit the establishment of The Sisters of Mercy Scholarship for Women with Children at Misericordia University. This tuition assistance will help alleviate the debt that graduates of the program often leave with after seeking out grants and loans.

The graduation rate among Women with Children participants is 42.9 percent, a significant increase over the national average of 33 percent for single mothers with children. It is assumed that as further study and program improvement continue, future graduation rates will steadily increase. All graduates of the program have gained full-time professional employment and 90.9 percent have maintained that employment to date.

One graduate, now a licensed practicing physical therapist, recalls the support she received from the program:

I will carry what I learned from the Women with Children experience for the rest of my life.  Women with Children helped to increase my confidence and gave me the assistance I needed to complete a five-year physical therapy degree.  The support of a director, my two mentors, my housemates and the opportunity to live on campus all helped to make my dream of a college degree a reality.  The structure of the Women with Children program also gave me the opportunity to be the best parent possible while enjoying the true college experience.

“My daughter and I were truly fortunate in that we had the opportunity to play together, study together, and make the honor roll together,” she said.  “The five years we spent at Misericordia were life changing.”

For more information regarding the Women with Children program at Misericordia University, please contact the director, Vicki Austin, at

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