Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Public Policy

First Advisor

Randy Albelda

Second Advisor

Amy Smith

Third Advisor

Erin O'Brien


An apparent paradox is taking place in the market for postsecondary education. Proprietary (for-profit) schools are presenting themselves as particularly well-suited to enable low-income single mother students to pursue a degree or certificate. While this is a positive step towards improved economic security, these schools also place students at an enhanced risk for student loan default, potentially devastating their financial stability. Using in-depth student interviews, analysis of Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study data, and a field experiment, this research explores the particular risks and benefits to low-income single mother students associated with the pursuit of a postsecondary credential at a proprietary school. Findings indicate that proprietary schools enable low-income and nontraditional students (especially single mothers and students with few resources) to complete school more quickly than public alternatives. Faster completion rates are most often due to proprietary schools' provision of intensive student assistance and less rigorous coursework. Yet low-income single mother students attending proprietary schools are significantly more likely to default on student loans than their classmates. Conversely, low-income single mothers attending similar programs at public schools are no more likely than their classmates to default on student loans.

Policy recommendations stemming from this research are applicable to low-income single mother students and more broadly to low-income and nontraditional students. Recommendations include an investment in the capacity of the community college system to increase competitiveness with proprietary schools and better address the needs of resource-poor nontraditional students, a reevaluation and revision of accreditation standards to ensure comparable quality between school types, and a requirement for increased transparency within the financial aid application process. Further, modifying the Earned Income Tax Credit program to incorporate an educational credit would allow for the direct, efficient provision of needed resources to low-income single parent students. This policy change would foster an enhanced ability for the most resource-poor students to navigate the challenges of postsecondary education without requiring the dedicated assistance that is a trademark of proprietary schools.


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