Elizabeth Noll, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist at IWPR, received both her B.A. and M.A. degrees in Sociology from Temple University and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Pennsylvania. Before pursuing her BA, Dr. Noll attained her associate’s degree in Computer Science at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC), while raising her daughter Marisa. Earlier this month, Dr. Noll was inducted into MCCC Alumni Hall of Fame, in part because of her decades of work to support the campus’s child care center, as well as her important work and scholarship since she graduated.
IWPR Communications Associate, Nicolas Martinez, interviewed Dr. Noll about her experience as a student parent pursuing higher education and how on-campus child care contributed to her success in school.
- Could you tell us a bit about why you chose to pursue higher education?
I have always had a drive to learn about the world, especially about why things work as they do. However, my parents, who were very bright but who had only high school degrees, felt that as the only girl, the family would be better served by focusing on educating my three brothers. Remember, this was in the late 1950s/early 1960s when only elite women attended college. My mother was a stay-at-home parent. It was also a time when it was possible for people to actually work their way up the ladder. My father did that by working as a custodian in a knitting company and working his way to mechanical engineer and had several patents for machines he designed.
So, although I was an honor student in high school, and had a real desire to continue my education, I entered the workforce, employed with the Department of Public Welfare in Philadelphia as a caseworker— a civil service job that at the time did not require a college degree. In 1980, when the Reagan administration began limiting welfare benefits for the poor, I felt I could no longer serve my clients and left that position. Around the same time, I gave birth to my daughter and, without a partner, found myself responsible for another human being.
I moved in with a friend in the suburbs of Philadelphia. There, I enrolled in Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) mostly because they had a child care program of sorts, in the form of a “Parents Club,” which was a cooperative where parents took turns caring for children while other parents were in class. Not knowing what course of study to pursue, I enrolled in a general studies program. Looking back, this was an ideal program, since it introduced me to a variety of disciplines. Among other areas, the program introduced me to careers in computer sciences. It laid a foundation that I was able to use in a variety of settings, including social research.
- What helped you balance parenthood with school?
Clearly, having a place on campus where I felt my 4-year-old daughter would be cared for while I was in class made my education possible. An unexpected benefit was having a space to share with other parents (mostly single mothers), who were challenging the stereotype and who supported each other when the going got tough, which it almost always does for women raising children on their own. I established long-term friendships there that I have maintained today. (Attached is a photo from this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony with two of those moms). Finally, MCCC, by virtue of having a child care center on campus in 1984, was a forward-thinking college as it continues to be today.
- You now work on IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative. What sort of research are you doing now on these issues?
I feel very fortunate to (finally) be working on projects that I connect with personally. In just the year that I’ve been with IWPR, I’ve worked on several analyses of national education survey data (IPEDS, NPSAS) to produce reports on the growth of the student parent population, along with the decline in on-campus child care; an national and regional profiles of student parents; a report on how community colleges can become family-friendly; an analysis of findings from a survey of campus child care leaders; a report on ways to link campus child care and early childhood education systems (forthcoming); and currently a cost-benefit analysis of higher education for single mothers (forthcoming). In March I attended a national conference of child care centers in Long Beach, CA, where I had the pleasure of hearing from campus child care providers about the issues they’re facing in serving student parents and their children.
- You’re studying the benefits to individuals and society of single mother education. As a former student parent, what is your perspective on the benefits that higher education can bring?
In addition to the very practical benefits of higher education, such as allowing students raising children alone to provide housing, food, healthcare, and education for their children through greater earnings potential, single mothers particularly benefit by acquiring the necessary skills for leadership to contribute to areas that directly address the economic barriers they have encountered—to enlighten researchers and policymakers who have not directly experienced raising children alone on those policies and interventions that actually reflect their lives.
- What sort policies would help student parents pursuing higher education today?
The policy of requiring low-income single mothers, who are attempting to attain a college education to work 20 or more hours per week while in school in order to maintain their public benefits is not at all helpful for the women or for society.
I would also like to see social service database systems reconfigured to include performance measures that reflect the actual qualitative experiences of low-income mothers. My dissertation research revealed disconnects in the designs of college and welfare office data systems that caused some student parents to be sanctioned erroneously and, in many cases, caused them to withdraw from college.
- If you could change one thing about your college experience, what would it be?
I would like to have been able to attend college (especially graduate school) on a full-time basis. Not only would it have taken less time to complete, but part-time college attendance is a qualitatively different experience than attending full-time where one can be truly immersed in a discipline. It is often challenging for non-traditional students, especially student parents, to fully integrate what is being taught when they have to compartmentalize so much of their time. On the other hand, life with children while attending college is an education in itself.
Dr. Noll works on IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative where she conducts policy research related to the needs and experiences of student parents with a focus on increasing postsecondary education access and persistence for low-income mothers. Find IWPR’s research and resources on student parents at IWPR.org.
Take a look at when Elizabeth Noll, Ph.D. was inducted into the Montgomery County Community College Alumni Hall of Fame on Friday, April 28, 2017.
Videos produced by Diane vanDyke and Matt Porter. Music composed by Michael Kelly. Narration by Michele Cuomo.
To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org