Tara Stephens, 20, graduated from high school with honors and won a full academic scholarship to Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio.
But the same year, she became pregnant with her daughter, Andrianna.
"I couldn't go to college because I couldn't commute and I couldn't live on campus," said Ms. Stephens, who lived in Cleveland with her mother for one year after her baby was born, supported by money from Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
But today Ms. Stephens is a college sophomore. In 1990 she was accepted, along with three other women with children, as part of a new program at Baldwin-Wallace titled Single Parents Reaching Out for Unassisted Tomorrows, or SPROUT.
"Now I have the kind of help I really need," said Ms. Stephens, an accounting major. "I live in a house on campus with the other mothers and their children, and I enjoy it. My daughter goes to day care right here on campus, and she enjoys it. I get support from the other women and have learned a lot from the parenting programs we have."
Ms. Stephens, the first generation of her family to go to college, hopes to become a computer scientist or accountant.
"The SPROUT program is a big help to single mothers," she said. "It makes the difference between staying in college or dropping out -- and it also helps your child."
Breaking the web of poverty through education is the program's goal, said founder, Denise Reading, director of student life at Baldwin-Wallace, who started SPROUT with no funding. The program has received a $60,000 grant for two years from Ohio and a $100,000 grant for three years from the Elyria, Ohio-based Nordson Foundation.
"Education is the pipeline to opportunity," Ms. Reading said, "and when we talk about the four people currently enrolled in the program, we're really talking about eight -- mothers and children breaking out of welfare cycles.
"High school diplomas are not enough to support a family. Without education, these women would have limited choices. Education gives them the opportunity to earn good wages and to be independent," she said.
The program director first saw the need for SPROUT when she counseled a student who became pregnant as a college freshman.
"She was a very bright pre-med student with high aspirations -- but she was struggling academically," Ms. Reading said. "She had to commute by bus with her baby one hour each way, didn't have dependable child care on campus and was close to being on probation."
The student, one of the first SPROUT members, was able to stay in school and now has a 3.2 grade average on a scale of 4.
SPROUT students get grants for their education and Jobs Program Training Assistance money for child care at a center on campus. They live free in a "child-proofed" faculty house with a staff director. Sessions on parenting, self-esteem and career planning are held at the house. A second SPROUT house for four more single mothers and their children will open in the fall.
Charity J. Hawkins, 19, whose son, Caleb, is 20 months old, is a psychology major in her first year at Baldwin-Wallace.
"After Caleb was born, I was going to try to go to a community college near where I live, but I don't know if I would have," said Ms. Hawkins, who got average grades in high school but now gets straight A's.
The SPROUT program motivated her.
"I'm determined to do the best for both of us, Caleb and me," Ms. Hawkins said. "I'm in charge of my life now, I know what I want, and I know I'll eventually get it. But without education, there's no way I could do it."
Support is critical for single mothers trying to get an education.
"The SPROUT program is wonderful because it gives support and creates a community, rather than feeling you're alone," said Dolores E. Cross, 54, president of Chicago State University. "If this country is really serious about breaking the cycle of poverty, we have to give these young women a chance; otherwise we will have another generation of poor people."
Ms. Cross knows about poverty firsthand.
"I grew up in a housing project in Newark, N.J., and my mother was on welfare for a period of time, but she was encouraged to go to a community college and became an operator and supervisor for the telephone company," said Ms. Cross, who was married at 17, had two children and put herself through college.
Her mother's achievement "had a ripple effect on me and my daughters -- one is a lawyer and the other a music teacher," said Ms. Cross, whose first act as Chicago State president last year was to extend the campus child-care center's hours to the evening and the library's to 2 a.m.
"If you want to go the distance, you must be educated," said Ms. Cross, who ran in the Chicago Marathon last October and hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon in April.