Ensuring Policies Support Young, Parenting Students

Student Parent Month Spotlight Blog
Blog Post
Illustration by Mandy Dean
Sept. 26, 2023

Kate Westaby is a doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, a researcher and program evaluator, and one of the more than 4 million student parents currently enrolled in our system of higher education. Driven by her own experiences, Kate’s work highlights the importance of focusing on young parents and the challenges they face accessing, persisting in, and completing college.

As part of our ongoing blog series focused on student parents, New America sat down with Kate to discuss how institutional leaders and policymakers can better support these students.

In celebration of Student Parent Month, we are rereleasing this blog, originally published in June 2023, with additional content from the interviewee.

Kate Westaby, student parent, evaluator, and doctoral candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

New America: Could you tell us more about yourself, your work, and your higher education journey?

Kate Westaby: I became a mom at the age of 17. The caretaking and late nights were challenging, but it’s the stigma that remains with me the most. A few local women gave me dirty looks and made disparaging comments and other high school students hung posters that stated, “less than two percent of teen parents get a college degree by age 30.” The students’ intention was to prevent pregnancies, but for many people, pregnancy is not a choice. And it is especially not a choice devoid of external contexts and interpersonal relationship dynamics.

Still, I began college directly after high school, applying to only one college because it was close to family, so they could help with childcare. Childcare was—and still is—expensive for parenting students, and I could not afford it while working part-time, attending college full-time, and caring for my son. Also, my undergraduate college had a long waitlist for accessing on-campus childcare. Additionally, since I did not live on-campus, I did not feel a sense of belonging and connection to campus, especially since I did not fit the “typical” college student profile.

During my junior year of college, I was lucky a professor said to me, “Hey, you qualify for the McNair Scholars Program.” I had no idea what a master’s degree was and that pathways existed to advanced degrees for first-generation, low-income students like me. Due to this program’s help, I got a master’s degree at another local college. And given my hometown’s commutable distance to the college, I could rely on my family for help. After my master’s program, I worked as a professional evaluator and researcher for nine years. Now, I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

My lived experience as a young parent motivated my research as a doctoral candidate. I focus on college access and persistence, reproductive justice, well-being, and dignity for young parents. My favorite part of my research is engaging with young parents and hearing their stories and experiences. Also, young parents are helping me interpret data and present results at local and national conferences. Partnering with them centers their voices and shares power to avoid further stigmatization. And it offers others a chance to understand and empathize with the complexities of young parents' lives and understand the systemic barriers to their educational success.

New America: What resources, supports, or programs have helped support you as a student parent or pregnant student? What resources, supports, or programs did you wish were available?

Kate Westaby: So many policies and programs have helped me access college, even though it was difficult to navigate and patch together these resources. Most important to me was financial stability. Higher education resources and public benefits helped me become more financially stable. The higher education resources I accessed included scholarships, federal Pell Grant funding that covered my tuition and other costs, and the Ronald E. McNair postbaccalaureate program that helped offset costs and provided support to help me get into graduate school. I also gained food, health, and childcare security for my son by accessing SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Medicaid, and Head Start.

Without a doubt, these resources helped me get to where I am today, but some resources did come with a price. Accessing Medicaid has legal ramifications that were not explained to me, and for some young parents can lead to costly and traumatizing custody and child support battles. Further, it seemed that accessing and understanding resources was a part-time job that required luck and connections rather than an easy pathway to one’s dreams.

In my higher education journey, I wished there were substantial and streamlined policy pathways for young parents to access postsecondary education. There are few prescribed paths and with Pell Grant funding stagnating over the past few decades, college can be unobtainable when having to also work significant hours and care for children. For example, Urban Institute researchers identified many systems and resources that parenting students must navigate, and the number of systems that need to be navigated is disheartening and all too recognizable in my experience.

New America: What should be a top priority for policymakers to better support student parents and pregnant students in achieving postsecondary success?

Kate Westaby: I believe three policies should be a top priority for policymakers. The first is data. Few colleges collect information around pregnant and parenting students. In particular, we need to require colleges to collect data regarding young parenting students (e.g., age at first live birth) to track and address inequities in access and outcomes. The second priority is to identify guaranteed income for young parenting students that would provide adequate financial stability. This goes beyond covering tuition. A guaranteed income would help alleviate time poverty and allow young parents enough time to complete homework, engage in college activities, and gain enough stability to achieve their dreams. The third and final priority is providing supportive connections, mentorship, and navigation assistance for young parents throughout the college process. Young parents often have to figure it out on their own, but college is hard to navigate for parenting students, especially for young parents who are more likely to come from marginalized backgrounds. For additional ideas, the SPARK collaborative recently published a strong guide for how we can support all parenting students.

New America: In honor of student parent month, what’s one thing you’d like to share for others to know?

Kate Westaby: Student parent month is the perfect time to highlight some of the intersections that exist in the student parent community and the importance of focusing on young parents. Focusing on reproductive justice is a critical approach to serving young parents, especially following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which was a dehumanizing experience for many. And an important part of the reproductive justice conversation includes access to college. Data demonstrates that parenthood is an invisible identity to many colleges.

On the other hand, when we talk about college success, we must include meeting the needs of student parents—especially those who are low-income, racially minoritized, female, or first-generation students—in our conversations. Access to reproductive health care is essential for all students.

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Related Topics
Student Parents Higher Education Access and Affordability