Fighting to Support the Next Generation of Student Parents

Student Parent Month Blog Spotlight
Blog Post
Illustration by Mandy Dean
Sept. 21, 2023

Carrie Welton is the Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy: Anti-Poverty and Basic Needs at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) and a former student parent. Her lived experience informs her efforts to close equity gaps and improve success for systemically marginalized students and drives her commitment to reducing barriers for the next generation of student parents.

As part of New America’s ongoing Student Parent Spotlight blog series, we sat down with Carrie to discuss ways policymakers can improve policies to ensure student parents have access to supports and affordable higher education.

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

Carrie Welton, Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy: Anti-Poverty and Basic Needs at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS)

New America: Could you tell us more about yourself, your work, and your postsecondary education journey? What brought you to the student parent field?

Carrie Welton: Growing up in a low-income household, I had hoped to go to college, but I had no idea how to get there. The dream only got further away when I ended up on my own at a young age. Like many people with low incomes, I thought going into the military was my only chance to get to college, so I enrolled in the National Guard. I passed all the tests and was headed off to boot camp when I found out I was pregnant at 16.

It was the summer before my senior year of high school, but because of the instability I had been experiencing, I was at risk of not graduating. Before I got pregnant, the only option that was presented to me was foster care or a residential placement program for “at-risk” youth that was two hours away from my current community. After getting pregnant, I was able to get an apartment in my community and continue at my high school, but I had to overcome a huge deficit to graduate on time.

I worked, took two summer school classes, attended high school full time, and had to take two correspondence classes (my generation’s version of online classes), but I made it to my high school graduation with my one-month-old son in attendance. I spent the next several years working in a series of lower-wage jobs as a single parent with no help from my son’s father or my parents, scraping by and barely making ends meet. I knew that if I was going to get myself and my son out of poverty, I had to figure out how to do it myself. I knew I needed to get a college degree.

New America: What resources, supports, or programs were helpful in supporting you as a student parent? What resources, supports, or programs did you wish were available to you?

Carrie Welton: After spending a couple of years working and sporadically taking community college courses, but not getting ahead, I knew I needed to ramp up my efforts. I was about 20 at this point, and my son was just starting kindergarten full time. This presented an opportunity because my child care expenses went down significantly. I found a way to attend school full-time by cobbling together part-time work; public benefits that included the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, which also provided me with a child care subsidy; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps); Medicaid; subsidized housing; and student loans. I dove into my classes at my local community college and was thriving.

After a year, my welfare caseworker called me into her office and told me I could no longer attend college due to the federal restriction in the TANF program that limits postsecondary education to 12 months. I was devastated. I had to go back to taking classes part-time and working full-time, and it took me 12 years to get my bachelor’s degree. But I had a mission: That day in my caseworker's office, I decided to make a career out of changing these unjust policies.

New America: What resources, programs, or research does this space need to advance policy for student parents and pregnant students?

Carrie Welton: I work to reform public benefit programs because our inadequate, cobbled-together, confusing patchwork of programs is designed more to ensure people don’t accidentally get a resource than to ensure the resources reach those whose lives they are meant to change. For parenting students specifically, housing and child care are the resources we should secure and strengthen first. Access to these supports would solve the majority of the day-to-day barriers and worries for parents.

Many public programs require all recipients to participate in activities such as work, training, or even volunteering, unless they meet an exemption. In many cases, educational activities are lumped together under “education and training,” which includes vocational education, GED completion, and adult literacy along with postsecondary programs. It would be beneficial to have these data disaggregated so we can assess public benefit receipt and postsecondary attendance. If we could overlay this with higher education data it would improve our ability to identify policies or state efforts that may improve postsecondary access and completion.

New America: In celebration of Student Parent Month, what student parent issues do you think need more attention in the policy space?

Carrie Welton: We are currently in the middle of a campaign to encourage legislative changes to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) via the Farm Bill, which is a multi-year law that governs many agricultural and food programs. The Farm Bill is usually reauthorized about every five years, which provides a window of opportunity for policymakers to address outdated or dysfunctional issues in agricultural and food programs. Several policies in SNAP that restrict recipients’ access to education beyond high school contradict evidence about the value of and demand for postsecondary credentials, squarely fitting these criteria.

Research shows that jobs requiring more education for entry will grow faster than average. We also know that each level of education achieved improves economic security and employability and correlates with less use of SNAP. Improving access to education beyond high school will be critical for parenting students, the 14 million+ SNAP participants with a high school diploma (or equivalent) but no college credential, and the almost 50 percent of undergraduate students with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines who could be filling the current skills gap that is predicted to worsen over time.

Ensuring SNAP participants can access postsecondary education is a common-sense policy improvement supported by research. Given the scope of evidence and the robust investment in higher education and state attainment efforts, it is astounding that policymakers aren’t clamoring to implement policy changes that are more likely to lead to increased self-sufficiency and even a potential reduction in program costs over time.

New America: What do you want to have accomplished and what do you want the field to look like in five years?

Carrie Welton: I want federal and state investments to support evidence-based approaches that ensure people can participate in activities that improve their economic security and mobility. Research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) showed that single moms who earn degrees have lower poverty rates, have higher earnings, contribute more to taxes, and use public benefits less. A college degree is one of our country’s most effective anti-poverty strategies, yet public programs actively restrict education.

What if I told you that there is a medical treatment that is 70 percent more effective than another? What if I also told you that federal and state governments actively invest billions of your tax dollars every year on the less effective treatment? We know that people with a bachelor’s degree make almost 70 percent more on a weekly basis and experience lower unemployment than people with only a high school diploma ($1432 versus $853 in earnings and a 2.2 percent versus 4 percent unemployment rate). Associate degrees also yield better economic outcomes than high school diplomas with $1,005 in weekly earnings and an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent. Given this evidence, it is mind-boggling that public programs don’t promote postsecondary education as their highest priority.

In 2021, almost 13 million children under the age of 18 lived in poverty. These future adults will likely have very little financial support from their families to attend college, yet they are growing up in a country that tells them college is a worthwhile pursuit and will be seeking jobs from employers who increasingly demand college credentials. Instead of providing a pathway toward financial stability, current policies actively restrict public benefit recipients from accessing higher education. In some instances, volunteering for free counts to meet a participation requirement but enrollment in a college class does not. We can change policies now to ensure students and student parents are not penalized for being born into households with low incomes by ensuring they have access to supports and affordable higher education.

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Related Topics
Student Parents Higher Education Access and Affordability