Sept. 5, 2023
September is student parent month—an opportunity to celebrate the one in five students in the higher education system, including both undergraduate and graduate students, with dependent children. A majority of student parents identify as students of color, particularly Black and Latina students; are women; and are over the age of 24. Four in ten undergraduates with children attend community colleges, and more than half work full time while enrolled in school. Many are going, or going back to, college to increase their economic security and build a career that is fulfilling and family-sustaining.
But a lack of access to resources like child care and transportation—in addition to food and housing insecurity and the process of engaging with college campuses, benefits systems, and policies that are not designed with them in mind—are barriers to postsecondary success. Student parents are more likely to leave school without a degree or credential than their peers who do not have children.
Over the last two years, the higher education team at New America spoke with more than 100 stakeholders in the student parent field, including student parents themselves, to learn more about what resources and reforms are needed to help student parents feel welcome on campus; balance school, work, and family; and thrive in higher education. To kick off student parent month, we are highlighting five of those conversations with experts who are collecting and analyzing data, developing strategies for policy change, and creating programs and environments that contribute to student parent success. Each of the sections below links to our full conversation.
1. Ascend at the Aspen Institute's Postsecondary Success for Parents initiative is building solutions with, and centering the experiences of, student parents
Organizations and individuals we spoke with over the last two years underscored the need to ensure that parenting students are included in decision-making and identified a host of ways to do this, including creating space for student parents to take on leadership roles, empowering students to set agendas based on their lived experiences, and helping student parents become effective advocates.
For a decade, Ascend at the Aspen Institute has used a two-generation approach, examining policies and programs that impact children and the adults in their lives together in the areas of health and human services, early education, social capital, and more. Ascend’s Postsecondary Success for Parents (PSP) initiative is nested within this two-generation approach and is engaging in a host of initiatives that center the voices and experiences of student parents.
The Ascend team acts as a catalyst and convener—bringing diverse stakeholders and individuals together to build intergenerational family prosperity and well-being, including by understanding and supporting the needs of student parents. David Croom, associate director for postsecondary success for parents, told us the Ascend team believes the best solutions are built together with student parents, seen, among numerous other initiatives, in its Parent-Powered Solutions Fund, through which student parents contribute in the participatory grant-making process; its PSP Parent Advisors; and its podcast, 1 in 5, which highlights student parents' experiences and challenges in attaining postsecondary success.
2. Boise State University is creating family-friendly spaces in its library
Our interviewees noted the importance of ensuring campuses themselves are more student parent-friendly. This can include, for example, investing in retention, completion, and re-enrollment programs; building a community of and for student parents; providing family-friendly spaces on campus; and creating designated student parent programs and resource centers.
As creative learning hubs on campus, academic libraries are a natural place to start in building a friendlier environment for student parents. Albertsons Library at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho opened the Family Study Room in January 2022 with computers, toys, books, and more to support parenting students’ ability to balance school and caregiving responsibilities. Professor emerita Kelsey Keyes told us that the space is the first of its kind on campus and has already earned positive reviews. One student parent wrote, “I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the [study room]. This is the first effort I have seen supporting the adult learner. It has always felt like resources are geared towards traditional freshmen. It is hard to feel included when our families are not.”
3. Generation Hope is bridging the divide between policy and practice
Student parents sit at the intersection of many issues and identities: they engage in the early education, the K–12, and the workforce systems (to name a few), and they identify as parents, workers, students, and members of many other groups and communities. Stakeholders told us that those intersections can mean that research, direct service, policy development, and advocacy efforts can feel siloed by issue area or population of interest.
Generation Hope, a direct service organization and an organization working on larger systemic issues, bridges many of these divides. As founder and chief executive officer Nicole Lynn Lewis told us, “we are not theorizing about which public or institutional policies will move the needle for families—we see the impact of those policies every day in the families we work with. We bring that proximate experience into every room we enter.”
Lewis says that, because there is so much intersectionality in the student parent population, there are many latent and overlooked issues that need more attention from policymakers and advocates. She gives examples of two issues on which Generation Hope is focused. The first is the lack of support and recognition for student fathers, particularly fathers of color. The second is the fact that pregnant and expecting parents should be included in a definition of student parents; they need specific supports to ensure they can enroll in college and complete their education.
4. Monroe Community College is collecting data to better support student parents
Many of the groups we interviewed mentioned the importance of identifying and quantifying the student parent population to better understand how to serve them at the institution, state, and federal level. These data are often not collected, and when they are, they may not be easily or publicly available or disaggregated based on race, income, gender, and other demographic factors. Others pointed to the need for outcomes data, including identifying which programs are working for student parents, and using these data to inform technical assistance and policy discussions.
Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York has been collecting data on students’ marital status, parental status, and children’s ages since 2003. While working in the Institutional Research Office at Monroe, Mary Ann DeMario analyzed some of that data for an application for the U.S. Department of Education’s Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grant program, which provides funding for on-campus child care centers. She told us that her findings indicated that students with young children who used the center had one-and-a-half times the fall-to-fall persistence rate and more than three times the on-time graduation rate of their peers who did not use the center.
This analysis helped Monroe receive a CCAMPIS grant, helped initiate the student parent movement at Monroe, and encouraged DeMario to do more research focused on student parents. (She recently left Monroe Community College and joined the Education Design Lab as a college data coach where she continues supporting learners who have been historically underserved and overlooked.) She told us that once a college can identify its student parents, it makes those students more visible to the college community, often makes them feel more valued and appreciated, and provides opportunities for colleges to reach out to them to understand how they can be better supported.
5. Higher Learning Advocates is pushing for policy change beyond tuition and textbook assistance
Parenting students are a traditionally underserved population, but the COVID-19 pandemic and national conversations about the inadequacy of our care infrastructure have made their needs more visible. Students benefited from emergency funding and the move toward more flexible learning models during the pandemic. But, as additional COVID-related federal funding streams are depleted, as policy and program flexibilities end, and as campuses return to pre-pandemic operations, colleges will face challenges providing—and student parents will face challenges accessing—support.
Julie Peller, executive director at Higher Learning Advocates (HLA) told us that “advocating for student parents goes beyond tuition and textbook assistance. The conversation has to include means-tested benefits, emergency aid, housing, and transportation—meeting a student’s basic needs.” Tanya Ang, HLA’s managing director of advocacy, added that “it’s also time to bridge student parent issues into other policy areas like employment, health care, and child care.”
HLA’s work over the years has focused on building the Today’s Student Coalition, which includes a focus on student parents; reforming and investing in the CCAMPIS program; making emergency aid permanent; and changing the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to benefit student parents.
In 2021, HLA started advocacy to designate September National Student Parent Month. This month not only allows us to call attention to the issues and inequities facing student parents, but it also creates a space to celebrate and recognize their accomplishments. Starting next week, and running throughout September, we will be highlighting the stories and higher education journeys of five student parents.