Shifting the Narrative Around Parenting Students and Their Experiences

Student Parent Spotlight Blog Series
Blog Post
May 24, 2023

A conversation with Julie Peller, executive director, and Tanya Ang, managing director of advocacy of Higher Learning Advocates

New America: What is unique about Higher Learning Advocates' (HLA) approach to elevating the student parent space?

Julie Peller: HLA’s strategic plan has three focus areas—connecting opportunities, supporting students, and driving value. Our parenting student work falls under the supporting students focus area. 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. At HLA, we are invested in having and building that conversation to include the student parent perspective.

Tanya Ang: Many student parents rely on various types of support. It goes back to our advocacy efforts around connecting student parents to the support they need to thrive. They need child care, transportation, and food. To serve student parents, we also need to make emergency aid permanent. When a student-mother takes off work to support her sick child, income will stop coming into the household because she is not working, and she will need financial support. If student parents can’t meet their basic needs, how do we expect them to complete their degree?

New America: What is on the horizon for Higher Learning Advocates’ work in the student parent space?

Julie Peller: Our work over the years has focused on reforming and investing in the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program, making emergency aid permanent, and changing the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to benefit student parents. In 2021, we started advocacy efforts to designate September as National Student Parent Month. This month not only allows us to shed light on and call attention to the issues and inequities facing student parents but it also creates a space to celebrate and recognize their accomplishments.

Tanya Ang: It’s also time to bridge student parent issues into other policy areas like employment, health care, and child care. We pride ourselves on being able to bring organizations and groups together to talk about federal policy that impacts Today’s Students. We want to continue creating that space to have these conversations and convene as many people as possible around the importance of student parents and meeting their needs.

New America: What assets and strengths does the student parent ecosystem have? What is working well?

Julie Peller: The storytelling in this space is phenomenal; we and so many other organizations have done an excellent job uplifting the lived experiences of student parents. The student parent space works best when we support those closest to the issue in advocating for needed policy reforms.

Tanya Ang: I have noticed shifts toward stronger messaging in this space. The conversation has evolved from “student parents needing our help” to “we are failing to support student parents and need to do better.” Many organizations are also starting to include economic growth and impact-related issues in their work to help demonstrate to policymakers the importance of investing in parenting students. This is needed in the field as it highlights inequities and shows how our current systems fail to support student parents in obtaining their educational goals.

New America: What issues need to be discussed or added to the student parent conversation?

Julie Peller: There is so much room to expand the college conversation beyond the traditional student experience. We need to start changing policymakers' mindsets about what a college student looks like and encouraging them to engage on these issues. This goes back to our Today’s Students work. We elevate the narrative of how the “typical” college student doesn’t exist anymore–students are not necessarily going straight from high school into college. They are diverse, they are student parents, they work while they are in school, and many are over the age of 25. In particular, student parents must be accurately represented and portrayed in college brochures and pamphlets, in the media, and in our policies and practices.

Tanya Ang: Student parents often indicate that they do not feel like they belong on campus or feel included when colleges and institutions create resources to support students in completing a credential. This can create barriers for them as they work toward getting their degrees. As the narrative of what a student looks like has changed over the years, our policies must change too. For example, the Higher Education Act (HEA)—which governs many higher education programs—is focused on supporting the traditional, 18-22-year-old college student population. In addition to reauthorizing and reforming the HEA, it is also time to consider how we create means-tested benefits that are accessible to students. Many students, especially student parents, are not eligible for many of our country’s government assistance programs, yet these benefit students who do access these programs and use them to help them finish their program of study to find meaningful employment.

New America: Where do you see this policy space going in the next 1-2 years?

Julie Peller: This is a tough political climate, for sure, but not an impossible one. Policy action around student parents—and, frankly, most issues—will take a lot of work and more bipartisanship. Messaging that speaks to both sides of the aisles is a must to move policy forward, and I believe it can happen. It will take funders, student parent organizations, and key stakeholders to work together on this.

Tanya Ang: Student parents are an intersectional population interconnected to various policy areas. I would like to see how the space could leverage other policy arenas to elevate student parent issues.

Approximately one in five college students is a student parent. A majority identify as women or students of color, particularly Black and Latina students. Although student parents often perform better academically than their non-parenting peers, they are less likely to graduate from college. A lack of access to resources like child care and transportation—in addition to food and housing insecurity and engaging with college campuses, benefits systems, and policies that are not designed with them in mind—are barriers to postsecondary success.

New America spoke with more than 100 stakeholders in the student parent advocacy, direct service, policy, and research spaces—including student parents themselves—to learn more about their work, what is needed in the field, and student parents’ journeys to and through higher education. In the Student Parent Spotlight blog series, we highlight conversations with some of the experts who are closing gaps in the field by conducting research, developing strategies for policy reform, engaging in advocacy, and supporting and serving student parents.

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Related Topics
Student Parents Higher Education Access and Affordability