Utilizing Data to Make Student Parents a Visible Population

Student Parent Spotlight Blog Series
Blog Post
July 12, 2023

A conversation with Mary Ann DeMario, college data coach and consultant.

New America: What brought you to the student parent research and policy space? 

Mary Ann DeMario: I was working in the Institutional Research Office at Monroe Community College when I was asked to assist with a grant application. It was 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. The Grants Office director, Child Care Center director, and I brainstormed what we could include in our application to set us apart from other colleges. Monroe has been collecting data on students’ marital status, parental status, and children’s ages since 2003. I offered to analyze some of that data to see what I could find and extracted several years of that data (focusing on students with kids under age six.) I wanted to see if those students’ outcomes differed depending on whether their kids had attended the child care center.  I found that students with young kids 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 the students with young kids who did not use the center. This study helped Monroe receive one of a handful of CCAMPIS grants given to New York State colleges that year. I was so pleased that my study helped those families that it didn’t occur to me (or anyone else) that the findings were worth sharing beyond that. 

Monroe Community College Student Parents Who Used On-Campus Child Care vs. Those Who Didn't

Source: DeMario, M.M. (2017). Outcomes of Monroe Community College Student Parents Who Use the Campus Child Care Center vs. Those Who Didn't, Fall 2006 - Fall 2014. Unpublished Overview of Research Findings.

In 2017, by word-of-mouth (and pure serendipity), the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) learned of my child care study. They said it was the first of its kind and invited me to collaborate with them on their student parent research. This was the first time I heard the term “student parent.” 

IWPR amplified my study nationwide, which brought it to the attention of the New York State Governor’s Office, the Susan B. Anthony Center at the University of Rochester, the State University of New York, and Ascend at the Aspen Institute. Not long after, Ascend invited me to join its Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative. Attending those convenings and meeting the incredible people and organizations there lit a fire in me. I dove back into Monroe’s student parent data, analyzing it, writing up the findings, and creating graphics to illustrate the results. I was so energized that I devoted every free moment I had, even my days off, to doing the work. I showed the findings report to an associate VP, who insisted I present it to the college community en masse. Word quickly spread after that first presentation, and soon I was invited to present to several other groups across Monroe, including the President's Cabinet. That’s what inaugurated the student parent movement at Monroe. 

New America: What are the most important takeaways from your work for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners?

Mary Ann DeMario: Data is the key! Many colleges assume that only a handful of their students are parents, even though national data show that one in five college students is a student parent. That had been the case at Monroe Community College, but no one had known this before the parental status data came to light. Prior to 2017, the thousands of student parents who enrolled there every year were invisible. 

Less than a year after Monroe’s student parent movement began, I surveyed nearly 3,000 student parents enrolled at the time. One of the questions I asked was whether they had ever disclosed to faculty or staff that they were a parent. Two-thirds of the respondents said no. When I asked why, their most common reasons were that they felt they had to do things on their own, they were too private/independent/proud, and they didn’t want to burden others with their issues. 

Once a college can identify its student parents, it makes those students more visible to the college community and often makes them feel more valued and appreciated. By identifying its student parents, a college can then reach out to them—by survey, focus group, or individual interviews—to understand how they can be better supported. Institutional research offices can take that unit record data (that is, individual student data) and merge other data files onto it to see the bigger picture of who their student parents are as a group. At Monroe, I merged demographic data (for example, gender, race/ethnicity, Pell eligibility, first-generation status) and outcomes data (for example, persistence, retention, and graduation rates) with parental status data. That allowed me to empirically demonstrate that student parents are a unique sub-population of students and need to be acknowledged and better served. For example: 

  • Two-thirds of Monroe student parents are single moms.
  • Those single moms are disproportionately Pell-eligible, students of color, and first-generation college students.
  • Student parents have “time poverty,” that is, a lower quantity and quality of time for college than their non-parenting peers.
  • Despite earning higher grades (on average) their first semester at Monroe, student parents have much lower graduation rates than their non-parenting peers. 

Another key takeaway from my experience is that the right people have to be at the table to make decisions on how to transform the data into programs and services for student parents. The most effective change agents may not necessarily be the ones at the top of the organizational chart. They are more likely to be the employees who already directly work with student parents and those who understand the daily challenges student parents face balancing school, work, and family. Most importantly, the most effective change agents are the ones willing and able to create a paradigm shift at the institution, not the ones who want to maintain the status quo.

New America: What is on the horizon for you in the student parent space?

Mary Ann DeMario: For several months, I’ve been consulting on the Urban Institute’s Data-to-Action Campaign, part of their larger student parent initiative, the Student-Parent Action through Research Knowledge (SPARK) Collaborative. This past spring, I spoke at three national conferences about my student parent research and how important it is that colleges collect data on their students’ parental status. 

I’ve also had the honor of being interviewed by WorkingNation, a nonprofit media and journalism organization whose mission is to create and distribute powerful stories about the nation’s current and future state of work that educates, inspires, and connects people, to drive decision makers to scale solutions that can produce and sustain a thriving workforce. WorkingNation made a documentary-series about single moms in community college, and Monroe was one of the colleges they featured. This summer, I’ll be collaborating with WorkingNation again on a counterpart to the first documentary. For anyone that knows me, I’ll do anything to shine a light on student parents and especially single mom learners. I hope that when people watch the series, they see how important student parents are to higher education and how historically they, like other marginalized groups, have been underserved by higher ed. 

The biggest change for me recently is that I left Monroe Community College after 17 years of being an institutional researcher there. In March, I joined the Education Design Lab as a college data coach. I actually started collaborating with the Lab in 2019 when Monroe was awarded the Single Moms Success Design Challenge.

In my new role, I’ve gone from working for a community college to working with several community colleges. Specifically, I’m working with several colleges that are creating alternative credentials (i.e., micro-credentials, micro-pathways) for their learners. The Lab calls them “new majority learners” because although they used to be called “nontraditional students,” they now make up the majority of postsecondary students nationwide. This work allows me to continue supporting learners who have been historically underserved and overlooked. The data I’m helping colleges to collect on their learners will, as before, shine a light on a group that’s an integral part of higher education and the workforce.  

One thing I’ve been thinking about with regard to alternative credentials is whether a lot of those learners could be student parents. Given that alternative credentials offer convenience, flexibility, and affordability—things that student parents inherently need—it makes sense that alternative credential programs could be disproportionately attended by student parents. Once again, the data will be the key to verifying that hypothesis! 

New America: What research, policies, and/or practices are needed to better serve and support student parents?

Mary Ann DeMario: Again, the data is the key. Colleges need to start collecting data on their students’ parental (and ideally marital) status. It needs to be done on a regular basis and not just at one point in time because the students who are single and childless one semester could be married and pregnant the next. Data collection needs to be ongoing, and it needs to be comprehensive. Surveying a small group of students and then extrapolating their responses to the larger student body won’t cut it. Colleges need to collect that data on all (or at least most) of their students. 

After that, the data needs to be analyzed to look for demographic and academic differences between student parents and non-parents, using some of the methods I described above. With that knowledge in hand, college institutional research offices can ask student parents about the kinds of support they need and, ideally, get them involved in the resource-building process.

New America: What do you hope this space will look like in the next 5-10 years?

Mary Ann DeMario: I hope that more states join Oregon and Illinois in mandating public colleges collect data on students’ parental status. I also hope that non-credit programs are brought into the fold. Many, if not most, community colleges have more students in their non-credit programs than for-credit programs. But because those programs tend to be short-term, vocational, unaccredited, and not subject to data reporting mandates, colleges don’t actively collect demographic data on non-credit learners. That’s a lot of people whose parental status is a big question mark! 

Along those lines, I think colleges would be wise to use a 2Gen (two-generation) approach when considering their students parents. Rather than look at the parents and their children separately, colleges could work toward creating and integrating services and supports that move whole families forward. This requires aligning systems and funding streams; working toward racial, gender, and economic equity; and listening to families’ voices. Ascend at the Aspen Institute has promoted the 2Gen approach for years, so the roadmap for that work already exists. 

Lastly, I hope that colleges make more of an effort to knit together basic needs, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), and student parent initiatives. The three intersect, so it makes sense to look at them together rather than having separate committees meeting in separate rooms to work on these initiatives. They coalesce like a Venn diagram, so the solutions should as well.  

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