Helping Parents Finish College

Weekly Article
Parker Jarnigan / Unsplash
Oct. 3, 2019

Most students eagerly scan the crowd for their parents during college graduation—but for Ariel Ventura-Lazo, it was the faces of his children that stood out.

“[They] were actually in the crowd watching us walk across the stage—being the first in our family to obtain some sort of college degree,” he said at last month’s launch of Varying Degrees 2019, New America’s annual survey on U.S. higher education. After dropping out of college right after high school and becoming a young father, Ventura-Lazo decided to return to school. He’s now earned an associate degree and is working toward his bachelor’s.

Students like Ventura-Lazo are among the more than 20 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. who have dependents—a group largely composed of women, people of color, and/or low-income individuals with a higher likelihood of dropping out. His story—and those of the student panelists who joined him at the event—represents a departure from the frustration and skepticism dominating today’s headlines around U.S. higher education.

According to results from Varying Degrees, only one-third of Americans are satisfied with the present state of higher education, while fewer than half feel it’s affordable. Even so, nearly 80 percent still consider education beyond high school to be a worthwhile pursuit, and 91 percent believe higher education affords opportunities that allow for greater upward mobility.

Student panelist Brittany Block counts herself among that group. A single mother, Block went back to college to expand her safety net and, despite having to balance student life with motherhood, earned her bachelor’s degree in two years.

Nearly three out of four Americans believe people without an education beyond high school are limited in their career growth—a reality lived by panelist Lesley Del Rio. Despite her extensive experience in the nonprofit sector, Del Rio often found herself at the receiving end of comments such as “you have great experience, you do great work, but you don’t have a degree—sorry.” Like 82 percent of Americans, Del Rio considers education after high school to be a gateway to more job opportunities: She’s now pursuing a college degree on top of juggling work and taking care of her son.

Higher education would have been unthinkable for these panelists without strong support and innovative practices being implemented in their communities and colleges. Ventura-Lazo likely wouldn’t have made it back to college if not for a local organization dedicated to helping parenting students like him: In addition to providing financial assistance, the organization walked him through his college financial aid application and advised him throughout the year on the academic process.

As for Block, a process called prior learning assessment (PLA)—which allows students to earn college credits for knowledge acquired outside of a postsecondary institution—expedited her journey toward a college degree. Having previously worked in the airline industry, Block proved her facility with Microsoft Excel and various business techniques through exams and interviews with professors, earning credits for those classes without ever having to sit through them.

Del Rio, in turn, has been able to balance motherhood and education by enrolling in an online competency-based education program: a learning format in which students move through credits based on demonstrated competency in a skill. Del Rio’s work experience allowed her to quickly acquire certain credits while working on skills she’s less familiar with. And the best part? She can cheer on her son at football games while continuing to push toward her degree.

As shown by the Varying Degrees survey, Americans aren’t happy with the current state of higher education—but they remain convinced of its overall worth. The stories of the student panelists are a testament to this sentiment: Despite the many hurdles encountered, Ventura-Lazo, Block, and Del Rio chose to go back to college, persist, and succeed. If we can make higher education work for them, we can make it work for every student in America.