Did you know that one in five college students in the United States is a parent? They number nearly 4 million undergraduate students, yet few colleges and universities know how many parents they have on campus, or how these students are faring. Student-parents are highly motivated to attain a degree to provide a better life for themselves and their children, but they face unique barriers in accessing and completing their college education—student-parents are nearly twice as likely to leave college before graduating than students who are not parents.
As one of the first people that student-parents interact with on their educational journey, college admission counselors can play a key role in supporting the success of these students as they seek a higher degree.
Who are student-parents?
Student-parents sit at the center of many of the equity issues that the higher education field is increasingly focused on addressing. They are independent students largely responsible for financing their own education and they are disproportionately the first in their families to attend college. Although most student-parents are enrolled in community college, nearly one in three (30 percent) attend a four-year school, and many transfer into four-year programs from community colleges. Most importantly, supporting the success of student-parents is a racial equity imperative for all colleges and universities: More than half of student-parents are students of color, and four in 10 of all Black women in college are mothers.
Why do student-parents enroll—and why do they struggle to complete?
A college degree can be life-changing for student-parents. For every dollar a single mother pursuing a bachelor’s degree invests in her education, she gets $7.77 back in increased lifetime earnings. In fact, single mothers with a bachelor’s degree make $625,000 more over their lifetimes than they would with a high school diploma.
You don’t have to convince student-parents that college is worth it—they have a very clear understanding of the link between their education and their family’s long-term financial security. As Yoslin Amaya Hernandez, a married mother of two, recent college graduate, and Ascend parent advisor, told the 1 in 5 podcast: “My dreams and aspirations were to just graduate from school…break this cycle of poverty, just give my kids a financially stable life.” Lynnette, another Ascend parent advisor, shared what motivates her: “To pay a mortgage on something that is mine. That’s why I am so hell-bent on finishing school.”
Student-parents earn higher GPAs than non-parents, show remarkable resilience, and are highly motivated students. So, what is standing in their way to a degree? Primarily, student-parents face significant time and financial pressures that many non-parents do not. The challenges of accessing affordable child care, obtaining sufficient financial aid to cover their basic needs, and coordinating class and study schedules around their daily caregiving responsibilities often stymie the success of these talented, motivated students. Unfortunately, student-parents pay the price of these structural barriers, racking up more student loan debt than non-parents.
How can counselors and colleges support student-parents?
Of all adults who have some college credit but no degree, more than one in three are parents, indicating that more support for parents could help improve college retention and completion rates. One of the easiest and most meaningful ways that counselors and colleges can make it easier for student-parents to persist in school is to inform them of the financial aid available to cover child care expenses. About half of all eligible student-parents leave needed federal financial aid on the table because they are not aware that they qualify. To access this aid, student-parents often must submit a dependent care allowance form, which counselors and advisers can help them fill out using resources like this one from Swift Student.
The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has gone a few steps further to support student-parents from enrollment through graduation. Its Student Parent HELP Center (SPHC) has been serving pregnant and parenting undergraduate students on campus since 1984, providing student-parents with specific spaces on campus, support groups, child care and emergency assistance grants, and family-friendly programming, including an annual Student Parent Visibility Day. The SPHC has intentionally worked to identify student-parents on campus through direct outreach to students eligible for child care, collaboration with its campus financial aid office, and outreach to teen parents in the external community, particularly through admission recruiters assigned to alternative high schools.
More recently, SPHC began a new collaboration with campus departments focused on transfer student recruitment and admission. To help ease the transfer process, SPHC program staff conduct direct outreach to the university’s primary feeder colleges to inform them of their services and supports for their transitioning student-parents. In collaboration with Raise the Barr, a Minnesota-based organization launched by professional football player Anthony Barr and his mother (a former student-parent), SPHC has also held a series of transfer readiness webinars catered specifically to student-parents. By engaging these students before they step foot on campus, SPHC and its partners are aiming to connect them to information, resources, and services before they encounter the many barriers they often face when making the transition from two- to four-year colleges.
There are many other ways that counselors and colleges can support the success of their student-parents and prospective students. Helping student-parents identify programs and schools that have family-friendly services on campus, such as campus child care or family resource centers, will ensure that they enroll at an institution that is the right fit for them. Including student-parents in campus or orientation materials can help this population, who often feel invisible and isolated on campus, feel more welcome.
Student-parents are a sizable population of current and prospective college students, but their unique needs are often ignored as they navigate their college journey from enrollment to graduation. By taking steps to give these remarkable students the additional information and support they need, we can make meaningful progress on improving equity in higher education.
Take a deeper dive into this issue by checking out these additional resources:
- Fact Sheet: Parents in College By the Numbers by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute
- Brief Series: Strategies and Innovations that Support Student Parents, by Ascend at the Aspen Institute.
- Program Evaluation: Academic Outcomes of Undergraduate Student Parents Served by the University of Minnesota’s Student Parent HELP Center: A Retrospective Study (2000-2018) (Wilder Research)
- Report: Busy with Purpose: Lessons for Education and Policy Leaders from Returning Student Parents, by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research
- Podcast: 1 in 5 from Ascend at the Aspen Institute. Listen to the first season, which includes the stories of 15 student-parents navigating school, work, and life.
- Book: Pregnant Girl, by Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, a DC-based organization supporting the college success of pregnant and parenting teens.
David Croom is the assistant director for postsecondary achievement and innovation with Ascend at the Aspen Institute.