One out of every five college students is a parent. As with most students, student parents are balancing many and often competing demands on their time, including classes, studying, and work. Unlike their peers without kids, student parents also have to manage the complex scheduling puzzle of childcare responsibilities on top of everything else they handle each day.   

Parenting students are trying to succeed, while receiving limited support from higher education and financial aid systems that were not designed with them in mind. It is long past time for policymakers to recognize the need for targeted support to help this group flourish. Decision makers must pay more attention to parenting students with inclusive and specialized efforts. It will take better data collection, holistic wraparound services, and building trust through consistent action over time. 

This is especially important as colleges face enrollment challenges created by changing demographics. By supporting parenting students, and adopting student-centered policies, colleges and universities can become environments where student parents feel welcomed and supported to succeed—a win for student parents and for colleges trying to alleviate the enrollment crunch. 

Supporting parenting students is more than just a matter of fairness. It is also an issue of economic development and mobility. After all, when we ensure student parents succeed, we ensure their families succeed. As policy leaders are considering supports to retain historically undersupported students, student parents should be at the top of the list. Juggling the responsibilities of parenthood and being a college student is hard enough, the way in which our systems and policies are structured shouldn't make it even harder.

Several states, including Texas, California, Illinois, and Oregon, recognized the need and enacted legislation to support parenting students in higher education. These state-level policies aim to dismantle barriers by mandating data collection, support services and accommodations on college campuses. And, while progress has been made, more needs to be done in acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges faced by parenting students.

Why support parenting students?

The landscape of higher education is rapidly evolving, and institutions must adapt to the needs of the increasingly diverse student body encapsulated by the incredibly diverse student parent population. Student parents are more likely than non-parent students to be people of color, women, and veterans, all groups that are entering higher education at increasing rates but often face barriers to success.

Research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute shows that parenting students face significant challenges in completing college compared to their peers without children. Only 37 percent of parenting students graduate with a certificate or degree within six years of enrollment, in contrast to nearly 60 percent of students without children. 

Parenting students encounter obstacles related to childcare, basic needs insecurity, time constraints, financial insecurity, and mental health, which can disrupt their path from enrollment to graduation day. We know that one of the fastest paths to economic security for a family is for a parent to gain a degree or other credential. Given these statistics, supporting student parents is not just the right thing to do—it also makes economic sense by creating opportunities to increase household incomes, reducing reliance on public benefit programs and ensuring a well-educated workforce to help drive economic growth and development. 

Supporting parenting students is good for colleges and states

Targeted support for parenting students can also help states meet their postsecondary  attainment goals. States need to increase the proportion of individuals with postsecondary credentials, such as degrees or certificates to help provide the skilled workforce that drives economic growth. State and federal governments should invest in students because that investment confers important community and societal benefits as well as individual benefits.

Without addressing the barriers faced by parenting students, states risk leaving behind a substantial portion of their population and falling short of their attainment targets. By creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, colleges and universities can attract and retain a diverse pool of students, thereby mitigating persistence barriers.

Mitigating persistence barriers for parenting students starts with better data collection at the state and federal levels. Evidence suggests that targeted support can enhance the success rates of parenting students. However, the lack of comprehensive data on this group creates a significant gap in colleges' ability to address their needs effectively. The absence of data is a missed opportunity for the federal government, states, and institutions to improve student outcomes and underscores the need for greater attention to the unique challenges faced by students with children.

Parenting students encounter obstacles related to childcare, basic needs insecurity, time constraints, financial insecurity, and mental health, which can disrupt their path from enrollment to graduation day.

Targeted support needs for parenting students are equally important for mitigating persistence barriers. In our work at Generation Hope, we have seen targeted and direct services and supports make a massive difference in the success of students. This is why federal policymakers should integrate wraparound support services, such as counseling, mentoring, and access to resources like housing assistance and healthcare, to address the holistic needs of parenting students to help them increase degree attainment. 

Moreover, recognizing parenting students' diverse backgrounds and experiences is crucial in designing effective support programs. Federal and state policy leaders should employ culturally responsive and trauma-informed approaches that consider the unique needs and challenges faced by parenting students, creating inclusive and supportive learning environments where all individuals feel valued and empowered to succeed.

If policy leaders and influencers do more to provide support for groups with the most complex needs, they can also make life easier for all students who face similar challenges like managing conflicting work and school schedules and struggling to provide for their basic needs. When we smooth the path to college completion for student parents, we make it just a little bit easier for other historically under-supported populations to get from enrollment to graduation day.

Brittani Williams, Director of Policy, Advocacy and Research at Generation Hope.

Generation Hope engages education and policy partners to drive systemic change and provides direct support to teen parents in college as well as their children through holistic, two-generation programming.

Edward Conroy, Senior Policy Advisor, New America Higher Education Policy Program. 

New America's Higher Education team focuses on creating a higher education system that is accessible, affordable, equitable, and accountable for helping students lead fulfilling and economically secure lives. New America's Student Parent Initiative conducts research, policy analysis, and advocacy work in the student parent space.