Traditionally, the “typical” college student has been seen as a single 18- to 22-year-old whose parents paid most, if not all, of the expense. That picture is now vastly outdated. Even a decade ago, fewer than half of undergraduates were in the 18-22 age group. In fact, the average undergraduate in 2012 was about 26 years old—and far more likely to be on his or her own.
In other words, rather than being dependents, today’s college students are increasingly likely to have dependents themselves.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly one in four undergraduate students in 2015-16 were parents. About 40 percent were single mothers, and roughly 30 percent were fathers. Students of color, particularly Black students, are more likely than any other group to be parents. And because more college students are in their 30s or older, the number of student parents is almost sure to grow.
As the nation focuses more intently on racial equity, experts say society must attend directly to the needs of parents on campus. “This is not a single conversation that’s kind of in a vacuum,” said David Croom, assistant director for postsecondary achievement and innovation for Ascend at the Aspen Institute. The organization connects state agencies, institutions, and others to provide resources to student parents. “Parenting identity is something that’s really powerful and brings to bear some of these other identities.”
Student parents, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, are more likely than other students to come from low-income households. They commonly face multiple barriers to completing their degrees, particularly shortages of time and money. Many times, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, and they often suffer from unstable housing situations.
A recent survey by Ascend and the Jed Foundation found that two of every five student parents experienced stress severe enough to affect their health and college success. And nearly the same number said they had considered dropping out within the previous month. Researchers acknowledged that survey responses may have reflected effects of the pandemic and recent racial strife; still, significantly more student parents and caregivers were considering leaving college than were students without children. “What makes student parents different from other adult learners is that student parents simply don’t have enough time for their academic pursuits,” Croom said.
Student parents also are more likely to be enrolled in for-profit educational institutions, which means they take on more debt: Median debt among student parents is more than twice that of students without children. Little wonder, then, that student parents are only one-tenth as likely to graduate than their childless peers—even though student parents have statistically higher grade-point averages than those without children.
And yet it is precisely because of their children that student parents push themselves so hard. “Even considering the barriers that student parents face … they are motivated to succeed in their pathways because of their children,” Croom said. “Just imagine what will be possible if we’re able to significantly remove those barriers.”
There are many steps colleges and policymakers are taking to help student parents. For starters, governments and colleges can track the race, ethnicity, and parenting status of their students. After all, it’s hard to serve student parents on campus if you don’t know who they are. Oregon and Illinois recently passed laws that require institutions to identify and keep track of student parents on campus. Because there is still stigma attached to being a parent—particularly a young one—many students, particularly those who are Black, Hispanic, or Latino, are reluctant to share this information. So, another key to the work is for colleges and universities to make sure student parents are aware of the resources available to them.
Ideally, these resources should support the whole student. That doesn’t necessarily mean launching a separate program or opening a child care center—as valuable as these efforts may be.
It can be as simple as ensuring that financial aid offices make students fully aware of the aid they’re eligible for. A recent survey found that only one in four student parents knew that financial aid could be increased to account for child care costs.
These students also need meaningful and tailored academic advising, along with help in transferring course credits when necessary. Although these practices serve all students, they are particularly helpful to parents, who often take longer to complete their degrees because of family and work responsibilities.
“Student-parent work is really a lens that you use to examine all of the processes on campus,” said Nicole Lynn Lewis, director of Generation Hope, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to help student parents succeed. “It should be embedded into your (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts.”
As important as support is for student parents, it’s also good for institutions. Education and industry leaders are beginning to realize they can’t achieve their educational attainment and workforce development goals without attracting and retaining adult learners and those who drop out of college without earning a degree. The latter group includes vast numbers of student parents. “We have a real opportunity to re-engage those students, to support them, to not only help them to complete, but also to help institutions reach their own goals,” Lewis said.
In the pages that follow, you will read about efforts to support student parents through multiple strategies—on the campuses, through nonprofits, and in an integrated state-level system.
Admittedly, the examples shared here are disparate and few—a handful of snapshots showing what’s happening across the nation to aid student parents. But their stories are important—and growing in number.