Student Parent Success Is a Force-Multiplier for Higher Education

photo of NicoleOne of my most persistent memories from my experience at the College of William & Mary as a young mom, apart from the late nights and exhaustion, is frequently feeling isolated and alone. I was not only one of few Black students on campus, but, as far as I knew, I was also the only young mother there. My college experience was mostly consumed with the daily struggles of moving through a higher education system that was not designed for me.

Those struggles included constantly trying to piece together resources to cover our basic needs. After commuting 150 miles each day to class during my freshman year, I found a loophole and was able to secure a family housing apartment on campus for my daughter and me since I was an undergraduate student — a situation that the school never planned to accommodate. To pay for rent, tuition, groceries, and daycare, I used my Pell Grants and loans, which barely made ends meet. Emotionally, it was also difficult. I had to be careful about which students, faculty, and staff I disclosed my parenting status to because there could be repercussions. Once, when my daughter had walking pneumonia and was unable to go to daycare, I asked a professor if I could reschedule an exam. Despite never asking for an extension before and having good grades in the class, the professor refused, and I was forced to bundle up my daughter and walked across campus with her in the bitter winter cold to bring her to class with me where she sat sick and uncomfortable on my lap.

Twenty years later, my daughter is now a senior in college herself, and I wish I could say that we have made great strides in how we support the nearly four million parenting students pursuing their college degrees today. Unfortunately, the challenges I faced persist on campuses across the country. In fact, the Pell Grants that helped me eke by financially during college make even less of an impact for today’s students as college costs have significantly increased. For these reasons and because I knew just how meaningful a college degree can be for both parent and child, in 2010, I founded a nonprofit organization called Generation Hope which helps Washington, D.C.-area teen parents earn their college degrees while also helping their children prepare for kindergarten. Now, we also advocate for the needs of student parents nationwide.

In May 2020, Generation Hope released the findings of our national student parent survey. We heard from more than 250 students at more than 147 colleges and universities across the country. Their experiences laid out gaps in support for parenting students, which higher ed must urgently address if we want to see higher completion rates.

  • Forty percent of respondents felt isolated as a parenting student on campus; 20 percent of respondents indicated they felt unwelcome on their campuses, including 30 percent of parenting Black students and 25 percent of parenting Hispanic/Latino students.
  • More than 60 percent of respondents missed at least one day of class in their last semester due to lack of childcare.
  • More than a third of respondents did not see any family-friendly characteristics (e.g. changing stations, pumping rooms, or playgrounds) on their campuses.
  • Securing childcare was one of the most difficult challenges student parents reported facing, and yet three-quarters of respondents said that their financial aid office did not inform them that childcare expenses could be taken into account in the determination of their financial aid award. That number increases to 79 percent for Black students, showing how many student services administrators have not had the support they need to effectively serve student parents.

Student parents represent a cross section of historically underserved student populations on college campuses, including first-generation students and students of color. Therefore, student parent work is race equity work. If colleges want to make good on their commitments to equity while improving retention and graduation rates, they have an incredible opportunity in student parents, who tend to have higher GPAs on average than their non-parenting peers and are incredibly motivated to complete college to create economic mobility for their family.

Generation Hope identified six initial steps for higher ed leaders who want to support student parent success:

  • begin collecting and tracking the parenting status of your students. Few institutions collect data on how many students are parents, and what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get prioritized;
  • apply a parenting student lens to your campus Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work;
  • designate a staff position to champion the needs of parenting students across your institution;
  • prioritize the creation of family-friendly policies and ensuring they are clearly communicated to students;
  • identify ways to better include parenting students in campus life; and
  • incorporate student parent needs in your government relations work.

While I did not realize just how much choice I had in my situation as a young mother, students heading to college with their children in tow can and should explore whether a college is supportive of parenting students. Looking for family-friendly characteristics like those mentioned above can reveal a lot about an institution and its commitment to caregivers. Other questions that parenting students can ask to probe deeper include:

  • How many other student parents do you have enrolled?
  • What is your school’s “child in class” policy?
  • What types of emergency funding are available for students and are student parents prioritized in that funding?
  • Does my financial aid include funding for childcare?
  • Do you offer family housing for students?
  • Is priority registration for classes available for student parents?
  • Do you have lactation rooms available on campus for students?
  • Is there an office or department that focuses on parenting students at the school?

Twenty years ago, when I stepped onto campus for my freshmen orientation, I looked down at my flip flops and thought, “these feet don’t belong here.” I graduated with high honors four years later, and my daughter walked across the stage with me, holding my hand. The reality is student parents do belong on college campuses. The students who we work with every day at Generation Hope are incredibly tenacious and determined and have potential that deserves to be realized. My advice to student parents everywhere is to be persistent in asking for the help you need and know that your parenting is not a problem or a liability; it is an asset, and you bring so much to every room you walk into. Higher ed may not be designed for student parent success, but we can and must change that–and when we do, we’ll make it a better place for all students.

Plan now to join us for our webinar on August 18, 2021 at 4:00 p.m., ET where Nicole will share best practices for student parent success through systemic shifts in higher education and state and national advocacy. She will also speak about her new book, Pregnant Girl, which is part memoir and part call to action. Nicole will also facilitate a panel of three Generation Hope Scholars–all teen parents or former teen parents who are pursuing their college degrees–who will share their experiences balancing parenting, going to school, and working. Panelists will also discuss the kinds of supports that have enabled them to persist through their higher education journeys. Register here: