According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost one in five undergraduate women students are unmarried mothers with dependent children. Most live on incomes below the federal poverty level, and they are disproportionately Black, Latinx, multi-racial, and Indigenous. Single mothers face significant barriers to completing their degrees, but they are not often at the forefront of college access and success policies. Part of what makes it challenging to advocate for them is that colleges currently do not count how large their population is or track their educational outcomes. Federal data sources do not count them very well either.
In partnership with the Urban Institute and supported by a $1.1 million grant from ECMC Foundation, the Wellesley Centers for Women is launching the Data-to-Action Campaign for Pregnant and Parenting Student Success. The campaign seeks to identify the most effective strategies for implementing data tracking and reporting systems that identify pregnant and parenting students enrolled in college, as well as follow their educational outcomes like grades, retention, and graduation.
These systems must also allow students to be characterized in other ways—including by partnership status, gender, age, income level, and race/ethnicity—in order to help colleges and higher education systems identify segments of their student populations who may especially struggle to stay in school and graduate, like single mothers, young parenting students, and student parents of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The campaign also aims to help make sure the data that are tracked and reported are used effectively toward ensuring equity in educational access, inclusion, and degree attainment. It will focus its initial efforts on community colleges, where parenting students are more likely to start college, but only 19% of them have completed an undergraduate degree (associate's or bachelor’s) six years later, and only 15% of single mothers who begin their studies at community colleges graduate within six years.
While a lot of people know that the data is needed, most of them don't really understand the logistics involved in implementing data collection processes. That's what this project is really all about: developing a clear understanding of what comes next, and how to make sure that these processes actually work effectively.
The Data-to-Action Campaign is the inaugural project of the Student Parent Action through Research Knowledge (SPARK) Collaborative, a national partnership initiative formally launching later in 2022 that supports connections between research and efforts to effect change for pregnant and parenting students. The SPARK Collaborative and the Data-to-Action Campaign are organized and co-led by Autumn R. Green, Ph.D., who leads the Higher Education Access for Parenting Students Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women, and Theresa M. Anderson, Ph.D., who is a principal research associate on the Building America’s Workforce team at the Urban Institute. Jessica Lee, J.D., the director and lead attorney at the Pregnant Scholar Initiative at the UC Hastings College of the Law Center for WorkLife Law, is also co-leading and organizing the SPARK Collaborative, and advising the Data-to-Action Campaign.
The Data-to-Action Campaign team also includes Kristi Johns, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University's Communication Media and Marginalization Lab, and Nathan Sick, a senior research associate, and Afia Adu-Gyamfi, a research assistant, both from the Urban Institute.
“The call for better data on student parents has been growing in policy and advocacy spaces, and several states have taken action on requiring new data—led by Oregon," said Green, who provided expert testimony in support of Oregon’s Senate Bill 564 in March 2021. Illinois also passed similar legislation through Senate Bill 0267 last year, and several other groups are actively exploring options to bring similar requirements to their states and systems.
“While a lot of people know that the data is needed, most of them don't really understand the logistics involved in implementing data collection processes,” adds Green. “That's what this project is really all about: developing a clear understanding of what comes next, and how to make sure that these processes actually work effectively."
The Data-to-Action Campaign team is currently conducting a policy review to identify how parenting and partnership status has been collected and reported in existing surveys and individual campus strategies, identifying important lessons and considerations. The team is also learning about how data collection mandates work in different states and higher education systems and how implementation approaches can complement these requirements. The team is closely following how the laws and rules are being implemented in Illinois and Oregon.
The grant from ECMC Foundation will support a cohort of four community colleges and one community college district or system through the process of collecting and using data on student parenting and partnership status. The cohort will develop new campus programs and strategies aimed at improving academic outcomes for parenting students. It will also identify and seek to address the needs of special student parent populations, like single mothers, who face particularly large obstacles to completing their degrees.
The campaign team is also reaching out to federal stakeholders and will be working with an expert advisory group to inform considerations around improving student parent data collection at both policy and implementation levels. The team hopes to expand the number of schools and systems that can participate in this opportunity, and to support engagement efforts in more states at both community colleges and universities.
“We want to work with colleges to instill a mindset that data are not only collected for compliance but are seen as a valuable resource that colleges, systems, and government can use to improve policies and supports for parenting students,” explains Anderson.
The campaign team will disseminate findings to policymakers and higher education practitioners, releasing briefs, hosting webinars, and facilitating group discussions. The team will host a capstone event at Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. in 2025 to share cumulative findings and recommendations with federal and state policymakers and other stakeholders.
“We hope that this project can begin to establish and spread this data-driven mindset and challenge colleges and universities to really consider their parenting students and groups like single moms in particular,” said Green. “And we hope that the lessons we learn can be applied to colleges and policies nationwide.
July 1, 2022