The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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This Mother's Day, Let's Celebrate College Students Who Are Mothers—By Counting Them

Student mother with her childNearly 5 million college students in the U.S. are raising children, and almost three-quarters of undergraduate students with dependent children are mothers. These mothers face significant barriers to completing their degrees, and part of what makes it challenging to advocate for them is that colleges rarely count how large their population is on campus or track their educational outcomes. Though some data exists at the federal level, it’s difficult to use it to draw specific insights about demographics at the campus, district, system, or state level.

When student mothers aren’t counted on campus, they don’t get the resources they need, and they feel invisible to boot.

Without data on student mothers, it’s more difficult for college administrators to establish, fund, and sustain supportive strategies and programs—things like child care, family housing, or parenting student resource centers, which are critical to helping student mothers graduate. I have met with parenting students from across the country who have been told by their colleges that they cannot justify expanded programs and support without the data. 

In the past few years, advocates have made significant in-roads on gathering this data. In May 2021, Oregon and Illinois both passed legislation requiring that public institutions of higher education (IHEs), including community colleges and public universities, begin collecting data on parenting status. As both director of WCW’s Higher Education Access for Parenting Students Research Initiative, and an Oregonian student parent alumna, I helped organize the campaign for the Oregon legislation, and testified in support of the bill as an expert witness. My father and both my children also submitted written testimony, together representing three generations of Oregonian parenting students.

Groups of higher education leaders from several states are currently exploring how parenting status demographics could be incorporated within their institutional research data systems, and what’s needed to make these strategies viable. 

To start, we know that questions pertaining to parenting students need to be incorporated into existing data systems, so they are easily accessible to parenting students. While voluntary surveys can be helpful tools for following up, it can be hard for student mothers to find time to respond to them. It’s a lot easier to respond to a few extra questions on a form they were already completing, or a pop-up window that opens when they log in to register for their classes. Higher response rates lead to more accurate data. 

Data systems aren’t just about collection, though; data also need to be used effectively. In Oregon and Illinois, public IHEs are required to share parenting status data with their state’s higher education authority every year. If concerns are observed, the state higher education authority could issue recommendations or requirements to colleges or universities, ask the legislature to issue further directives, or request funding allocations. 

Data is powerful when it comes to parenting students. Programs like student child care have heavily relied on parenting student enrollment data to make the case for grants and internal budget allocations. For example, the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS), which subsidizes child care for low-income parents in college, requires IHEs to provide data on parenting student enrollment and estimated need for child care to qualify for funding. And most IHEs that offer parenting student services and child care subsidies supported by student fees have reported that collecting data helped make their case for funding to the committees that determine how student fee dollars are allocated. 

Most IHEs that have obtained access to this data have partnered with their financial aid offices to pull aggregate enrollment numbers from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) system. The FAFSA form, which all students are required to complete to qualify for federal student aid, includes questions about dependent children. But it offers an incomplete picture: According to one recent report, 1.7 million high school graduates didn’t even file the FAFSA in the 2020-21 school year. Imagine how much more support might be possible with better data.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to useful data—ideally, we should follow student parents throughout their college careers to understand what helps them be successful and what places obstacles in their path. Parenting students’ GPAs reflect academic achievement that is on par with their non-parenting peers, but very few graduate on time, and most stop in and out of college multiple times before earning their degrees. It’s important not just to count how many parenting students there are, but also to track their retention and graduation rates and other outcomes to ensure educational equity. Student mothers are disproportionately represented among diverse populations, and the data systems being developed in Oregon and Illinois will be capable of disaggregating and identifying groups that might need specialized support to stay in college and graduate. 

When student mothers succeed in college, it has a ripple effect. It instills in their children the value of education and puts their families and communities on a path to economic security. My mom, who passed away a few years ago but was a student parent herself, would remind me to mention that educating mothers is also critical to democracy and shaping an informed electorate. Ample research, including a recent study by my colleague and research partner Dr. Theresa Anderson, has found that children who witness their mothers attend college have better academic outcomes overall. But even though kids do better in school, they also have more behavioral and health challenges, in part because their mothers are stressed and time stretched, and need to be better supported. 

Counting student mothers (and all parenting students) and their children in higher education data helps college and university administrators acknowledge and see them, and in the long run can be a catalyst for programs and services to better support them. Let’s help them be seen, and succeed, by showing them they matter. 

 

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women studying higher education access for parenting students. Her Data-to-Action Campaign for Parenting Student Success aims to identify the most effective strategies for implementing data tracking and reporting systems that identify parenting students enrolled in college, as well as follow their educational outcomes like grades, retention, and graduation.

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Student Parents or Parenting Students? Why Terminology Matters

Screenshot from jamboard asking what are student parents calledThis digital whiteboard was developed in an exercise called "What are Student Parents Called?" which was part of the Student Parents at the Center project, a collaboration between WCW and the Urban Institute.

When your work aims to help call attention to an invisible population, it’s important to figure out which term best identifies that population. Terminology shapes how we think about groups of people, and how they think about themselves.

So what exactly are the nearly 4.8 million undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S. today who are raising children while taking classes called? Pregnant and parenting students? Student parents? Parenting students? College students with kids? Something else?

Though I used to use the term “student parents,” lately I’ve been leaning more toward “parenting students.”

The term parenting student acknowledges that students who have children commonly identify first and foremost as parents, prioritizing their kids’ wellbeing and care over their classes, homework, jobs, and other non-parenting responsibilities. It uses active language that acknowledges all students who are actively parenting in college, including those who may not be biological or adoptive parents or even identify as parents, but are certainly performing the roles and work involved in parenting.

Parenting student is also a shortened version of the terminology “pregnant and parenting students,” which is how they’re referred to by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and federal Title IX law. Title IX is the civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or education program that receives federal money. The law specifically prohibits discrimination against “pregnant and parenting students.” If we’re fighting for pregnant and parenting students’ rights, doesn’t it make sense to match our terminology to the Department of Education’s?

Questions around the terminology used to describe and identify students who are pregnant and parenting aren't new. It’s actually an issue that we’ve been discussing in this field for many years. This fall as part of WCW’s Student Parents at the Center: Building a Policy Road Map project (a partnership with the Urban Institute), we completed a brainstorming activity with about 40 policy experts, scholars, and student parents from across the country. The group filled three digital whiteboards with about 75 post-it notes listing various names for pregnant and parenting students and sub-populations that are part of this demographic. The names ranged from “non-traditional students” to “caregiving students” to “parent scholars,” and included sub-populations like “students of color with children” and “LGBTQ+ student parents.”

There are several reasons why there are so many different terms to describe parenting students. Among them are the history and diversity of this group.

. . . pregnant and parenting students are one of the most diverse student populations. While they share many characteristics, they also have distinct and unique experiences reflecting their intersectional identities.

Historically, before 2010, there hadn’t been much consideration of pregnant and parenting students in higher education as a collectively defined group. Terminology to describe students who were parents in college was often more specific, because postsecondary programs, research, and advocacy was more focused on certain populations. After World War II, when colleges first started to acknowledge and create programs on campus, it was in response to student veterans with families (mostly dads) who came to college on the GI Bill. In the 1960s and 1970s after more women began gaining access to college, terms like “returning students,” “non-traditional students,” “displaced homemakers,” and “student mothers” became more common.

In the 1980s as more low-income, young, and BIPOC students gained access to college, terminology shifted to highlight “welfare mothers pursuing postsecondary pathways,” while some programs began to focus specifically on special high-needs populations such as single mothers, young mothers, and “women in transition.” After welfare reform in 1996 blocked many public assistance recipients from pursuing or completing college, terminology expanded to consider “low-income mothers in higher education,” since many of them were forced to forgo welfare. The term “student parents” became the most widely used vernacular after 2010, having been popularized through shared use by advocates and researchers.

In addition, pregnant and parenting students are one of the most diverse student populations. While they share many characteristics, they also have distinct and unique experiences reflecting their intersectional identities. Some researchers, programs, and policies focus on specific groups of parenting students, and therefore use terms like single mother students, student dads, young student parents, returning student parents, non-parent student caregivers, etc.

The language used to identify us matters, especially when we are members of marginalized groups. I became a parent while in college over 20 years ago now, and the way I identify myself has evolved since that time—as it evolves for many student parents. I’m now the director of the newly renamed Higher Education Access for Parenting Students Research Initiative here at WCW, which going forward will include the term “parenting student” largely due to Title IX, as well as its inclusiveness, action/role orientation, and parent-first language.

What matters most to me is not settling on a particular way to identify this group of people but ensuring that they have a voice in the ongoing conversation about how they are identified.

But I’m also sensitive to the diversity of terms that are out there, and the fact that some parenting students prefer to be called student parents, or identify more strongly with other terms. Thus, when writing and speaking about this population, I’ve decided that the best way to honor and respect student input, voice, and diverse self-identities is to use various terms interchangeably, including terms describing sub-populations of parenting students where it’s appropriate.

What matters most to me is not settling on a particular way to identify this group of people but ensuring that they have a voice in the ongoing conversation about how they are identified. In fact, I want to make sure they have a voice in all conversations that relate to decisions made about them (which is why hiring and supporting student parents as research fellows and expert contributors is a core aspect of our research initiative).

Finding the right terminology to talk about this demographic is a complicated process. Parenting students are a diverse bunch, and their experiences can vary widely depending on other identities they hold. The complexity of the language teaches us a lesson about the complexity of student parents as a whole: They are not a monolithic group. That’s important for us to remember as we work to understand their needs and find ways to support their success.


Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women studying higher education access for parenting students. Dr. Green is nationally recognized for her scholarship on the lives of parenting students and has worked to create two-generation programs on college and university campuses.

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Making Peace with the Outcome: Remembering bell hooks

When I woke up last month to the news that bell hooks had passed away, my eyes filled with tears for the passing of a person who I only met once in my life, but who has critically influenced so very much of it.

The first bell hooks book that I read was for an undergraduate sociology class. The book was Where We Stand: Class Matters, and as I read her analysis of how class inequality and classism permeate our social experiences, I knew that I had found my new favorite author. Being a low-income white young mom, I had noticed class a lot in my own life, and bell hooks offered me the words and understanding that I needed to be able to articulate these experiences.

Throughout grad school, bell hooks remained among my favorite authors. I "ate up" “Eating the Other,” poured through Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, and resonated as I read Black Looks: Race & Representation. I read Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom as I was learning to teach as a graduate teaching assistant, and as a workshop leader in my community. Happy to be Nappy was among my kids' favorite bedtime stories. bell hooks helped me teach my working-class friends and family that Feminism is for Everybody, by acknowledging that class-privileged white feminism certainly hasn't been. There was even a participant in my dissertation whose pseudonym was chosen as a tribute to bell hooks.

Through bell hooks as my guide and gatekeeper, I dove head on into the works of other intersectional feminist queer authors exploring the complexities of intersectional oppression, truth seeking, and empowerment towards equity and justice. I filled my head with the writing of Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Simone de Beauvoir, Patricia Hill Collins, and Dorothy Roberts. I considered my early millennial intersectional feminist approach, through which I saw the classism and class oppression I experienced as a poor white young mama as better aligned with Black feminist critiques of liberal white feminism, and better resonated with the intersectional perspective that I was developing to understand my own identity and life experiences.

bell hooks’ words challenged me to become an even better teacher: to work with my students devotedly, to advocate for them, to guide them . . .

After finishing my doctorate and starting my first job, in which I was teaching classes for single mamas in college, bell hooks was again there to guide me. In Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, she told me the stories of her own early years as a professor in which she taught similar groups of young moms. She talked me through the dilemmas of justice-seeking pedagogy when teaching students for whom the world—including the institution of college itself—is complexly and intersectionally unjust. bell hooks’ words challenged me to become an even better teacher: to work with my students devotedly, to advocate for them, to guide them, to help them put forth their very best work, and then to "make peace with the outcome."

She also reassured me that it is often very hard to be able to make peace with the outcome. She challenged me to remember that educational accommodation is not educational justice if it means giving students credit for something that they haven't actually learned. How could I as a justice-seeking educator ensure equitable learning outcomes for my students, while reimagining my pedagogy to better accommodate them as learners? What I learned from bell hooks about teaching low-income college student moms is what challenged me to redesign teaching and learning by tapping into two-generational pedagogy.

Like I said, I only met bell hooks once. She came to speak at Boston College, where I got my Ph.D., and gave a guest seminar for our department. I'm not a person who's easily star struck, but it felt like there were so many things I wanted to ask and say to her, that it was too hard to figure out where to begin. I didn't want to bombard her either, so I tried to bite my tongue, opening my ears and listening instead. I remember listening to her as if wisdom was pouring from her like a fountain, and I was mentally scrambling to catalog and store it. She made me feel safe and reassured and appreciated for being me and for adding my voice and perspective to the conversation, and she was kind.

Through her writing, and influence on me across two decades, I consider bell hooks to be among my formative feminist foremothers. I mourn her passing in love, appreciation, respect, and gratitude to a great teacher who changed the lives and perspectives of so many other people, many of whom never got the privilege of meeting her even once. The only reassurance in the face of such a monumental loss to the world is that her words are still out in it, and will continue to be soaked up by many future generations to come.


Autumn GreenAutumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women studying higher education access for parenting students. Dr. Green is nationally recognized for her scholarship on the lives of parenting students and has worked to create two-generation programs on college and university campuses.

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National Student Parent Month is Coming to an End, But Our Work Carries On

Jade Prior and her mom Mishelle Prior of Eugene represent two-generations of Oregon parenting studentsJade Prior and her mom Mishelle Prior of Eugene represent two-generations of Oregon parenting students.

On September 15, 2021, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution declaring September National Student Parent Month. As a person who both was a student parent, and has worked to advocate for other student parents throughout my education and career, after many long years of simply trying to be seen and acknowledged, this federal recognition felt like an important victory. While it didn't direct resources to student parents, nor change laws or policies to better protect and ensure our equitable access to higher education, it showed acknowledgment and solidarity both for the fact both that we exist, and that we are significant: one in five undergraduate students, and one in three graduate students, is parenting during their studies.

In the student parent world, this was a moment for both celebration and frustration: many of us work in small offices, or even departments of one, and our day-to-day work centers around supporting students parents. This is busy, ongoing, and critical work. Helping student parents address their needs and overcome their challenges and crises takes priority over day-to-day work. Between helping students succeed academically, helping them navigate systems to find child care and meet their basic needs, and helping strategize crises, we are very busy people!

Celebrations and special events take months to plan, and with National Student Parent Month being declared half-way through September, many of those celebrating this monumental recognition, were left with no time to plan, organize, and implement a celebration.


Instead of seeing September 30 as a deadline for celebrating the hard and diligent work of parenting students and their allies, we should view the close of National Student Parent Month as a catalyst towards the change that is on the horizon.

While I no longer work directly in a student parent program on my campus, I've been busy supporting student parents through research, program support, curriculum development, and advocating for policy and systems change, I can admit that, like a lot of my colleagues in the student parent world, I wasn't ready for a sudden two-week deadline.

So to my friends in the student parent world, I have a proposal. Instead of seeing September 30 as a deadline for celebrating the hard and diligent work of  student parents and their allies, we should view the close of National Student Parent Month as a catalyst towards the change that is on the horizon. Let’s use this as a call to action through which we will work to expand college access, inclusion, and success for student parents and their families between now and the second National Student Parent Month in 2022.

This is a moment to celebrate and showcase the collective work that we are already doing to support student parents, and to consider what it would take to be able to do our work even better. It's also a call for advocating for policy and systems change, envisioning a nation where every person—regardless of their background, age, race/ethnicity, income, gender, marital, and/or parenting/caregiving status—is offered an equitable opportunity to complete a college degree.

Highlights from Ongoing Work to Support Student Parents

At the Higher Education Access for Parenting Students Research Initiative, we have been busy working to advance student parent success across the landscape of U.S. higher education. Here are a few highlights of our work from the past year, and some previews of what you’ll see from us in the coming year:


Educating the Public About Student Parent Issues

  • Testifying before the Oregon State Legislature's Senate and House Education Committees on the need for student parent demographic data collection, which led to the passage of Senate Bill 564, requiring public postsecondary institutions to collect student demographics pertaining to parenting status. Oregon was the first state to pass such legislation, through an effort that was mobilized by student parents and their allies.
  • Authoring a series of op-eds to call attention to student parents and their challenges and successes in outlets including The Hechinger Report, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and Ms. Magazine.
  • Launching Student Parents @ the Center, in collaboration with the Urban Institute, a project through which we are developing and expanding upon a framework for understanding and mapping the broad range of policies intersecting in parenting students' lives that support or impede their college success.

Reports and Resources on Student Parent Programs Across the U.S.


Academic Journal Articles and White Papers

  • Publishing a new article in About Campus about how to strategically time student parent support services across the phases of an academic term.
  • Releasing a new white paper and sample curricula reflecting pedagogies for parent/child learning through the Two-Generation Classroom Project. In the coming year, we are excited to put this work into action through a partnership to support student parents.

Contextualizing Our Work in Historical Perspectives

  • Student parents have been part of college life for a lot longer than most people realize! There is so much to learn from the history of student parents in higher education to inform our contemporary work, but this history is still largely undocumented. Our Student Parents in History Project, launching in fall 2021, is building a digital archive of documents and oral histories on the history of student parents in higher education from the Post World War II era through the present day.

We work to engage and elevate the expertise, leadership, and contributions of current and former student parents in meaningful ways that counter tokenism and affirm experiential expertise.

In all of these efforts, we believe it is critical that student parent voices and expertise are centered, supporting their efforts as emerging leaders and experts in higher education, social science research, policy, and advocacy. We work to engage and elevate the expertise, leadership, and contributions of current and former student parents in meaningful ways that counter tokenism and affirm experiential expertise. Student parents' perspectives are critical to understanding the challenges that student parents face in college today and determining how to build systems to create a more inclusive and equitable future for student parents and their families.

All of our projects work to engage student parents as meaningful contributors to our shared work. We engage with student parents, interdisciplinary experts who were student parents during their studies, and self-identified student parent allies as knowledge and research partners, collaborating with them to engage in the processes of informing and shaping social change. We practice family friendliness and flexibility in every aspect of our work, creating inclusive, welcoming, supportive, and safe spaces to be both parents and students/professionals, recognizing the brilliance, strength, and contributions of all of our partners in this work.

In the coming year, we hope to inspire and advance the quest for equitable access to education for all: including students with kids. Our projects focus on informing and shaping policy, systems, and structural changes that are necessary to achieving this goal across the U.S., while exploring and testing new approaches and models in partnership with post-secondary institutions and communities, who are working locally toward this shared goal.

For us, National Student Parent Month is a symbol of recognition with the power to ignite and accelerate this shared mission. It serves as a checkpoint at which we can stop and reflect on all that we have accomplished and all that we still have yet to do. It is our hope that the time between now and September 2022 will be a year of collaboration, partnership, and movement building across the fields of higher education, economic mobility, and thriving communities, so that next September, we can look back on the year and see just how far we have come.


Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women studying higher education access for parenting students. Dr. Green is nationally recognized for her scholarship on the lives of parenting students and has worked to create two-generation programs on college and university campuses.

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Honoring Three Generations of Student Parents on Mother's Day

Autumn Green and her daughterLast year on Mother's Day, I was driving through the Rocky Mountains, on my way from Oregon to Maine where my life was about to change forever. It was the first Mother's Day I had spent without my kids since they were born, and the first Mother's Day since my own mother had passed away. I yearned to call her to share the news of my latest adventure, as I always had during our frequent long-distance phone chats, but I knew I couldn’t. The following week, my daughter would bring my granddaughter into the world on the southern coast of Maine. The transcontinental journey I was on would end with the newest love of my life joining our family.

My mother was my champion, my role model, my friend, and my fiercest advocate. She had floated between California state colleges for about a decade before I came along, finally earning her bachelor's degree in liberal arts when I was a baby. When I was about nine, she returned to community college to earn her landscape contractor’s degree and licensure. She started a small landscaping business, whose biggest success was its own show garden, proudly featured in Better Homes and Gardens magazine in 1998. A framed copy still hangs on the wall by the front door at my parents’ house.

I didn’t realize at the time that my mom’s journey — at least five schools and over 10 years to finish her bachelor’s degree — was typical for student parents. And like many other student parents whose accomplishments go unacknowledged and undervalued, her degree wasn't counted in retention and graduation rate data because of her long and meandering path. From the outside, her life might look like one of repeated failure and modest accomplishment. But that’s not what I saw.

I watched my mom role model learning as a lifelong process. She showed me that I could do or be anything I wanted, and she showed me how to get there. So even when I became a high school dropout, young bride, and teenage mother, I could not be swayed from pursuing my dreams. Because my mom had been a student parent too, she was a resourceful advocate, finding programs and benefits to support me and guiding me through the earliest steps of what has become my own lifelong educational journey.

With her love and unwavering support, I made it all the way from GED to Ph.D., and through a postdoctoral second master's degree. Fewer than 2 percent of young parents will earn a postsecondary degree before their 30th birthday. Yet I earned my associate's, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees by the time I was 31. Now, I’m a research scientist studying higher education access for student parents. It wasn't until years into my career that it hit me: I am not only a success story as a parent whose education improved her life and her children’s lives. I am also the story of what happens to kids who have a front-row seat to watch their parents pursue an education.

The intergenerational legacy of valuing education is visible every day in my work with student parents and their families across the country. There are nearly 4 million undergraduate student parents in the U.S., about 22 percent of all undergrads. These students are largely invisible, because they’re not who most of us picture when we imagine college students. As a result, they often don’t get the resources they need — and struggle to graduate. Only 17 percent of student parents starting their bachelor's degrees in a full-time, four-year program get their degrees within six years, as compared to nearly 60 percent of college students overall. But when they do graduate, it’s transformative for their lives and their families’ lives. I know this firsthand, because I watched education change my life and my mother’s life, and I hope it will be a positive force for my daughter.

After my granddaughter was born that beautiful, sunny May day, a hospital social worker came to speak with my daughter. I had stepped out to grab lunch and she was alone. Because she was 19 and technically a teen parent, this was standard procedure for the hospital discharge process.

"What are you going to do about your education?" the social worker demanded of my daughter.

To this, my daughter said she just smiled and replied, "I don't think you know who my mom is, but I guarantee you, we got this."

When my mom was alive, she and I talked frequently about how politicians and others fail to see the less tangible and two-generational impacts of education: fostering an informed and critically thinking electorate. But the biggest impact of my mother’s education, I think she would tell you if she could, was us: her three brilliant, creative, loving, nurturing, and well-rounded daughters, our daughters — her granddaughters — and now her great-granddaughter too. We are her legacy. A legacy that is unquestionably intergenerational.

This Mother's Day, as we approach my granddaughter's first birthday, I am proud that I can be the person in my daughter’s life that my mother was for me. And as student mothers across the country struggle to educate themselves and raise their children in a pandemic, I want them to keep in mind what I remember most about my mom: not that she did everything perfectly, but that her passion for lifelong learning nurtured and shaped me. The desire to role-model the transformative power of education, along with the hope to provide a better life for their families, is what drives student parents to fight to finish their education despite the odds. That’s the legacy they’re instilling in their children, too.

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women studying higher education access for student parents. Dr. Green is nationally recognized for her scholarship on the lives of student parents and has worked to create two-generation programs on college and university campuses.

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Paying for College as a Student Parent Is...Complicated

Mother and daughter do homeworkYesterday on route to work my phone exploded with messages from friends and colleagues urging me to, "Turn on NPR right now,” to hear their story about student parents. I was a student parent myself, striving and struggling from GED to Ph.D. as a young low-income mother raising two daughters. In the years between then and now, I have continued to support the strides, struggles, and successes of student parents as a researcher, program developer, professor, and mentor working on the national stage to raise awareness of student parents, their prevalence, and the challenges they face in pursuing and completing higher education.

This week’s NPR news story discusses student childcare as a challenge and concern that is faced nearly universally by student parents. The story explains that federal financial aid dollars can (theoretically at least) account for student childcare costs, increasing student aid awards to cover the costs of childcare. This is entirely true. In fact, I used this method to pay for my own childcare expenses throughout my undergraduate and graduate education. To do this, a student must file a Cost of Attendance appeal with their school’s financial aid office, often providing receipts or other verification of childcare and other eligible expenses.

By increasing the student’s Cost of Attendance calculation, the student is eligible for more financial aid, including federal aid, institutional and external scholarships, and private student loans. As the NPR story explains, this is a policy that is rarely advertised, even by institutions hosting some of the top student parent programs in the United States.

Yet, the NPR story misleads the listener with the representation that the lack of awareness of this policy, “leaves federal dollars sitting on the table.” This assumes that the lack of adequate funding for student parents is caused simply by the fact that they need access to more money. However, this oversimplifies a very complex issue.

Think of the Cost of Attendance calculation as the capacity of one’s purse or wallet. The bigger the wallet you have, the more money you can put in it; but getting a larger wallet does not mean that it comes filled with more money than you already had to begin with. Today, there is rarely money available to fill the student’s existing wallet, let alone a larger one.

Most student parents (who are disproportionately low-income and who generally have a ZERO dollar expected family contribution), have already maxed out their federal grant and loan dollars long before dependent care costs are taken into account. Often, the maximum federal student aid dollars available to a student aren’t enough to cover the basics like tuition, fees, and housing, let alone childcare.

Each federal student aid program is capped at a certain maximum dollar value per student and funding for these programs is limited, which is why unmet need is so prevalent. For the 2019-2020 school year, the only guarantee of federal financial aid funding available to student parents is through Pell grants and Stafford loans capped at $15,695 for freshmen, $16,695 for sophomores, and $18,695 for upper-classman. With these funds student parents must pay for: tuition, fees, textbooks and supplies, technology, housing, utilities, food, transportation, and everything else. Regardless of how much their Cost of Attendance is increased to allow them to receive more funding, there are rarely any federal dollars remaining to be allocated to them.

To fill their larger wallets, students must then turn to scholarships or private student loans. Competition for external scholarships is fierce, and time-consuming applications may not seem worthwhile to student parents carefully allocating their time to work, family, and school commitments.

Private student loans are also difficult for student parents to pursue, as they generally hold income and credit requirements that the student cannot meet on their own. Without a credit-worthy cosigner willing to take on such a long-term debt (which most student parents do not have), many private loans are out of reach for these students.

Even if private loans were more attainable for student parents, it is not a viable systemic or policy solution. I know this as a scholar and expert in this area, and I know this first-hand as a student parent who borrowed private student loans to pay for her own childcare tuition. Those loans came at significant costs, both financial and in terms of post-college opportunities.

Private student loans have the highest interest rates and do not offer the income-based repayment and loan forgiveness options afforded by federal student loan programs. If we are concerned about the student loan crisis, the answer to addressing student childcare needs cannot involve finding new ways for student parents to take on more debt -- especially debt incurred through private student loans.

At the end of the day, student parents and their children cannot survive, strive, and thrive given the minimal amount of federal student aid dollars available in today’s context of skyrocketing costs of attendance.

Student parent programs at colleges and universities across the U.S. are taking the lead in addressing student parents’ needs using comprehensive and individualized approaches. Yet we still don’t know a lot about these programs, what they do, or how they work. In fact, we still don’t even know where they all are or how many colleges and universities have them. This is a clear sign that research on best practices for providing childcare and other supports to student families is sorely needed.

From 2014-2019 I led a research team that collected data on colleges that offer housing for students with children, finding that only 254 U.S. higher education institutions (9%) offer such an option. About 30 additional programs closed their family housing since we began the research project. Our data was turned into the Campus Family Housing Database available to prospective student parents and their advocates as well as researchers and policymakers.

My team is also working to expand this research in 2020 to better understand other types of programs and services, such as campus childcare and comprehensive student parent programs that support student parent success. We will collect this information and develop a comprehensive national database of student parent support services and programs while studying how these programs work and promoting best practices for student parent success.

I work with student parents every day, and I am certainly all about finding them every dollar and dime that can help them get through school. Even though Cost of Attendance appeals can theoretically be useful to cover student needs, I am sad to say there are no "federal dollars left on the table" to fill in the gaps.

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. In addition to studying the lives of student parents, she has worked to help create two-generation programs on college and university campuses to support student parents and their children.

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Recognizing Student Parent Needs during Caregivers Month

Student Parent holding baby at graduation“Someday you will go to college, too,” a young mother tells her eight year old son at her baccalaureate graduation ceremony.

“Mom. You're silly,” he replies with a grin. “I already went to college with you!”

Walking hand in hand in cap and gown with their children at graduation is a culminating moment for nearly all of the student parents who I have known and worked with over the years as a researcher, program director, and mentor. These students are nearly universally motivated to pursue post-secondary education as a means to lift their families into the middle class and secure a better life for their children. Parents and children aim for a light at the end of the tunnel, but in the words of my colleague and collaborator Sheila Katz, Ph.D., we have observed that a family’s journey to and through college, doesn’t just make their lives better someday, but in fact begins to change and impact their lives in significant ways from the first day.

Having had the opportunity to work and visit with student parents and their children in multiple programs and in multiple capacities at colleges and universities across the U.S., what I see is that the most important moments are not at the end of the journey, but the everyday steps along the journey itself. It is through these moments that this little boy believed, unwaveringly and unapologetically, that he and his mom had gone to college together: celebrating grades and accomplishments by displaying their school work side by side on the refrigerator, finishing homework assignments side by side at the dining room table, reading together, and sharing in learning and developing knowledge and skills.

As a parent, there are also a number of other little things involved in this journey with the potential to make big impacts on making or breaking a family’s success: safe and affordable housing, childcare, and food security to start. Although one in four undergraduates in the U.S. are parents, these students often lack these basic foundations of college success. A recent study by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jed Richardson and Anthony Hernandez found that 63 percent of student parents experience food insecurity during college, while 77 percent experience housing insecurity and/or homelessness. Yet, we know through data we have been collecting on campus-based family housing, childcare, and student parent programs, that the need is much greater than the capacity of currently available programs.

Our free downloadable Campus Family Housing Database finds, for example, that only ten percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. offer student housing options that allow children to live in residence. Yet, this includes institutions where available family housing units may be extremely limited, and/or unaffordable to undergraduate students attending college with student financial aid. Furthermore, as we continue to update these data, we have observed a number of institutions that are reducing or eliminating their family housing programs, despite rising demographic need. This further varies by region, whereby disparities between need and available support programs are even further illuminated.

While the capital expenses involved in building family housing and childcare may initially be seen as cost-prohibitive by many institutions, colleges are also working to impact student parent success in other ways, starting small. Opportunities to engage and bring families to campus together provide low-cost strategies for impacting intergenerational college access and success.

For example, I worked with Endicott College’s Boston Student Parent Initiative to implement a family literacy program through which the program arranged trips to local museums and cultural events, at which each family received an age-appropriate children's book related to the field trip, to take home as an extension of learning together. After taking the families to see a musical rendition of the classic children’s book Caps for Sale, one of the students came to my office to report that not only had her son insisted on reading the book together every night for weeks, he wanted her to, “Sing it Mom! Like they did at the play!” At Mt. Wachusett Community College in Central Massachusetts, I was privileged to visit during a Halloween Arts & Crafts event organized for students and their families by the student parent program coordinator. Portland State University’s Resource Center for Students with Children provides tablets and activity backpacks that students can check out for the day if they need to bring their child to class with them. Partnerships between universities, government agencies, and nonprofits can also allow affordable retention and support strategies to be created for student parents.

Ultimately, student parents need support in both big and small ways: they need housing and childcare. They need support to balance work and family and toward their academic success. They need opportunities to engage with other students on campus and to share the college experience with their children. Ultimately, it is these experiences that not only caused the little boy to genuinely believe that he had gone to college with his mom, but also, to support their family together as learners so that both mom and child share in the mutual investment in education together.

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. In addition to studying the lives of student parents, she has worked to help create two-generation programs on college and university campuses to support student parents and their children together as families pursuing education and shared goals for a future of happiness, security, and opportunity.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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