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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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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How Can We Support Working Parents?

A woman working as a server clears an outdoor cafe table.A few days ago, my eyes fell upon an online post discussing recent studies that showed how unpredictable work schedules in low-wage industries, especially food and retail, are really bad for families. The article highlighted that some practices, such as last-minute notices, on-call shifts, irregular and/or variable work schedules, etc., which are common in many industries in the U.S., harm workers, especially women who care for children.

My colleague, Senior Research Scientist Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., and I had just written about that same topic, as we continue to explore cross-industry relevance with our recent study on women’s leadership in the theater field. Through our interviews, surveys, and conversations at conferences, women had shared with us the challenges they faced in their lives when they wanted to rise to a leadership position in the theater. Our piece, published in Harvard Business Review, showed how some of the theater field’s practices, such as unpredictable scheduling of rehearsals and auditions, the 70-hour tech weeks before a show goes live, and extensive travel demands to get national visibility, all require work-life balance provisions that most workplaces currently have not yet put in place.

Even in this 21st Century, we have not yet come to accept that parenting is a shared component of our human condition. Every industry employs parents who are trying to balance their work obligations with their family roles. In fact, even non-parents can be called into a caregiving role, for example when their ageing parents need help. Gone are the days when a two-parent family could live on a single paycheck and when family roles were clearly divided. Therefore all of us, across gender and age, would benefit from a variety of workplace supports that accommodate our multiple roles as modern human beings.

The business argument for implementing work-life balance policies is fairly clear: these supports will help us stay better focused on our jobs’ priorities and be more productive, because we will be assured our home life is protected while we work. And, these policies will go further than just supporting us while we care for others. I remember the story a theater-study interviewee shared of how a policy change in one particular theater to make schedules a bit more predictable was received with gratitude by non-parenting colleagues: they now could more easily schedule every-day necessities, like medical or dental appointments.

Even though women and their allies have been calling for changes in workplace policies for decades -- and while some were indeed made -- we still have quite a way to go.

In the U.S., parental leave is still largely unpaid, financially penalizing those who start a family, and partially causing the gender pay gap, which becomes a lasting disadvantage for women’s economic security. Once past the period immediately following the birth of a child, working parents still face several more hurdles to be able to balance their family and their work obligations. Not only is the cost of good quality care astronomical, child care centers or other child care providers are organized along schedules that may not align with those of parents who need access to that child care. Public schools are equally uncoordinated with parents’ employment reality. Many workers have weekend duty or work overnight shifts, again most often in lower paying industries. However, there are almost no providers that take in children over the weekend or for overnight care, and most organized care requires a family to enroll with a predictable schedule for an extended period of time.

Thinking back on the findings in our women’s leadership in theater study, we identified that the hurdle to upward mobility among caregiving women is not the lack of a mother’s ambition or her creativity toward addressing those roadblocks, but rather the virtual absence of any workplace provisions. Indeed, women are just as intentional and strategic about their upward mobility as men are, and just as ambitious for that top spot. But, because caring for others, especially for children, is still predominantly a woman’s job, a working mother faces discrimination, lack of willingness to make any adjustments, and forced invisibility, expressed in statements like “I don’t think [women] aspire for that type of leadership role given their family situations,” which we heard in our theater study.

This mothers’ day, let’s honor all mothers in our lives in two ways. First, let’s pledge to share caregiving responsibilities equally in our homes, not just for that one Sunday, but for the rest of the time our loved ones need support. And second, both respect working mothers’ second shift as much as we do her employment contributions, and help advocate for change in policies at work to make that second shift easier to coordinate for all working parents. Showing children how families can be built with intentional gender equity is a crucial gift to our society’s future parents. Indeed, when our children in turn become leaders, their belief in work-life balance provisions will inform their future company policies toward fairness.

Ineke Ceder is a research associate at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, where she has been involved since the 1990s on projects that focus on race/ethnicity, sex education, child and adolescent development, and women's leadership. Her work described above is based on the research she conducted with Sumru Erkut, Ph.D., on women's leadership in theater.

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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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