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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Internship Reflection: Fathers Belong in Conversations with Their Teens about Sex and Relationships

Audrey DiMarco

At the beginning of my summer research internship, I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand the impact of fathers talking to their teens about dating and sex. Why would fathers have a significant impact on teens’ sexual health if someone else, like their mother, already has the situation under control? However, after taking a deeper dive into Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D.,’s interview data from fathers, mothers, and teens, I reevaluated my stance.

Through identifying key themes from the families in our sample, Dr. Grossman’s study—part of WCW’s Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative—aims to explore how fathers fit into conversations with their teens about dating and sex, and why it’s hard for some fathers to participate. The study’s findings will be used to develop an intervention program to help give fathers information, strategies, and peer support to surmount obstacles to talking with their teens and promote better sexual health for future generations.

Reflecting on my initial doubts, I can see why I didn’t have much faith in fathers’ ability to communicate with their teens—especially when it comes to taboo topics such as dating and sex. Women are often assumed to be more emotional, caring, and nurturing while fathers are assumed to have difficulty expressing their vulnerable side. Because of these pervasive stereotypes, it’s easy to see how mothers would be the ones to take the primary role and facilitate open conversations with their teens as they explore their sexuality.

Researchers may also lean into this assumption since the majority of prior studies on adolescent communication about dating and sex emphasize mothers’ roles. Even some mothers from our sample indicated that they should be the ones to take charge of these discussions—though they also resoundingly asserted that fathers’ roles are crucial. In the bigger picture, all of the familial support that teens can get in terms of dating and sex is shown to benefit their long-term health, but being mindful to include and value the male perspective could also prove beneficial to adolescents’ wellbeing and overall preparedness for healthy relationships.

That’s why I became especially interested in how fathers from our sample practice—or struggle to practice—open communication with their adolescents, as well as how teens from the same families picture an open dialogue.

In the bigger picture, all of the familial support that teens can get in terms of dating and sex is shown to benefit their long-term health, but being mindful to include and value the male perspective could also prove beneficial to adolescents’ wellbeing and overall preparedness for healthy relationships.

Fathers from our sample overwhelmingly said they believed that support and connection are important parts of their roles, and open communication is one way to foster these values. Specifically, dads saw it as their duty to give their sons tried-and-true advice that would help them avoid making the same mistakes they did. Additionally, some emphasized the benefits of giving daughters a window into the teenage boy’s perspective to help them better understand their potential dating partners.

Since the stereotypical teenager avoids talking to their parents at all costs, it might be surprising that teens also want open conversations with their dads. Over half of teens from our sample viewed support and connection, including open communication, as part of a father’s role. They wanted their dad to share his advice and experience, providing emotional support while respecting their comfort level and boundaries. A notable focus of the teen perspective is that they didn’t want to be judged or punished for sharing something of which their parents disapprove, such as being sexually active earlier than their family values dictate. As a whole, the data showed that both fathers and teens see some form of open dialogue as part of a father’s role in conversations about dating and sex.

Then why is it hard for many fathers to participate and share their advice? Fathers face many barriers such as embarrassment, discomfort, lack of support, and taboos. One obstacle that stands out to me is that some fathers lack an example from their own parents of how to approach these sensitive topics. The majority of fathers from our sample didn’t talk much or at all with their parents about dating and sex; instead, they learned through siblings, extended family, friends, or even through the media. In many ways, fathers are swimming upstream, trying to be more involved than their parents’ generation while lacking the tools and support they need.

Despite the challenges inhibiting fathers’ involvement in these discussions, many dads in our sample fought these barriers in order to support their teen’s best interests. In doing so, they stood up to the stereotypes, giving their children a healthy example by recognizing their own value and the power of their voice as a father. I’m hopeful that access to resources, such as the intervention program we plan to develop, will give fathers the tools they need to practice open communication and share what they learned from their teenage years. If the fathers of today set a healthy example for their teens, the fathers of tomorrow will be better equipped to talk with and support their children—making an impact that continues for generations to come.


Audrey DiMarco is a psychology major at Wellesley College graduating in 2024. She had the opportunity to work with Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., this past summer through the Class of 1967 Internship Program.

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Child Care Tradeoffs, from Compromises to Sacrifices

Mother holding sleeping child

This post was co-authored by WCW Senior Research Scientist Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., and Sarah Savage, a senior policy analyst and advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Their issue brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers, was published by the Boston Fed in July 2022.


Just before the pandemic, we interviewed 67 mothers of young children about their experiences accessing child care. Though they were a diverse group, their problems were similar: They could not find child care. When they could find it, most struggled to afford it. As a result, they were all forced to make tradeoffs in selecting the best care arrangements for their families.

These interviews formed the basis of our recent brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers. Through lengthy, one-on-one conversations, we tried to dig deeper to better understand the tradeoffs parents make to juggle employment with child care.

More than half of the participants in our study had an oldest child under age 3. Fifteen mothers were single or divorced, and the rest were married or partnered. Sixteen mothers were women of color. About half the group had household incomes that exceeded the state’s median in 2019 of $81,215. (Fathers were welcome to participate, but only mothers responded to our recruitment materials.) What we found was that every family had to make tradeoffs among some aspects of quality, affordability, or availability to use child care, but that the tradeoffs varied in level of severity.

Tradeoffs occurred along a spectrum. We characterized some as compromises: For example, some mothers tried to adjust their work schedules to better match the hours of their child care providers, even though it could negatively impact their careers. Others accepted providers with home environments they were uncomfortable with or who allowed too much screen time, trading off quality for affordability or availability.

Every family had to make tradeoffs among some aspects of quality, affordability, or availability to use child care

We categorized more severe tradeoffs as sacrifices. In these instances, conflicts with families’ needs or preferences led to care or work disruptions. For example, some parents reported switching child care providers due to safety or maltreatment concerns, despite their limited options. Some mothers reduced their work hours to balance their jobs and child care needs, even though that decreased their income. Married mothers with incomes above the state median were more likely to leave the workforce altogether if they found child care unaffordable—an option not available to single parents or lower-income families.

The fact that every family was forced to either compromise or sacrifice is a reminder that working parents who access child care are often struggling. Having both child care and a job doesn’t mean they’re living a ‘success story.’ And when we think about equitable solutions, we can't just think about it from the affordability perspective—availability and quality are other critical dimensions that must be considered.

Read more in our brief, Child care tradeoffs among Massachusetts mothers.


Wendy Wagner Robeson, Ed.D., is a senior research scientist and director of the Work, Families, & Children Research Group at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work at the Centers is focused on child development (birth to age 8), child care policy, early childhood care and education, and school readiness.

Sarah Savage, Ph.D., is a senior policy analyst and advisor at the Boston Fed. As part of the Bank’s work to increase employment opportunities, she is conducting research on barriers to positive labor force engagement of low- and moderate-income parents in the region, with an intensive examination of the role of childcare needs.

The views expressed are our own and not those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Federal Reserve System, or its Board of Governors.

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Fathers Want Guidance on How to Talk to Their Teens About Sex and Relationships

Father talks to his teenage son while sitting in a car

“Some of those conversations, I just can’t jump in like that,” one of the fathers in our study told us. We were interviewing fathers about their experience talking with their teenagers about sex and relationships. Many expressed what this father did: Talking about these topics can be hard, and it would be helpful to have some guidance on how to go about it.

Research has shown that when fathers talk with their teenage children about sex, it can protect teens from risky sexual behavior. But few fathers actually talk with their teens about sex, and those who do report not talking very often. Most research on this topic focuses on mothers, and few interventions (i.e., educational programs) to promote parent-teen talk about sex are tailored for fathers. To develop interventions that effectively support fathers, we need a better understanding of fathers’ goals and challenges for talk with their teens about sexual issues and what they want an intervention program to look like.

My research team and I interviewed 43 fathers of high school-aged teens (age 14-18) to find out about their experiences. We asked them about talking with their teens about dating, sex, and relationships; their attitudes toward a potential intervention to support father-teen talk about dating, sex, and relationships; and for feedback about the structure and content of a potential intervention.

The most striking aspect of our research findings was that fathers were enthusiastic about the idea of an intervention that could guide them in these conversations. This is surprising given low rates of father participation in parent-based sex education programs. Fathers connected their interest in an intervention to the challenges they face in talking with their teens about sex and relationships, such as discomfort with talking about sex and not knowing how to start a conversation. Many said that it’s especially hard to talk with their daughters about sex and relationships, but they also shared a belief that their perspectives and experiences as men could offer useful insight, no matter their teen’s gender.

NFL players come into a training camp, you have rookies, you have mid-level guys, and then you have the old grizzly veterans, and they all share information with each other and learn from one another . . . I think that it’s important for men to be able to learn from other men and to share their experiences so that they can improve each other.

When it comes to an intervention, fathers wanted something more peer-based or interactive than most existing programs. They wanted the opportunity to share experiences and learn from other fathers, especially in the context of programs led by people with backgrounds similar to theirs.

“NFL players come into a training camp, you have rookies, you have mid-level guys, and then you have the old grizzly veterans, and they all share information with each other and learn from one another,” said one of the fathers we talked to. “I think that it’s important for men to be able to learn from other men and to share their experiences so that they can improve each other.”

The fathers we spoke with talked about the importance of discussing topics essential to protecting their teens from harmful experiences such as unhealthy relationships, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections. They recognized the importance of talking about consent, which is significant: prior research doesn’t show much focus on consent when parents talk to their teens, and most school-based sex ed programs don’t address it.

Knowing what to talk about is obviously important, but the fathers we spoke with were just as interested in learning how to talk about it, as well as when and how often. One father told us he wanted “more tricks, more tools, more things to help to get the conversation going… things to ease awkwardness.”

Given the potential of conversations between fathers and teens to protect teens’ sexual health, and the lack of existing programs designed to support fathers in these conversations, it’s clear that a useful and engaging intervention is needed. With this study, we’re moving closer to understanding what fathers want and need in an intervention program tailored to them.


Read more about this study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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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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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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Parents' Communication with Teens About Dating is Changing During the Pandemic

Father talking to daughter on couchThe pandemic has altered family life in unexpected ways. Some kids are happier now that they’ve gotten a chance to slow down; more people are cooking; and men have discovered housework. Parents’ conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and their monitoring of their teens’ behavior, have also changed.

My research team — which included WCW Associate Research Scientist Lisette M. DeSouza, Ph.D., WCW Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, and Alicia Doyle Lynch, Ph.D., of Lynch Research Associates — surveyed 328 parents of high school students throughout the U.S. between March and June of this year. We asked questions about how they communicated with their teens about dating and relationships before schools closed due to COVID-19 as compared to afterwards. We also asked questions about their stress levels and whether and how they monitored their teens’ behavior.

What we found was a significant drop in parent-teen communication about dating and relationships once COVID hit. This makes sense: parents reported higher stress levels as many deal with sick family members, essential work requirements, financial difficulties, and the general anxiety of the pandemic, which likely leads them to focus on the immediate day-to-day needs of their families and put off these types of conversations. And with many teens stuck at home, parents may assume that relationships and physical intimacy in particular are on hold, so the need to talk about them is not as critical.

For example, one parent explained, “Having the added stress of constantly being together, and now having to not only be his parent, but his makeshift teacher, and then trying to talk about serious things too, has all been just too much.” Another parent shared, “The fact that kids are not interacting, thus there is no "dating" taking place, which is a little bit more difficult to talk about and put in context when it isn't happening.”

We also found an interesting change in gender roles among heterosexual parents. Mothers reported having fewer conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and fathers reported monitoring their teens’ behavior more closely than before the pandemic. This increase in fathers’ monitoring may in part reflect fathers’ shift from working outside the home to being at home during the pandemic (61% of fathers made this transition compared to 39% of mothers). While mothers are still monitoring and communicating more than fathers, it may be that since many fathers are spending more time at home, parents’ roles have shifted, and fathers are taking a more active part in their teens’ lives.

More research is needed to delve into what this data means, but it’s an important reminder that parenting roles aren’t set in stone. Sometimes a crisis can prompt unpredictable and even positive changes. The way parents have communicated with and monitored their teens in the past doesn’t necessarily dictate their future actions. Thinking outside the box can help; though mothers are often assumed to be the ones in charge of having these conversations, my research has shown that fathers play an important role, as do extended families.

October is National Family Sexuality Education Month, which is as good a time as any to reassess family communication about dating and relationships. Even if teens are at home, they’re likely chatting with peers online, and may be forming new relationships or continuing existing ones. They may have different questions now about what’s appropriate or comfortable in a relationship. Maybe it’s time to start a conversation with them, and consider with fresh eyes who might have that conversation.

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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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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The Social Media Sweet Spot: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Use Social Media Thoughtfully

two bored teenage girls look at their phonesA recent study out of University College London confirmed a very strong connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers. And this connection was much stronger in girls than in boys. (This does not mean that social media causes depression -- it just means that we know that children who use more social media have more depressive symptoms. More research needs to be done to figure out the reason behind this.)

The researchers looked at four explanations for why this might be. Poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-esteem, and poor body image all played a role.

My mind’s eye went immediately to my three wonderful, intelligent, strong and independent daughters, and to the social media apps that are such an integral part of their lives. My 15-year-old texts and video-chats with her friends through Snapchat, FaceTime and Whatsapp. My 13-year-old creates lip-syncing videos to share with her buddies via TikTok. And my 9-year-old immerses herself in a virtual zoological Animal Jam world of colorful biomes and customizable animals.

These apps provide positive experiences, such as socializing with friends, expressing emotions through creative cinematography, and learning facts about wildlife and its habitats. My little one often claims, “I’m so much better at typing now that I am using Animal Jam all the time!” Indeed, there is something to be said for the technical savvy that children are picking up as they navigate their way through social media landscapes that often baffle the older generation. If electronic communication is the way of the future, then it can be helpful to hone their digital skills at early ages.

In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists a few: offering of opportunities for community engagement, such as political or charitable events; fostering of ideas through blogs, videos, podcasts and games; opening of doors to connect with people of diverse backgrounds in a much smaller and more interconnected global world; enhancing of learning opportunities as students gather together in group chats to work on homework or projects; and greater access to health information about topics that teens might otherwise not feel comfortable discussing with adults (such as mental or sexual health issues).

So there are pros and cons. This leaves us with so many questions. How do we parents find the balance? That sweet spot where they reap the benefits but are protected from the pitfalls? How much do we need to worry about impending depression or anxiety creeping up on them? How much time is too much time on social media? What can I do to mitigate these scary-sounding effects the devices might be having on my children?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts on how parents can help teens use social media thoughtfully and appropriately:

  • Create screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and kitchen tables. And screen-free times such as mealtime and before bedtime. This will help reduce the amount of time kids are on their devices and allow for better quality and quantity sleep. (The devices might need to be given a “curfew” to enforce this tactic. A charging station in the kitchen or other central room can also be a good spot to park the devices for the night.)
  • Open the lines of communication with your kids. Talk to them about their social media experiences. Educate them about the advantages and disadvantages. Have ongoing conversations about anything they want to talk about, and reassure them that you are the trusted adult they can turn to if/when they become mired in teenage angst.
  • Keep in mind that it is not only quantity, but quality, that is important. Keep abreast of the apps your children are using, and encourage them to use social media in positive ways.
  • Avoid banning, blocking or restricting your kids’ access to social media sites. This generally doesn’t work and may backfire if the forbidden fruit becomes so tempting that they simply use it behind your back.
  • Be a good example to your kids. Use your own devices less! Engage with your children, and on your own, in non-screen activities. Enjoy the outdoors, read a book, play a game, do some fun activities as a family. Wax nostalgic for the days of yore when smartphones didn’t exist but people still knew how to enjoy!

My three girls are living in the wild west of cyberspace, with a frontier that is open to exploration. I hope that I can help guide them to that sweet spot of not-too-much and not-too-little, so that they enjoy the positive without enduring the negative along the way.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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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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