Helping Young Parents Succeed in College and Life

Updated on October 12, 2021, and originally posted August 23, 2021, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Woman smiling and leaning in, forehead to forehead, with a young toddler girl.

Earn­ing a post-sec­ondary degree can open doors to jobs and careers that pay fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing wages. Yet, for young par­ents in col­lege, the road to grad­u­a­tion day is par­tic­u­lar­ly challenging.

In this post, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion draws on numer­ous sources — includ­ing some efforts it fund­ed — to exam­ine who Amer­i­ca’s stu­dent par­ents are, where they strug­gle, and what sup­ports and ser­vices they need to succeed.

Who Are Stu­dent Parents?

The term stu­dent par­ents” refers to indi­vid­u­als who are jug­gling col­lege course­work and rais­ing children.

In high­er edu­ca­tion, a sig­nif­i­cant share of stu­dents today — more than one in five under­grad­u­ates nation­wide — are par­ents, accord­ing to nation­al data cit­ed by the Insti­tute for Women’s Pol­i­cy Research. The Casey Foun­da­tion is espe­cial­ly focused on stu­dent par­ents ages 18 to 24 with young chil­dren at home.

Oth­er notable statistics:

  • There are 3.8 mil­lion stu­dent par­ents nationwide.
  • More than 40% of stu­dent par­ents attend a com­mu­ni­ty college.
  • Black stu­dents are more like­ly to be par­ents (33% are) when com­pared to stu­dents of oth­er races.
  • More than 70% of all stu­dent par­ents are moth­ers and over half of these women are sin­gle mothers.
  • Two in every five Black female stu­dents are moth­ers while only about one in every four white and Lati­na female stu­dents are mothers.

The Chal­lenges Stu­dent Par­ents Face

Stu­dent par­ents are 10 times less like­ly than their child­less class­mates to earn a bachelor’s degree with­in five years, accord­ing to nation­al data. Fac­tors fuel­ing this dis­par­i­ty could include: 

  • Child care hur­dles. Child care is expen­sive. Stu­dent par­ents who work typ­i­cal­ly spend 14% of their house­hold income — twice what the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment rec­om­mends — on child care, per the Urban Insti­tute. And, since most preschools and day­care facil­i­ties are closed on evenings and week­ends, when many young par­ents are in class, fam­i­ly mem­bers often play a crit­i­cal care­giv­ing role. 
  • Unmet needs. Some stu­dent par­ents strug­gle to afford basic needs, such as food, hous­ing and men­tal health ser­vices. These same par­ents can also fail to qual­i­fy for vital ben­e­fits — like food stamps — due to a pub­lic program’s strin­gent work require­ments. Finan­cial aid and schol­ar­ships can offer some relief, but these funds aren’t always avail­able or even intend­ed to sup­port entire families. 
  • Com­pet­ing pri­or­i­ties and schedules. Many young par­ents main­tain jobs in addi­tion to going to col­lege and car­ing for their chil­dren. These par­ents spend 47 hours a week, on aver­age, work­ing and in school, accord­ing to an Urban Insti­tute report. 
  • A sense of dis­con­nec­tion. Stu­dent par­ents also report fac­ing stig­ma and iso­la­tion on cam­pus. They speak of strug­gling to fit in and find com­mon ground with class­mates who aren’t parents. 

The ben­e­fits of Help­ing Stu­dent Par­ents Graduate 

Many states are seek­ing to boost col­lege com­ple­tion rates as a means of build­ing a work­force that can meet the demands of a chang­ing econ­o­my. Sup­port­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess of stu­dent par­ents is key to meet­ing this goal. 

Data indi­cates that stu­dent par­ents with high­er lev­els of edu­ca­tion are more like­ly to suc­ceed finan­cial­ly. Take sin­gle moth­ers, for exam­ple. Mov­ing from a high school diplo­ma to an associate’s degree increas­es their aver­age life­long earn­ings by $256,000. This dif­fer­ence jumps to $625,000 for sin­gle moth­ers with a bach­e­lor degree. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, researchers have found that sin­gle moth­ers with advanced degrees tend to pay more in tax­es and rely less on gov­ern­ment assis­tance programs.

How to Help Stu­dent Par­ents Thrive

Pol­i­cy­mak­ers and col­lege cam­pus­es both have a role to play in sup­port­ing the suc­cess of stu­dent par­ents. Some strate­gies worth con­sid­er­ing include: 

  • Improv­ing access to child care. To expand child care access, pol­i­cy­mak­ers can increase sub­sidy pro­grams and oth­er sup­ports to help stu­dent par­ents afford qual­i­ty, con­ve­nient pro­grams. Col­leges can also estab­lish or grow on-cam­pus child care offer­ings for stu­dent parents.
  • Expand­ing pro­grams that help stu­dents meet basic needs. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers can strike restric­tive work require­ments from pub­lic ben­e­fits pro­grams. Col­leges can offer finan­cial aid and schol­ar­ship pro­grams that cov­er the needs of stu­dent par­ents, includ­ing expens­es relat­ed to rais­ing their chil­dren. Schools can also adopt wrap­around ser­vices that assist stu­dent par­ents in access­ing hous­ing, food, trans­porta­tion, men­tal health care and sup­port groups.
  • Sup­port­ing flex­i­ble sched­ules. Edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions should offer evening, week­end and online cours­es. With more oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn, stu­dent par­ents can bet­ter man­age life’s mul­ti­ple, com­pet­ing priorities.
  • Lever­ag­ing data. Schools should seek to under­stand the par­ent­ing sta­tus of their stu­dents and cus­tomize ser­vices accord­ing­ly. Younger stu­dent par­ents, espe­cial­ly, could ben­e­fit from advis­ing and men­tor­ing that sup­ports their aca­d­e­m­ic and career choices.

See more resources about sup­port­ing young parents

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