Helping Young Parents Succeed in College and Life

Updated October 12, 2021 | 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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