Twenty per cent of US undergraduates have children – we must do more to support them

Dedicating funds and resources to parenting students, most of whom are mothers and single, is also an investment in the prosperity of future generations, writes Sara Goldrick-Rab

Sara Goldrick-Rab's avatar
Education Northwest
11 Oct 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • Additional Links
  • More on this topic
A parenting student studies with her daughter in the background

You may also like

We must remove technology worries from the student cost-of-living crisis
4 minute read
Digital access is crucial and help is required for students to combat digital exclusion

In 2022, the US Senate passed a bipartisan resolution declaring September to be National Student Parent Month. The goal, according to sponsors, was to send “an important message to Americans who are trying to balance college coursework and raising children” and advance support “so they can focus on getting an education that will help them provide a better future for their families”.

The action occurred 27 years after the Senate passed bipartisan legislation that sent a very different message to low-income women with children, overwhelmingly single mothers. The 1996 welfare reform advanced by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, purported to help Americans with children by pushing them to get a job – any job – reducing any potential for “dependency” on government support. Critically, that effort focused on work first, overtly deterring parents from pursuing college education. In the years that followed, enrolment in college among low-income parents (particularly Black and Latina women) fell across the nation, and many college support programmes to help them were shuttered.

A generation later, many of those parents are still in poverty, and their children now have children. If they want to pursue college, they often have to do it without safety net programmes such as food stamps, childcare and income subsidies that were more readily available before welfare reform. That’s especially harsh because college prices are higher than ever, and financial aid has not kept pace.

The effects are clear. Nearly one in five undergraduates (about 3 million people) has a child, but another 12 million parents started college and never finished. Two-thirds of currently enrolled parenting students – 70 per cent of whom are mothers – live in poverty. My analyses of new federal data shows that 29 per cent experience food insecurity and 7 per cent experience homelessness. Most work while also studying and parenting: 59 per cent are employed full-time, and 11 per cent work more than one job, and as a result, 41 per cent attend college exclusively part-time. Further adding to their challenges, 20 per cent of parenting students have some type of disability.

What parenting students lack in terms of funding or time, they make up for with extraordinary drive, focus and maturity. That’s likely why among low-income students with similar resources, parenting students often succeed in college at higher rates. We can’t simply set aside that lack of time or money. We must address it to build on their promise and embrace the clear intergenerational advantages created when parents complete higher education.

To be effective and scaled, support for parenting students must be respectful, treating them with dignity, and explicitly attentive to intersectional issues including race, sexuality and family types that affect how students learn about and receive that support. When thinking about planning this work, we also must recognise that extant data on parenting students likely overlooks many people, especially non-custodial fathers.

Giving students money for their bills, no strings attached, is an important first step. The financial aid system is a highly bureaucratic and inefficient way to do this, so I find the new guaranteed income programmes, along with emergency aid, to be much more promising. Even small amounts of money can make a big difference. During the pandemic, tens of thousands of parenting students were helped by emergency aid and the child tax credit, along with increased funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Given the recent surge in child poverty, those efforts clearly need to be restarted and continued.

We also need to reduce the bills that parents face in college, particularly by making two big-ticket items – housing and childcare – much less expensive. Initiatives such as the Family Scholar House, which blend and braid public and private funds, are a good place to start. In addition, parenting students should be offered dedicated on-campus housing (Berea College offers a great model), especially since they – more so than other students – have little time to spare and need the institutions in their lives (including college and childcare) co-located near where they live.

When it comes to childcare, I’m especially excited by initiatives such as Kids on Campus, a collaboration between the National Head Start Association and the Association of Community College Trustees, which will help bring health, nutrition and education services to more current students’ children, while also helping more low-income parents access college. Of course, the federal Child Care on Campus Means Parents in School Program should be expanded as well. After all, 53 per cent of parenting students have a child under six.

Nearly half of all parenting students attend community colleges that are strapped for cash and struggling to stay alive, so innovation from philanthropy and the private sector is especially important. The ECMC Foundation is doing intensive work to help single mothers, and that effort is strengthened by leadership from Amber Angel, a former student parent. Parenting students are also powering the work at Generation Hope, Raise the Barr, Aspen Ascend and the SPARK Collaborative, helping to ensure that solutions are well-designed and used.

Parental education, and particularly maternal education, shapes a person’s life outcomes more than most other factors. Whether you are concerned about the economy, democracy, health or other aspects of life, your goals are far more likely to be realised through a collective investment in today’s kids through devoted support and finances to their parents’ education. Stephanie Land’s forthcoming book, Class, beautifully illustrates the struggle of motherhood, hunger and higher education and challenges us all to recognise the big mistakes of the late ’90s welfare reform. Whether it’s during September, National Student Parent Month, or beyond, if you see an opportunity to encourage and support someone going to college with kids, please take it.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, a senior fellow at Education Northwest and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.

For more advice and resources on this topic, go to our Spotlight collection Helping students through the cost-of-living crisis.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site