What Do Student Parents Need?

To survive the enrollment cliff, institutions must develop programs that provide child care, housing and more for student parents.

6 minutes
By: Aila Boyd
featured-image

With a tight labor market—December’s unemployment rate was only 3.5%—and a looming demographic cliff, some institutions are looking to tap into a historically underrepresented group in higher education—students who are also parents. Bringing those prospective students into the fold, however, isn’t easy.

SimpsonScarborough’s 2022 National Prospective Student Survey report noted that “more than 1 in 5 students has a child.” Notably, responsibilities such as child care make it “challenging to attend a traditional, four-year, in-person, full-time higher education institution.”

Due to the fact that campuses can no longer focus solely on traditional students, Brittani Williams, a senior policy analyst at The Education Trust, feels that it is high time institutions look more closely at how they engage with student parents, a group that has “historically been overlooked.” 

Williams knows firsthand the difficulties of parenting while in school, having done so throughout her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She is now working toward her doctorate while supporting her family. 

“Student services on campus do not consider the ways in which they have to operate on campus,” she said about student parents. “That means in terms of course availability, child-care availability and even hours of availability for student programming to support degree persistence.”

Policy Solutions

The Education Trust, an organization that seeks to improve equity in education, released a report last August that found the biggest hurdles student parents face in obtaining a higher education pertain to costs and child care. 

One of the key findings was that “a student parent would need to work 52 hours per week, on average, to cover child care and tuition costs at a four-year public college or university in the U.S.” For that reason, accessibility to higher education is limited for the group. 

The report offered recommendations for federal, state and campus leaders, all of which are meant to work in tandem. The recommendations for campuses relate to data, costs and access.

Institutions, the report said, should start collecting data on student parents, including information on enrollment, retention, completion, finances and financial aid, and report it to the U.S. Department of Education through Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System surveys. 

“It is important for our institutions to develop mechanisms that collect and report institutional-level data on parenting student enrollment and retention to be able to support programming on campuses,” Williams said. 

She pointed to Ohio and Illinois as the first two states to require public institutions to collect data on student parents, both of which did so in 2021. “That helps move the needle forward for this population,” she stressed. 

Considering what it looks like to serve students equitably, Williams said, includes considering the cost of attendance, specifically child care. 

According to The Education Trust, there is no state in which a student parent can work 10 hours per week at the minimum wage and afford both tuition and child care at a public college or university.

To increase affordability for student parents, institutions can leverage state and federal funding targeted at expanding child-care access. The report suggests institutions pursue Child Care and Development Block Grant subsidies. Additionally, the report advised that help navigating state child-care subsidies should be offered to parents. 

Another suggestion is to automate the inclusion of child-care expenses as an allowable cost category in determining the cost of attendance. Doing so, the report said, will allow student parents to qualify for higher amounts of financial aid. Williams said increasing access for student parents can be as simple as higher ed leaders making clear choices to prioritize them on campus. 

Institutions can increase access for student parents, the report said, by offering their children first access to on-campus child-care services over those of faculty and staff and by providing priority enrollment so that they can schedule their classes around work and parenting obligations. Williams said she sees the desire to increase access to higher education for student parents as being part of a larger trend.

“Holistically, I don’t think it’s just about parenting students on campuses, but underrepresented students across the board,” she said. “While campuses are seeing declines in numbers, I think that COVID-19 shook the stage for higher ed and made people more reflective about what practices had been going on and what practices are needed.”

Flexibility

One of the ways institutions can attract student parents, in addition to other students with outside obligations, is to offer more flexible learning options. 

The Simpson-Scarborough survey noted, “When asked about format, 39% of respondents either want a fully online or hybrid learning format.” As proof that online learning options are in demand, fall 2022 enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that online institutions saw a 3.2% increase, compared to the 1.1% decrease in overall undergraduate and graduate enrollment. 

Kerri Shook, an enrollment strategist with the marketing agency, is quoted in the survey report as saying, “Life no longer fits into a school schedule—school fits into life’s schedule, from time commitment to finances.” 

Programs Helping Student Parents

Wilson College and Misericordia University are two institutions that have leaned heavily into the idea of increasing accessibility for student parents.

Single Parent Scholars Program

In 1996, Wilson College, a private Pennsylvania-based institution of roughly 1,600 students, established its Single Parent Scholars Program.

“Single parents should never have to choose between their education and parenting their children,” said Katherine Kough, the assistant dean of students at the college and director of the program.

The program “gives parents access to higher education that can open doors to a more fulfilling, economically self-sufficient life” by providing family-friendly, on-campus housing year-round to single parents and their children who are between 20 months and 10 years of age. 

In addition to housing opportunities, the college has an endowment that subsidizes the cost of child care. However, parents are responsible for securing child care in the local community, and student parents are responsible for tuition and board. 

“We aren’t making college easier,” Kough explained. “College is still college, but we make it convenient.”

To obtain admittance to the program, participants first have to be admitted to the college. From there, they complete a brief form and are interviewed. The screening process involves questions concerning readiness to pursue studies while also parenting. 

“Many of the students in the program came to us because [we had] the program,” she said. 

Children in the program are included in their parent’s required on-campus meal plan and can eat for free in the campus dining hall.

Although the program is marketed, she noted the struggle selling it because “single parents are sort of everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.” She explained that admissions marketing efforts normally subscribe to the idea that prospective first-year students can be reached by going to high schools and transfer students can be reached by going to community colleges. Marketing to single parents is more difficult to pin down.

“Sometimes there’s a real obvious market, a really obvious spot where you can capture a lot at once,” Kough said. “This is not necessarily the case.” 

Kough said her college’s admissions team has reached potential participants through nonprofits that help single parents. Currently, the Single Parent Scholars Program has eight participants but can accommodate as many as 14. 

Throughout the years, Kough has observed that interest in the program, and higher education in general, tends to fluctuate depending on the economy. In particular, she has found that student parents are reluctant to give up their jobs to live communally while pursuing their studies. Kough believes programs like the one at Wilson College are tapping into an underserved market.

“The number of single parents without a degree is huge,” she said. “It’s a market that I think institutions go after a little bit, but it can be a much bigger opportunity.” 

Women with Children Program

Misericordia University also has one of the eight initiatives in the United States targeted at student parents: the Women with Children Program

The private, Roman Catholic Church-affiliated, Pennsylvania-based university of approximately 2,200 students established the program in 2000 to empower “economically disadvantaged single mothers by providing [them with] the opportunity to complete a college degree.” 

The program works to increase access in two ways—providing free housing and helping to navigate local and state child-care subsidies. To access child-care assistance from Pennsylvania’s Early Learning Resource Centers, students have to take 12 credits a semester and work a minimum of 20 hours every two weeks. 

“That has been a winning formula for success in terms of our program and creating true accessibility,” Katherine Pohlidal, director of the program, said.

She explained that ensuring the timing is just right, meaning that student parents have access to timely child care, has been a major focus for her. “Oftentimes there is a waitlist. If you’re waiting, you aren’t accessing education because you’re in that limbo,” she said. “If you can’t get that child-care access and you can’t get your education and you can’t move forward in terms of mobility, it creates a massive barrier for a lot of individuals that are looking to go to college or university.” 

One of the solutions Misericordia has come up with has been to offer temporary child-care scholarships while mothers wait to get access to the services offered by the centers. Additionally, Pohlidal maintains good working relations with center officials and caseworkers to ensure the mothers in the program maintain a solid footing.

“We maintain homes because I think it’s way more conducive to our families to do well when they live in a home environment,” said Pohlidal. “There’s nothing institutional feeling about our homes at all.”

The program is open to mothers with up to three children. Up to 16 families can stay at the four on-campus homes that the program operates. This past fall, the fourth house was added to accommodate more families. Despite the program’s successes, she and the university are constantly refining its goals. An example of a new initiative from the university is a pilot program called Parent Pathways of NEPA, which launched in October. 

It takes a holistic approach to remove barriers for student parents through higher education, social and community services and youth development partnerships. A local community college and technical college have partnered with Misericordia on the initiative. 

“I think it’s important that we create pathways that create true accessibility for families,” she said. Pohlidal also sees a big opportunity for higher education if it reverses its thinking and begins taking the admissions process into the community, instead of expecting student parents to show up to the admissions office on their own. 

Visible Success

Pohlidal said that, ultimately, increasing college access to student parents helps them “self-actualize the people they were always meant to be.” All of the women who have graduated from the program have either immediately started their careers or gone on to graduate school; 80% of the program’s graduates have obtained at least a master’s degree. 

Success stories within the program abound. Pohlidal remembered one woman who entered the program a few years ago after fleeing domestic violence and living in a homeless shelter with two small children.

“She came to our program with a car, her two children and three garbage bags of clothing—that’s it,” she explained. “She continued to raise her children, go to school full time and did very, very well. She’s not an anomaly in our program, she’s just an example of what we see often.”

The woman eventually graduated, was accepted to a law school in New York and is now a prosecuting attorney in New Jersey who works on domestic violence cases. 

“Once they take off, they keep going,” Pohlidal said. 

Aila Boyd

Aila Boyd

Reporter

Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based journalist and educator. As a journalist, she has written for and edited daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. She has taught English at a number of colleges and universities and holds an MFA in writing.


Newsletter Sign up!

Stay current in digital strategy, brand amplification, design thinking and more.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Architecture in relation to university image, Asian female student with long straight dark hair, wearing a light-colored button-down shirt and holding a stack of books, and Black male student with short curly dark hair, wearing a light-colored button-down shirt and glasses, sitting at the desk and reading with pictures of a library in the background.

Architecture and the University: An Intersection of Form and Function

Universities are changing their internal spaces to match the way students live and learn.

Student Experience /
By: J. Aelick
Image of students walking, with university campus in the background with a large lock and chains on top.

Student Journalists Fight for Access as Universities Toe the Line

Student editors allege schools are more focused on public relations and protecting a brand than fostering legitimate student journalism.

Student Experience /
By: Chris Kudialis
Students in a higher ed class reviewing the AI detection notices on their screens.

Don’t Assume Students Are AI Savvy 

As artificial intelligence transforms the classroom experience, higher ed leaders are stressing that students need guidance with how and when to use the technology appropriately.

Student Experience /
By: Aila Boyd
Architecture in relation to university image, Asian female student with long straight dark hair, wearing a light-colored button-down shirt and holding a stack of books, and Black male student with short curly dark hair, wearing a light-colored button-down shirt and glasses, sitting at the desk and reading with pictures of a library in the background.

Architecture and the University: An Intersection of Form and Function

Universities are changing their internal spaces to match the way students live and learn.

Student Experience /
By: J. Aelick
Image of students walking, with university campus in the background with a large lock and chains on top.

Student Journalists Fight for Access as Universities Toe the Line

Student editors allege schools are more focused on public relations and protecting a brand than fostering legitimate student journalism.

Student Experience /
By: Chris Kudialis
An image of students seating at their desks with Chat GPT logo on the green background as a description of AI teaching.

AI Will Level the Academic Playing Field, Eventually

Higher-ed leaders are touting plans for an AI teaching revolution, but most students have yet to see significant results.

Student Experience /
By: Chris Kudialis