A Powerful Catalytic New Initiative for Students Who Are Parents

November 1, 2018 | Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents

What does it take for a postsecondary student – who happens to be raising a child – to earn a credential that will lead to a career and economic mobility in today’s economy? Quite a lot, as it turns out: finding quality child care that is also affordable, pulling together resources to pay high tuition bills, navigating inflexible schedules at both school and work.

And when one out of every four college students – 5 million individuals – is parent to a young child, there is much at stake. We know that parents who complete a college degree can double their incomes, and that in 2018, nine of 10 jobs went to people with a college degree.  Furthermore, just a $3,000 increase in income for parents with young children can translate to a 17 percent increase in their children’s future earnings as well as immediate family economic stability, translating into critical issues like a family’s ability to avoid a housing eviction when something goes wrong.

Investing in student parents is an extremely underutilized lever in building our economy and workforce. The traditional definition of postsecondary student is outdated. Demographics and data reflect a far richer, more diverse and complex reality. Our systems and structures need to catch up. It is time to reimagine how our policies and institutions can open postsecondary pathways for parents – ensuring an outsize impact on economic security for their families and for generations to come.

Ascend is proud to announce the Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative, a new partnership with Omidyar Network to tackle this challenge by raising awareness of and sharing recommendations to better support students who are parents. The initiative is guided by our comprehensive two-generation (2Gen) approach that focuses on children and their parents together to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Listening to parents, elevating their voices, and lifting up their dreams for their children and family is core to Ascend’s philosophy, and we are thrilled to welcome a group of Parent Advisors to the initiative – all leaders in their own right – to share their expert insights into the lives of student parents that will inform a suite of actionable recommendations for policymakers, higher education leaders, and philanthropists in the U.S.

Today we release the first set of practical recommendations on how postsecondary institutions and policymakers may better engage student parents and remove barriers to their postsecondary degrees. These two briefs are the first of a suite of materials to be published through early 2019 that elevate a set of parent-informed recommendations for student parents’ success.

Student parents have a unique trait as compared to their childless peers: major constraints on time and mental health well-being. A recent study published in the Journal of Higher Education calls this phenomenon “time poverty.” Per the study, students raising preschool-age children had about 10 hours per day to dedicate to academics, sleeping, eating and leisure activities, compared to the 21 hours available for childless students. Tackling these challenges also require contextual lenses that take into account persistent gender inequalities and racial disparities in our society: 71% of all student parents are women, and although black students represent approximately 15% of the total undergraduate student population, just over 37% of all single student parents are black.

Fortunately, we have some strong models and case studies that can serve as blueprints for better supporting student parents. For example, Central New Mexico Community College’s CNM Connect, led by Ascend Fellow Dr. Kathie Winograd, is a student resource initiative that provides whole-family supports and benefits access, alongside academic coaching and financial aid assistance to make it easier for students to access the services and resources that fit their individual circumstances. Dr. Winograd is a leader in supporting parents in the higher education system: “With 35 percent of our students being parents, we’ve also been working to expand our support of students with parental responsibilities. We’ve begun creating safe and educational spaces for children to spend time in areas where their parents study or meet with advisors.”

The work of educational institutions is even more powerful when they build strong collaborations to fill gaps in services by partnering with other organizations that specialize in strengthening families. For example, the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) and the Technical College Systems of Georgia, in continuation of their Parents and Children Thriving Together (PACTT) efforts, recently announced a grant opportunity: the Two-Generation Innovation Grant (2018) that will help institutions pilot or expand community initiatives that connect the early learning, postsecondary, and workforce systems at the local level to deliver benefits to the two generations within a family unit – children and their parents. These strategies will impact both children’s ability to access high-quality early learning and their parents’ ability to obtain jobs that provide family-supporting wages, fostering greater economic security.

There are many opportunities for federal and state policymakers to leverage resources already available to more explicitly support postsecondary institutions’ ability to better serve students who are parents and their families. Policymakers can incentivize partnerships, integrate language that names students who are parents as special or target populations, facilitate financial aid processes that work for the needs of families, and leverage recent research and insights. For example, the Washington Center for Budget and Policy has found 45 credits to be a magic number: that parents on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) who earned 45 credits were more likely to be stably employed, had higher annual earnings, and spent fewer months on TANF.

America wants student parents to succeed: there is substantial public support for investing in students who are parents. According to a 2016 exit survey conducted by Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group, three-quarters of voters support creating partnerships to provide services to low-income students who have young children and year-round access to financial aid plans for certificate programs, including majorities across party lines.

The synergy of the committed stakeholders, public support, plethora of research, and deep knowledge available to catalyze for student parents is powerful. We are thrilled to embark on this journey with Omidyar Network to raise awareness of student parents and provide concrete, actionable solutions to better support this critical population.

Please read the first two reports for policymakers and practitioners to learn more about our initial recommendations, and stay tuned for more insights, particularly to address student parents’ mental health, and a model and framework for philanthropists and postsecondary leaders in the coming months.

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