Reimagining Higher Ed for Equity and Student Parent Success

“Was higher ed designed for minority students?”  

A student asked this question during a Temple University “Sociology of Education” class I spoke to this fall about parenting college students.  

My answer? “No.”

The first college in the United States, Harvard University (then Harvard College), was founded in 1636, and its legacy and history are bound up with the exploitation of slave labor. The College of William & Mary, founded in 1693, came next, funded in part by its own tobacco plantation. These early colonial colleges cemented the blueprint for the higher ed system that we know today. 

In May 2003 I walked across the graduation stage at the College of William & Mary holding the hand of my three-year old daughter. While I was excited and incredibly proud, I was also fully aware that as a young, single, Black mother, I was an anomaly–both in my own graduating class and among the ranks of those earning degrees across the country. 

Fewer than 2% of young moms who have their babies before the age of 18 become college graduates by the time they’re 30. More than 1 in 5 (or nearly four million) of today’s college students are actually parenting. Despite these students having, on average, higher GPAs than their non-parenting peers, more than half leave school without a degree within six years, compared to 32 percent of non-parenting students. Parenting students are also more likely to be students of color (51 percent) — students with similarly lower completion rates — and are powerfully motivated to earn their degree in order to secure family-sustaining wages. These realities reinforce what is clear: the higher ed system was not designed for students with children or Black and Brown students.  

The first step to creating change is understanding the needs and experiences of these students. Generation Hope’s national student parent survey, conducted last spring, illuminated how invisible parenting college students are to the vast majority of institutions (most do not track parenting status). This is reflected in everything from the dearth of child-in-class policies on college syllabi to the lack of changing tables or lactation rooms that are accessible to students on campus. The report also revealed systemic barriers in student services that often marginalize parents–from mental health to financial aid. For example, securing child care was one of the most difficult challenges student parents reported facing in our survey. And yet, three-quarters of respondents said that their financial aid office did not inform them that childcare expenses could be taken into account in the determination of their financial aid award. That number increases to 79% for Black students with children.  

The stigma associated with community colleges is connected to student parent success and equity. The largest share of student parents, 42 percent, attend community colleges. Student parents attend community college for many reasons — affordability; flexibility; location; and, for some students, an opportunity to prepare for a four-year school. Because community colleges have long supported students that don’t fit the mold of the “traditional” undergrad, they are often more embracing of these students. Unsurprisingly, broken down by school type, parenting students at community colleges are most likely to feel very welcome — 48 percent, compared to 32 percent of four-year students. 

Despite the important role that community colleges play in advancing equity in higher education, they are significantly underfunded and seen as “less than” in higher ed. Devaluing community college students, the majority of whom are students of color, makes it even harder for them to get their foot in the door for internships and employment opportunities and can dissuade them from pursuing a bachelor’s degree. And since such a large proportion of student parents go to community colleges, when we devalue these institutions, we’re preventing whole families from thriving.

There are so many reasons to expand supports for parenting college students beginning with the fact that they enrich institutions and bring so many talents and skills into the workforce. But a degree also exponentially increases a parent’s lifetime earning potential, and removes barriers to success for the next generation of learners. 

While parenting students and students of color were not considered when the U.S. higher ed system began back in 1636, we know that the system can and must change. It will require our collective effort, our willingness to reimagine what higher ed should look like, our actions (rather than just words) in bringing students and leaders from all backgrounds to the table and into decision-making positions, and our investments in critical supports.  

The end goal is to get to a place where students do not have to question whether the higher ed system was designed for them. That is the call that we must answer.