The Landscape of Parenting Students: An Incomplete Picture of the Challenges Student Parents Face to Educational Success

by California Competes


Topics: Data Systems, Degree Attainment, Adults, Student Parents


This second blog post examines the current landscape of student parents in higher education, the role student parents can play in increasing educational attainment in the state, and the barriers they face to success. This post also highlights current data collection on parenting students and how enhanced data collection could help us better understand the needs of parenting students.

Why care about student parents?

California is facing a shortage of college-educated professionals. A 2015 report from California Competes found that by 2025 California would need over two million additional certificates and degrees beyond what it was on track to produce.1 Parenting students will play a critical role in both growing higher education enrollments and the number of college graduates in the state. In a previous report, California Competes found that 6.8 million Californians ages 25–54 have a high school diploma but no college degree, and 57 percent of them have dependent children. We also found about one-fifth of Californians over the age of 25 (approximately 5.1 million Californians) plan to enroll in postsecondary education in the next two years.2,3,4 Likely millions of California students and prospective students are parents who are or will be juggling a variety of time commitments while pursuing their education.

California’s workforce needs these students to graduate more than ever, as more jobs demand a college degree and demographic projections in the state show that exiting high school student classes will be smaller than before, requiring colleges to draw in more older students (including parents) in order to maintain or increase enrollment levels. While the young adult population is not growing at the same pace in previous years, the demand for workers with postsecondary credentials is increasing, and the governor has recently announced a goal of having 70 percent of the population with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or a long-term certificate. Increasing the educational attainment level of student parents in particular will also have ripple effects for education and the economy. Parental education level has been linked to the academic and economic success of their children, and increasing the educational attainment of parents produces cost savings for states in terms of reduced spending on public benefits and increased tax revenue. Helping student parents reach their educational goals will have a multiplier effect of increasing family income and helping more children succeed in school.5,6 The equation is simple: California’s economy and communities need these students to hold college degrees and these students need higher education to obtain quality jobs that can support their families.

What data are collected on student parents?

To support student parents in their education it is important to understand who these students are and what challenges they face. However, there is a dearth of data on the parenting status of students. At the national level, the US Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a series of surveys covering virtually all public and nonprofit postsecondary institutions, does not collect or report data about which students have dependent children. Statistics for student parents are available in selected years from studies based on a nationally-representative sample, but these data cannot be used at the state or local level and have other limitations. In California, none of the public higher education segments displays application, enrollment, or completion data specific to student parents. Data on student parents are collected through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), although not all students complete the application because of its complexity, because they do not require aid, or because they are ineligible for federal student aid. FAFSA also uses a narrow definition of “parent,” only counting a student who has a child under 18 who receives more than half their support from the student. This definition excludes parents of college-age children or parents of young children if they supply 50 percent or less of the monetary support for the child. There have been recent efforts by some national groups and higher education institutions to highlight data on student parents, which is promising. However, these reports use differing definitions of student parents.

Well, then what do we know about student parents?

Who They Are

A recent report from Wheelhouse at the University of California, Davis, which uses a unique set of data pairing institutional data and financial aid application data, shines a light on enrollment and completion patterns of many student parents in California.7 The report finds that among the 1.5 million financial aid applicants in 2018, 13 percent had children and of these 72 percent intended to enroll at a California Community College. Additionally, several national organizations have estimated the share of student parents and the demographic characteristics of those parents. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research finds that one in five college students is parenting and that student parents are almost twice as likely to leave college without a degree after six years.8 Among students of color, a higher proportion are parenting while in college: 33 percent of Black students, 30 percent of Native American, and 21 percent of Latinx students have children.9 Student parents face greater economic barriers than students without children: over two thirds of student parents live in or near poverty, and student parents have higher levels of unmet financial need and higher median student debt.10,11

The Barriers They Face

In one survey that used a broader definition of student parents than the previously mentioned Wheelhouse study, student parents were more likely to identify as female and were more likely to be from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.12 The survey found that student parents were more likely to report being food insecure (53%), housing insecure (68%), or homeless within the last year (17%) than students without children. The survey also found that students of color are more likely to be parents: 25 percent of Indigenous students and American Indian or Alaska Native students, 22 percent of Black students, 17 percent of Latinx students, compared with 15 percent of White students. The survey also found that 30 percent of student parents reported experiencing symptoms of moderate to severe depression, as self-reported on a 9-item scale (not on a clinical diagnosis).

Serving Student Parents Will Help Close Equity Gaps

These data show that addressing the needs of student parents can also help higher education systems reach their goals of reducing equity gaps for populations that have been historically underserved in higher education. All three segments of public higher education in California have adopted systemwide goals to close equity gaps, since a disproportionate share of parenting students are students of color, meeting their needs would help reduce equity gaps.

So, what can we do?

These studies provide a glimpse of who student parents are and what kinds of challenges they face. However, more data would shed light on the populations in each segment to better understand the services that colleges could offer. For example, with better data we could answer:

  • How many student parents are enrolled in higher education, in which segments, and at what levels (short- or long-term certificate, associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate)?
  • What is the graduation rate of student parents versus nonparents?
  • How many student parents qualify for and receive financial aid? How much financial aid do they receive compared with their total cost of attendance?

And collecting more data is not impossible. In 2019, Fresno State became the first campus in the California State University system to collect data on student parents. Since then, approximately 400 students have voluntarily shared this information, and the data show that 20 percent of students at that institution are parents.13 In 2019, the University of California (UC) published data on the challenges faced by student parents using data from the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey (UCUES) and the Graduate Wellbeing Survey (GWS).14 The UC found that parenting students make up about 1 percent of the undergraduate student population and about 12 percent of the graduate student population but are more likely to have basic needs challenges than other students. UC has established a Parenting Students Workgroup to discuss issues impacting student parents, including collecting more and better data on this population. In 2021, Oregon passed a law that allows students to identify whether they are parents, or acting as parents or guardians, on forms used annually to collect demographic information at public postsecondary education institutions, including community colleges and public universities. These statements about the lack of systematic data collection should not detract from campus-based efforts to support student parents, many of which are highlighted in the next post in the series on institutional actions.15

Collecting and displaying data on student parents is a vital first step to understanding the barriers these students face and the programs and practices that could help support their educational journey. Our next two blog posts will explore options for helping student parents enroll and succeed in college including actions that can be taken by institutions and actions that can be taken by the state and federal policymakers to address the needs of student parents more broadly.

1 California Competes. (2015). Mind the gap: Delivering on California’s promise for higher education. https://californiacompetes.org/degree-gap/CC-DegreeGapReport.pdf

2 California Competes. (2021). Get ready: Introducing the millions of adults planning to enroll in college https://californiacompetes.org/publications/get-ready

3 California Competes. (2021). Untapped opportunity: Understanding and advancing prospects for Californians without a college degree. https://californiacompetes.org/publications/untapped-opportunity-understanding-and-advancing-prospects-for-californians-without-a-college-degree

4 California Competes. (2018). Back to college part two: A policy prescription to support adults returning to college. https://californiacompetes.org/publications/back-to-college-part-two

5 Brady, H., Hout, M., & Stiles, J. (2005). Return on investment: Educational choices and demographic change in California’s future. Survey Research Center, University of California, Berkeley. https://paa2006.princeton.edu/...

6 Reddy, V., & Dow, A. (2021). California’s biggest return on investment. Campaign for College Opportunity. https://collegecampaign.org/wp...

7 Reed, S., Grosz, M., Kurlaender, M., & Cooper, S. (2021). A portrait of student parents in the California Community Colleges. UC Davis Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research. https://education.ucdavis.edu/sites/main/files/wheelhouse_research_brief_vol_6_no_2_v2.pdf

8 Institute for Women’s Policy Research. (2021). Head Start-college partnership to promote student parent family success: A roadmap to guide collaboration (IWPR #C500). https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Head-Start-College-Partnership-Resource40.pdf

9 Reichlin Cruse, L., Holtzman, T., Gault, B., Croom, D., & Polk, P. (n.d.). Parents in college: By the numbers. Institute for Women’s Policy Research. https://iwpr.org/iwpr-issues/student-parent-success-initiative/parents-in-college-by-the-numbers. Results are from an analysis of the 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS). NPSAS is a nationally representative sample of data from approximately 2,000 institutions.

10 Gault, B., Cruse, L.R., & Schumacher, R. (2019). Bridging systems for family economic mobility: Postsecondary and early education partnerships. Institute for Women’s Policy Research. https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/C482_Bridging-Systems-report_5.24.2019_Final.pdf

11 Cruse, L.R., Mendez, S.C., & Holtzman, T. (2020). Student parents in the COVID-19 pandemic: Heightened need & the imperative for strengthened support (IWPR #C492). Institute for Women’s Policy Research. https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/COVID19-Student-Parents-Fact-Sheet.pdf

12 The survey included any student who answered yes to the following question as a student parent: “Are you the parent or guardian to any biological, adopted, step, or foster children who live in your household?” Goldrick-Rab, S., Welton, C.R., & Coca, V. (2020). Parenting while in college: Basic needs insecurity among students with children. Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2019_ParentingStudentsReport.pdf

13 Education Trust-West. (2021, June 29). Bright spot from the field–Identifying and supporting student parents at Fresno State. https://west.edtrust.org/resource/bright-spot-from-the-field-identifying-and-supporting-student-parents-at-fresno-state/

14 The UC undergraduate survey asks parents to self-identify if they are a parent living with children. Therefore parents not living with children may not be represented. The graduate survey only asks if a student is a parent. Both of these definitions differ from the FAFSA methodology. University of California, Institutional Research and Academic Planning. (2019). Parenting students’ experience and challenges at UC. https://www.ucop.edu/institutional-research-academic-planning/_files/uc-parenting-students.pdf

15 Green, A. (2021, June 7). Oregon is finally counting student parents. Other states should follow. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. https://diverseeducation.com/article/217032/

Read the Other Posts in the Series

Expanding Pathways for Student Parents: A Policy Agenda to Meet the Needs of Student Parents

California Competes
August 26, 2021

Institutional Changes to Ease the Path for Student Parents

California Competes
August 26, 2021

State and Federal Strategies to Improve Higher Educational Attainment of Student Parents

California Competes
August 26, 2021