Institutional Changes to Ease the Path for Student Parents


The prior blog posts in this series outlined how student parents face barriers to entry and success in higher education and how inadequate data collection creates challenges in understanding their needs. This post examines institutional practices that can create a more student-parent friendly environment. These practices include:

  • providing realistic and comprehensive information about the total cost of attendance and the availability of financial aid;
  • providing more campus services geared toward student parents, including childcare, student housing, food pantries, and transportation vouchers;
  • providing flexible pathways, course schedules, and modalities, along with course policies that respect the time constraints of student parents; and
  • reducing time to degree through transfer policies that count all previous course completions, utilizing competency-based education and credit for prior learning, and incentivizing greater enrollment intensity.

Providing Realistic, Comprehensive, and Timely Information to Student Parents about College Pricing and the Availability of Aid

Many students report that their higher education plans have been derailed by unexpected fees such as for administrative filing fees, lab materials, orientation, parking, and other services. While these fees are dwarfed by the tuition charges at many colleges, they can make or break the plans of students who are price sensitive. Additionally, net price calculators do not account for the cost of parenting for low-income students. Our previous report found that low-income student parents’ average net price of college is 55 percent higher than it is for nonparents. Higher education institutions can help students understand the true full cost of college by enhancing the accuracy of net price calculator tools, including the methodology used to develop the estimate. Colleges should also disclose to students the full set of fees they may be required to pay, including when these fees are due, at the time the students are accepted.1,2

Institutions can also leverage their financial aid offices to inform students of all the types of financial aid for which they are qualified, including federal, state, and institutional aid and also county or local benefits. The federal government offers subsidies to help low-income parents pay for childcare, but a lack of information and burdensome application procedures means that only one in seven eligible children nationwide actually benefits from this assistance.3 Additionally, the American Rescue Plan requires colleges to use some of their federal stimulus relief funds to proactively reach out to students to notify them that they may qualify for financial aid. According to a recent report from the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO), colleges often do not provide information to student parents about the dependent care allowance, which could allow students to increase the amount of federal student loans they take and use those resources to pay for childcare and other costs. The GAO found that about two-thirds of institutional websites did not mention the allowance.4

Higher education institutions can also work with the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) and county offices of social services to connect eligible students to CalFresh food benefits. Some California colleges are leveraging their basic needs offices to bring county intake workers on campus to connect directly with students. A CSU report on students’ basic needs notes that campus programs have helped students apply for and receive aid even after they were mistakenly deemed ineligible by misinformed county offices.5 In addition, UC has a partnership with county health departments to provide information about CalFresh eligibility to students who are approved for federal work-study. UC campuses are starting to send out financial aid packages to students that include information about potential eligibility for CalFresh and the steps they need to take to apply for CalFresh.6,7

Increasing On-Campus Services for Student Parents

Inadequate access to affordable and quality childcare is one of the barriers to education cited most often by student parents, a condition that has likely been exacerbated by the pandemic because there have been closures of childcare providers and job losses concentrated among women. While many institutions provide childcare centers on campus, the number of centers and the enrollment capacity varies.8 One national survey found that campus childcare centers on average had a two- to three-year waitlist.9 A CSU study found that only 38 percent of students were even aware that a childcare center was on campus.10 In 2019 each of the UC campuses had a childcare center on campus, 20 of the CSU campuses (87%) had a center on campus, and 80 percent of community colleges (all but 23 campuses).11 However, these centers are typically only for pre-elementary children and do not provide after school care services appropriate for older children.

The Value of Childcare

Providing childcare is not just a matter of convenience but has been linked to student success and faster time to completion. An evaluation of an on-campus childcare center in Portland, Oregon found that parents using the service were able to take more credits and complete their programs faster. The availability of on-campus child care additionally enabled student parents to have more time for studying, using a computer lab, or participating in study groups.12 An institutional study of the relationship between on campus childcare and student success at Monroe Community College in New York found that student parents who used the on-campus childcare center had a higher retention rate and a higher rate of graduation or transfer than did student parents who did not use the center and who who may have been unable to find quality, affordable childcare options off campus.13

The availability of childcare is one side of the coin, but childcare must also be affordable. Child care costs vary by region, the age of the child, the education of the child care worker, and the type of facility, but these costs are often substantial and can exceed tuition and fee levels. A recent report found that center-based child care for infants costs most families about 25 percent of their income. Another report shows that the median cost of care varies from $5,574 for preschoolers in several rural counties to $17,457 for infants in high cost San Francisco. Comparing child care to other costs in California shows that a single parent with two children could spend between 70 to 90 percent of their income on child care. Not only are costs high, but student parents are often not aware of the full cost of college. For example, college net price calculators do not appear to include parenting expenses. According to our estimates in previous reports, a low-income student parent faces costs that are 34 percent greater than a non-parenting student. The pandemic has increased costs at many facilities because of requirements for reduced capacity and costs for additional safety measures; one study estimates that costs will rise by 60 percent.14, 15, 16, 17

Increasing on-campus childcare has another potential benefit: providing a training ground for college students who are specializing in early childhood education. California has a shortage of childcare workers, and increasing the number of early childcare apprenticeship programs would provide experience for future childcare workers. Colleges can expand childcare centers by using funding from the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program. CCAMPIS funds are used to support or establish campus-based childcare programs primarily serving the needs of low-income students enrolled in institutions.18 Colleges can also increase childcare services through partnerships with Head Start, a federal program that promotes the school readiness of infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children from low-income families. Partnering with Head Start can be beneficial for colleges as it would allow them to leverage existing federal funding to provide on campus services to student parents.19, 20, 21

Other On-Campus Services

Student parents, who are more likely than other students to face food and housing insecurity, can also benefit from other types of services. California has recently provided funding to all three public higher education segments for basic needs services. All CSU and UC campuses have a food pantry or basic needs center, and the 2021-22 budget provides funding to the community colleges for hiring and funding basic needs coordinators on each campus. These are steps in the right direction, but colleges need to ensure that the resources cater to the needs of student parents, for example, by stocking items such as baby formula and diapers at food pantries; the program at Fresno State serves as an example of these types of supports.22 Campuses could also provide transportation vouchers to assist students who do not live close to campus or who must arrange transportation for themselves and their children to separate locations. Designating locations on campus that are child friendly, such as breastfeeding rooms, and allowing students to bring children with them to counseling, advising, and financial aid appointments make these services more accessible and reinforce a parent’s sense of belonging. Another avenue to support student parents is to offer stipends to offset childcare costs if expanding on campus childcare is not feasible.

Colleges can also foster an inclusive campus culture by providing housing options that are family friendly. Many four-year colleges do not provide family friendly on-campus housing and, on top of that, some campuses require freshmen to live on campus unless they receive an exemption. These two practices together effectively prevent student parents from enrolling in these institutions. Even colleges without strict freshman residency requirements could expand the supply of family housing for students with children. According to a recent study, only one CSU campus and 8 UC campuses offer students the opportunity to live in college-affiliated housing with children.23 Furthermore, the CSU basic needs survey found that student parents faced barriers to accessing the Short-Term Emergency Housing Program because it does not accommodate children.24

At the California Community Colleges there is an opportunity to expand the services provided to CalWORKs participants, California’s welfare to work program. A recent analysis of community college CalWORKs services found a large degree of variation in the services across campuses: while all colleges provide counseling and case management to CalWORKs participants, only about half provided childcare centers or tutoring and a third or fewer provided childcare subsidies, housing assistance, or unmet needs grants. In addition, many of the CalWORKs services are oversubscribed: eligible CalWORKs students could be denied access to work-study, laptop loans, on-campus childcare, and housing assistance due to capacity or funding constraints.25 Increasing funding for these programs could expand services for all student parents at each institution.

Examples of Services that Support Student Parents

Several institutions in each public higher education segment have put in place policies and supports specifically to address the needs of student parents.

  • Grant programs for student parents include the Parent Grant at UC Berkeley, the Community Based Care Grant at UC Davis, and financial awards for basic needs at UC Santa Cruz.
  • Housing or Services include the Family Child Care Network at CSU Northridge, University Village student parent and family housing and Bear Pantry at UC Berkeley, short-term housing program at UC Santa Cruz, the Student-Parent Meal Plan at UC Santa Cruz, and Family Housing at UC Riverside.
  • An example of a childcare subsidy is the collaboration between the Merced Community College Child Development Center and the Merced County Office of Education’s Special Education Department.

Flexible Pathways, Course Schedules, Modalities, and Course Policies

Course Scheduling and Flexible, Frequent Enrollment On-Ramps

Student parents juggle numerous responsibilities and need institutions that provide flexible schedules, learning modalities, and academic terms that work within their time constraints. Research from UC Davis Wheelhouse notes that parents are more likely to take courses online and less likely to take courses in the morning than nonparenting students.26 Expanding the number of courses offered in the evenings and on weekends is one way to expand access. Another approach is to explore hybrid or online course modalities. One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that higher education institutions began exploring different modalities for classes.Colleges were forced to move classes and student services online. While this type of learning was not well received by all students, it did provide flexibility, and many students have expressed an interest in continuing to enroll in online courses. Because many of these courses were offered in part or in whole through an asynchronous format, it meant that a student could attend a class at a time of the day that worked for his or her schedule, and many student parents found online learning and student services to be helpful.27

Other support services that were moved to remote delivery have also been successful.The ability to attend office hours or mental health counseling appointments in the evening from home after they have put the kids to bed can be a game changer for a student parent. At a recent meeting of the CSU Board of Trustees, faculty and student services staff reported that this new format has drastically increased the number of participants in these activities, and the CSU is looking to continue these services even after in-person instruction resumes. Another way students can provide meaningful work opportunities to parents is by providing paid internships or work-study opportunities that are available through remote participation.

Institutions can also offer more flexible and frequent enrollment on-ramps. Most institutions only allow for one or two enrollment times. Most UC campuses, for example, offer only one enrollment point and require prospective students apply approximately 9 months before they would start courses. This timing may work for high school seniors applying to college, but for student parents who tend to be older and looking to accelerate their educational timelines, this application to enrollment on-ramp is too long and too rigid.

Similarly, the many obligations student parents face means institutions should offer intensive courses in a shorter term format. While it may be difficult for a student to commit to and succeed in a 15-week course, condensing a course to 8 weeks improves student access and success by reducing opportunities for life situations to interfere with coursework.

Flexible Course Requirements

Student parents also have reported that greater flexibility in course requirements would be helpful. This area is one where colleges need to work with faculty members to design syllabi and test schedules that are mindful of the needs of student parents. Anecdotal reports throughout the pandemic of faculty who have extended deadlines on papers or allowed students flexibility around test taking show that this shift is possible.28,29,30 However, other reports of rigid approaches to student attendance, mandatory video participation, and denying extensions on assignments show that a parent friendly approach is not universal. Leadership from the college about embracing more flexible course requirements paired with professional development to make faculty aware of practices that can help student parents succeed would help create an overall campus culture that works for student parents.

Reduce Time to Degree

Student parents face substantial barriers to degree and long-term certificate completion, one of the biggest being the length of time it takes to complete a program of study—two to six years or more depending on enrollment intensity. Colleges can improve time to degree by ensuring that transfer students’ previous coursework is counted toward their four-year degree. A 2017 GAO report found that nationally students lost about 43 percent of their credits during the transfer process.31 California has been at work to increase transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions for over a decade and has made substantial progress with the 2010 introduction of the Associate Degree for Transfer. However, students continue to face barriers to transfer. For example, some courses transfer only as general credits instead of counting toward a student’s general education or major requirements. This type of credit transfer requires students to take more courses to fulfill the requirements.

Another way to improve time to degree for parents is by awarding credit for prior learning (CPL). CPL evaluates and awards eligible students with credit for previous collegiate-level learning gained outside of a recognized college classroom. Most parents enter college with previous work experience or prior education and training that may be relevant to their course of study. The use of CPL could shorten time to degree by counting the learning these students have achieved before enrolling. Research finds that students can reduce over six months off their time to degree through CPL and that students of color saw even greater time savings.32 All three of California’s public higher education segments currently award CPL, but rules for awarding credit are not uniform. In 2017, Colorado adopted a new law that requires colleges to have a policy in place to award credit for relevant military service.33 Policies like this one can help students move through college in a more time efficient manner. In 2018 the California Community Colleges (CCC) took a big step forward through an initiative to promote CPL and to aligning policies across the districts. In July 2021, the CSU Board of Trustees adopted changes to the CSU Regulations for Prior Learning that expand the types of learning assessments that can be used and expand eligibility to both undergraduate and graduate students.34 The CSU Chancellor’s Office is currently revising Executive Order 1036, its guidance to campuses on CPL.

An additional strategy to shorten time to degree is expansion of competency-based education (CBE), which awards credit based on student learning or mastery of skills instead of seat time in class. Designing coursework in a CBE format, similar to the approach that the standalone online community college Calbright College is employing and a handful of other community colleges are piloting, can enable students to move through course material at an accelerated rate.35 By using a more flexible approach to granting credits, CBE allows students to progress through education at a personalized pace, which can save them both time and money. CBE also allows students to focus on the specific skills needed in the workplace and provides a clear signal to employers about the knowledge students possess.36 In a recent survey, 82 percent of colleges said that they expect the number of CBE programs to grow in the next five years, and about half were in the process of adding CBE programs.37

Colleges can also help student parents accelerate degree completion by making it easier for them to take and successfully complete more courses. Even for part-time students, adding one more class per semester could lead to better completion rates.38 While CCC and CSU both have programs to encourage students to attempt more credits per term, all institutions should adopt strategies that help student parents enroll in additional classes even if they cannot enroll full time. Reducing cost per course, offering more courses at different times of the day and week, offering more hybrid and online courses, and offering grants to students who enroll in additional courses are methods that could help students complete college in a more timely manner.39

Creating more student-parent friendly institutions through increased services, flexible pathways, and reducing time to degree are positive steps institutions can take to facilitate student success. Next, the fourth and final post in our series will explore how state and federal policies and funding can support student parents.

Read the Other Posts in the Series
Commentary, Policy Analysis
Expanding Pathways for Student Parents: A Policy Agenda to Meet the Needs of Student Parents
Commentary, Policy Analysis
The Landscape of Parenting Students: An Incomplete Picture of the Challenges Student Parents Face to Educational Success
Commentary, Policy Analysis
State and Federal Strategies to Improve Higher Educational Attainment of Student Parents

1 California Competes. (2020). Clarifying the true cost of college for student parents

2 Office of Federal Student Aid. (2019). 2018–19 Federal student aid handbook: Cost of attendance (budget).…

Wise, C., Carpeaux, E., Jacobson, M., & McMahon, K. (2021, July 13). Combining job training, child care could be “magic road” to single moms’ economic security. PBS News Hour.

4 US Government Accountability Office. (2019). Higher education: More information could help student parents access additional federal student aid (GAO-19-522). Rules state that the amount of the dependent care allowance should be based on the number and age of such dependents and should not exceed reasonable cost in the community for the type of care provided.

Crutchfield, R.M., & Maguire, J. (2019). Study of student service access and basic needs. California State University.

6 UC Office of the President. (2019, September 17). CalFresh eligibility, access, enrollment, and partnerships across the University of California. Report to members of the Special Committee on Basic Needs, UC Regents.

UC Office of the President. (2020). The University of California’s next phase of improving student basic needs.

8 UC Office of the President. (2020, January 21). Approaches to supporting the basic needs of parenting students. Report to members of the Special Committee on Basic Needs, UC Regents.

9 Green, A. (2021, June 7). Oregon is finally counting student parents. Other states should follow. Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

10 Crutchfield, R.M., & Maguire, J. (2019). Study of student service access and basic needs. California State University.

11 Author’s analysis of U.S. Department of Education IPEDS data.

12 Gault, B.,Reichlin Cruse, L., & Schumacher, R. (2019). Bridging systems for family economic mobility: Postsecondary and early education partnerships. Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

13 The survey of student parents who used an on campus childcare facility versus student parents that did not use the facility had the following findings: a higher percentage of student parents who utilized the center had a higher retention rate than (68.3% vs. 50.6%, respectively) and had a higher rate of graduation of transfer (41.2% vs. 15.2%, respectively). Campus child care center & student outcomes. (2013, spring). Inside IR

14 Orr, K. (2019, July 23). California parents can’t afford to pay more for child care—workers can’t make a living. KQED.

15 Child Care Aware of America. (2019). The US and the high price of child care: 2019.

16 California Competes. (2020). Clarifying the true cost of college for student parents

17 California Competes. (2021). Untapped opportunity: Understanding and advancing prospects for Californians without a college degree.

18 US Department of Education. (n.d.). Child Care Access Means Parents in School program

19 US Office of Administration for Children and Families. (2020). Office of Head Start Programs

20 Institute for Women’s Policy Research. (2021). Head Start-college partnership to promote student parent family success: A roadmap to guide collaboration (IWPR #C500).

21 Reichlin Cruse, L., & Holtzman, T. (2021). Leveraging Head Start for student parent families: Federal and state policy opportunities (IWPR #C503). Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

22 Education Trust-West. (2021, June 29). Bright spot from the field–Identifying and supporting student parents at Fresno State.

23 The campuses offering family housing are CSU Northridge, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz. Wellesley Centers for Women. (2019). Campus family housing database

24 Crutchfield, R.M., & Maguire, J. (2019). Study of student service access and basic needs. California State University.

25 Barton, S. (2020). Supporting student parents in community college CalWORKs programs. Public Policy Institute of California.

26 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.

27 Contreras-Mendez, S., & Reichlin Cruse, L. (2021). Busy with purpose: Lessons for education and policy leaders from returning student parents. Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

28 Flaherty, C. (2020, April 23). Grading for a Pandemic. Inside Higher Ed

29 McMurtie, B. (2020, October 8). Teaching: How professors can help students get through the semester. Chronicle of Higher Education.

30 Smith, A.A., Burke, M., & Gordon, L. (2021, March 17). How the pandemic changed higher education in California. EdSource.

31 US Government Accountability Office. (2017). Higher education: Students need more information to help reduce challenges in transferring college credits (GAO-17-574).

32 California Competes. (2020). Credit for prior learning: Leveraging past learning to close present-day equity gaps

33 Whaley, M. (2017, June 1) Colorado military veterans will now get college credit for what they learn while serving their country. Denver Post

34 Trustees of the California State University. (2021, July 13–14). Agenda

35 The 2021 State budget includes $10 million in one-time funds for the community colleges to pilot CBE at select campuses. California 2021–22 Enacted Budget,

36 California Competes. (2020). Side by side: Comparing credit for prior learning and competency-based education

37 Fain, P. (2021, July 22). The Job: Competency-based education.

38 Love, I. (n.d.). Increasing enrollment intensity as a strategy to spur completion: Taking more classes can help students graduate faster. ACCT Perspectives

39 The CCC Student Success Completion Grant provides additional funding for Cal Grant recipients who enroll in 12 to 14 units and a larger sum for students who enroll in 15 or more units. CSU created the California Promise program, which offers certain perks such as priority registration and academic advising to students who commit to completing 30 units per academic year. California Community Colleges, Student Success Completion Grant 2018-19,; CSU California Promise Program,

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