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A young mother holds her baby in a lecture hall, with other students sitting around her.

Identifying and tracking student parents can be a challenge for leaders in higher education, but recent state legislation seeks to better highlight parenting students’ lived experiences.

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Attending and completing college is a big undertaking for many students, and for those who are caring for more than just themselves, juggling school and life can be even more challenging. National data estimates that around 20 percent of students are caregivers or parents, but in actuality, there is no national record of student parents.

Conversations around student parents have been ongoing for decades but more recently have risen to the spotlight as states pass legislation requiring public institutions to accommodate student parents with resources like childcare or specific institutional policies, such as priority registration.

In this episode of Voices of Student Success, host Ashley Mowreader speaks with Eddy Conroy and Da’Shon Carr from the think tank New America to learn about the Childcare Program and to discuss federal policy movement on student parent data, and Ray Murillo, interim assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, equity and belonging at the California State University Chancellor’s office, to discuss state legislation that provides priority registration for student parents at CSU.

A lightly edited version of the podcast appears below.

Editor's Note: Since recording this podcast, Carr has left New America.

Inside Higher Ed: Who are student parents in higher ed right now and what are some of those trends that we do know about them?

Carr: One-in-five students identifies as student parents, according to [research] a long, a long time ago from 2020, from IWPR [the Institute for Women’s Policy Research], but we do know that the majority identify as women and also women of color, particularly Black and Latinx women. They have intersectional identities. They’re more than just students and they’re more than just parents. They’re interacting with various systems on a daily basis, whether that is interacting with some of the social safety net programs, housing issues, transportation, a lot of various things, that they're interacting with on a day-to-day.

Inside Higher Ed: I’ve been previously told that higher education is not built for adults, or people who have conflicting priorities. What are some of the structures of higher ed and how can it be constricting to student parents specifically?

Conroy: One, that is a completely true statement, we largely have a higher education system that was designed around 18 to early 20-somethings who were entering college straight from high school, potentially moving straight out of mom and dad’s house, or staying at home, but going locally, when they were straight out of high school.

And that is still the case for some students. But for a large proportion of college-going students, that’s just not what reality looks like, as Da’Shon just shared, one in five are parents. More than that, just a large number, almost half of college students are older: They are veterans; they are caring, sometimes not for kids, but for disabled parents, elderly parents, all kinds of different responsibilities. And we still have this higher ed system that’s built around the sort of stylized student, that is like half the population at most.

And you see that creep up in lots of places—particularly when it comes to parenting students—that whether it’s class schedules that are a challenge to then work around their kids’ school schedules or daycare or whatever else it might be. Whether it’s office hours to visit the financial aid office, or your adviser or one of your professors to get a letter of recommendation, that are all built around a sort of 9-to-5 workday that is often pretty challenging.

Something that we’ve thought about, as we’ve worked on this issue for a couple of years now, and will probably continue to do, is that, when you think about universal design principles, if you design a system—or redesign a system as maybe we need to start doing—for the folks who have the greatest challenges accessing that system, then you make it easier for everybody else.

So, if we start rethinking how higher ed works and operates for folks who are older, who are juggling all of these schedules, who are working, that’s good for everybody. That’s good for the 18 to 20-something who’s coming straight out of high school, it makes their life simpler, too. But it also makes higher ed accessible for the large number of students who have much more complicated lives than somebody who’s just finished up high school.

Carr: We’re doing some work around access to childcare on community college campuses. And again, it extends out to larger [groups], even eventually, it’ll probably stem out to looking at four-year [institutions], but also childcare is a big issue that student parents need and want and can be very helpful for them in achieving their academic success. And, you know, some people want on-campus childcare. Some want drop-in childcare, some just want to be able to afford childcare, or put their child, you know, either pay a family member to watch their child while they’re either studying or going to class for two hours.

And we don’t think in mind, like sometimes classes happen at night. A lot of student parents are taking classes at night, and they don’t have access to childcare, because childcare centers run from 9-to-5. And if you have an older child, they can go to an after-school program, or they’re in school all day. But we’re not thinking about how some systems typically are not designed for student parents’ access, especially if they’re taking classes at nighttime. And sometimes that typically gets left out.

That’s one of the things that we’re working on with the Center for Education and Labor at New America, is looking at what is working well, and what’s not working when it comes to providing childcare to student parents.

And like I said, it doesn’t have to be on-campus or a drop-in childcare center, it could be providing subsidies, just trying to keep those costs down, because one thing that we’re learning is childcare is super expensive. I talked to someone yesterday, and they’re saying that childcare is $900 per infant, and I’m just like, that’s not OK. So we have a childcare crisis on our hands. And we’re not able to figure out how we’re trying to accommodate a family in itself, but also, how can we further accommodate student parents who are wanting to go back to school?

And whether that’s just getting a two-year degree or credential or something, but something they need to just have for studying. If students want to be able to go to office hours or have a study group with a few students, they’re not able to do that, because they have to bring their kid with them. And that narrative of people bringing children on campus, a lot of people do not agree with that.

Conroy: I think that something that’s really telling when it comes to student parents and one of the challenges they face. On average, student parents have higher GPAs than students who don’t have kids when they’re in college. [Parenting students] have lower completion and retention rates and graduation rates, because of all of the other things that they are trying to overcome, not because they’re not equipped to be good students.

If anything, they’re often very clearly really highly motivated, because we’ve done lots of focus groups with older and parenting students. And they’re usually very highly motivated, not just because they want a good life for themselves—because they’re trying to provide a better life for their kids.

Anybody who’s a parent knows that the motivating factor of trying to make sure that your kids have as good or better than you do and did is enormous. And so it’s really clear, when you look at that, that it’s not the academics that are holding back the success of parenting students, it’s all of the things that Da’Shon is talking about.

As well as, you know, I have worked a lot on sort of basic-needs issues, and I was a financial aid administrator before I went into policy, all of those systems as well almost get in the way sometimes of the success of parenting students.

Financial aid was never really designed to support more than just one individual. We have lots of limitations in public benefits around you know, things like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that limit how much time you can spend in higher education in these incredibly counterproductive ways that we know if somebody gets a degree, they’re much less likely to ever rely on public benefits again in their life. And yet we, at the time when somebody is trying to do the very thing that we as a society have told them will help them be economically safe and successful, which is get a higher education, we make it hard for them to get a little bit of extra support so they can feed themselves, feed their kids and get to a place where they no longer need that and it’s incredibly counterproductive.

Inside Higher Ed: One of the things in this conversation that’s always difficult is a lack of federal data around student parents, right? We have the one-in-five stat but like you mentioned, Da’Shon, that’s from 2020 and its been a lot of time since then. Higher education has changed a lot since then. What is being lost in the conversation about student parents by having a lack of data and focusing on other factors like first-time full-time students?

Carr: I mean, honestly, if we don’t have the data, then how do we expect to serve them correctly or appropriately? And I think that has to be communicated across—federally, at [the] state level, local level, institutional level. If we don’t have that data, like I said, well, how can we expect to serve them correctly?

You don’t know what their childcare needs might be. We don’t know what public benefits that we can connect them to, because we don’t have that data.

A lot of college campuses don’t know that they have a student-parent population. So they’re just assuming and just thinking like, “Well, you know, we don’t have adult learners, we don’t have student parents on our campus,” but you actually do. And there’s no systematic way of how we can actually collect data.

A lot of various institutions right now, again, going back referencing the Childcare Project we’re working on: We’re actually talking to colleges about like, how do you collect data on your student parents? And a lot of them are just doing a lot of patchwork to collect data: They’re instituting surveys. They’re doing focus groups. Again, those are definitely great practices to do, but you want to make sure that you’re institutionalizing that across your campus to make sure that every, you know, semester or every quarter that you’re [recognizing] parenting status change. You want to be able to provide them with the resources that they need. And data is so, so important to this work.

Last year, we had two Congress members introduce a bill— the way Congress is structured right now, I mean, it’s not going to go anywhere—but obviously, it was a step to try to, you know, collect data at the federal level. And then we do see some states right now that are working on instituting some data-collection practices. But again, it takes some time.

But also, you want to make sure that institutions are collecting data, having it institutionalized, [and] also have the funding to implement that because, again: It takes a lot to collect that data quarterly, semesterly—however they’re choosing to collect it—to understand what resources do student parents need? It’s not just focusing on ways to just make sure that they have academic resources. But again, they need housing, they need childcare, they need food, work. How do you connect them with those resources, if you don’t know who your population is?

Conroy: The other piece that gets lost sometimes with these conversations is we generally have a lack of data when it comes to higher education across the board—that there is more for certain groups of students than others. But a lot of the data we have at the federal level relies on pulling data from folks who have applied for financial aid, so FAFSA filers, because there’s not a comprehensive student-level system to collect data on everybody who’s going to college.

So, something New America has worked on for a long time, the College Transparency Act, which is an effort to collect data on all students that would include things like parenting status, and stuff like that, that could really make a difference in helping to see what does the federal landscape look like.

At the same time, the state and institutional efforts that Da’Shon was talking about are also really important, because if you’re an institution, the federal data is important. It’s really useful for us to know that about one-in-five students have kids when they’re in college. But that doesn’t help you if you are X college, you know, if you’re NoVa out here in Northern Virginia, the federal number doesn’t help you because we know that parenting students are not evenly distributed in where they enroll. They’re much more likely to enroll at public institutions. They’re much more likely to enroll at community colleges.

It’s very useful, then, at the state or institutional level, to know, “OK, what does our parenting student population look like?” And so all of these things have to go hand-in-hand. We want better federal data to see what does that picture look like, but also the more granular points that you get from state and institutional collections.

Inside Higher Ed: Are there examples of places that you’re seeing do student parent data well or that are promising in this sphere?

Carr: I would say the conversation for the state level has just slowly started to pick up. Oregon right now has been doing a lot of work to basically institute public universities, public institutions to start collecting data on student parents. So we haven’t learned too much right now to see how or what are the promising practices. But I will say that conversation around states starting to want to collect data on student parents has been a conversation that a lot of state levels—Oregon, California, and Illinois, and Texas—they’re all instituting some ways to start to collect data on student parents.

So I would say: We haven’t seen what those promising practices are yet. But again, we will start to see in the next couple of years what that will look like and ways to improve.

Inside Higher Ed: What is New America’s Student Parent project and what is the current work being done?

Conroy: So there have been lots of folks who have been working on parenting student issues for far longer than we have, for years. But New America’s bread and butter has always been federal policy and the work that has gone on, on parenting students, a large amount of it, not all of it, but a lot of it has been at sort of [the] institutional-level around research and direct service to college students, some state-level work. There has been less, not none but less, at the federal policy level.

One of the sort of, I think, hopes of folks who have worked on parenting student issues for a long time is starting to figure out how do we coalesce support around parenting students the way there’s support around getting help for veteran students, for first-generation students, for varying groups of which parenting students also—as Da’Shon shared at the beginning—have incredibly intersectional identities? And so often, they are also first generation, they are often veterans. You know, about half of veterans who head to college have kids, because they’re usually older by the time they go to college.

And so our work on parenting students is really focused on how do we think through helping to coalesce all of these pieces of work to generate federal policy ideas, movement in federal policy support for things that help parenting students, and also support for things that, as we said at the beginning, if you design for those who face the biggest challenges accessing higher ed, we help not just parenting students, but lots of different types of students. And so that’s sort of the big focus as well as the Childcare Project on community college campuses that we have—that is, the childcare piece of things is one of the areas where our parenting students have a unique need that is not necessarily shared by students with different sorts of identities. So figuring out what does that look like, alongside how do we build more support at the federal level for policies and new ideas that can help parenting students succeed?

Inside Higher Ed: Where do you hope the conversation around student parents goes? What should practitioners keep an ear out for?

Conroy: I think a couple of things. The continued movement of, “How do we actually count this population?”, I think is really important, particularly for somebody who was a financial aid administrator, who worked on college campuses for years. Knowing who is on your campus is an incredibly important part of that. How do you serve those students?

I think, as more states work on data collection, and as institutions figure out, “OK, we need to actually see what this population looks like,” that’s going to be really crucial, designing data collection, so you know who’s there, and then figuring out what to do with it. Because the data piece is important, but it’s only the first piece of supporting folks who are going to college with kids in tow. It’s then, “How do you design support around helping those students?”

And then, at the federal policy level, we’re hoping to see more and continued attention on the things that can make it easier for parenting students to succeed. That includes more, better financial aid provision and includes help with childcare, which, frankly, is not just a crisis for parenting students but is a crisis for anybody who is trying to go to work to do anything while you have kids who need childcare.

Carr: I think for the part of your question about practitioners, those who are on campus—are staff, faculty—I think keeping in mind and being more open and aware of who are the students on campus. Even if you don’t have that data, I think keeping in mind that the traditional student doesn’t exist anymore.

So being open to trying to accommodate student parents in your classroom, keeping in mind that they have other lives outside of just being in your classroom. I was talking to someone the other day about that. They said, like, The professor wouldn’t want to accommodate them [when] their child was sick at night, so they couldn’t turn in their final.

Trying to be more open and mindful of like, people have lives outside of college. Yes, everyone is going to college to try to make better for themselves, but at the end of the day, accommodate them—even if it’s just extending out an open hand to say, “Hey, you know, it’s OK to turn this in late” or, you know, “I’ll give you an extra day” or “Here’s a list of resources to support you, trying to find, access to childcare or access to SNAP benefits.” Like finding ways to be open and mindful.

Conroy: The really painful reality that a lot of colleges are going to need to think about and face is that, with the erosion of reproductive rights in certain states, we are going to see more college students who have kids. That’s a very difficult and painful thing to think about. But as many states have taken away women’s ability to choose when they have children, there is inevitably going to be an increase of people who have kids who maybe did not plan to have kids and are now struggling to figure out, “How do I complete college?” “How do I support my child, support myself, try and create a good life for ourselves?” And that needs to be a piece of this. I think the conversations we have with practitioners, particularly in the states that have really eroded reproductive rights, that’s already clear to them, but that challenge is only going to increase over the next few years.

In 2022, the California Assembly passed AB 2881 to improve parenting students’ experiences in higher education, which required the California State University (CSU) system and the California Community College system to offer priority registration and resources to its student parents. To follow the legislation, the CSU Chancellor’s office had to identify ways to collect student parent data and connect them with resources, creating opportunities for better data-based decision-making. Ray Murillo, interim vice chancellor for student affairs, equity and belonging, talked more about the bill and student parents in the CSU.

Inside Higher Ed: Can you give a 30,000-foot overview? Who are the student parents in the California State system and what are their needs?

Murillo: What we know so far, and where this is one of the things that we’re improving our data on, but to what we know today, because we just started with the priority registration initiative: We know that, as of fall ’23, there’s about 8,500 students who have self-identified as parenting students, and we’re anticipating that number to probably significantly increase for fall ’24.

But knowing those numbers of students, two-thirds of them are undergraduate students, and a quarter of them are graduate students, which is kind of in alignment with our system, since the vast majority of our students are in fact, undergraduate students.

The class distribution, the vast majority of the parenting students are actually juniors and seniors, a very small percentage at the freshman, sophomore level, but definitely spikes to 40 to 60 percent between juniors and seniors. So that much we do know.

The other thing is, they’re certainly quite diverse as well. So we also know that 67 percent of the students with dependents are in fact, identify as, students of color. But in a snapshot, that’s kind of who our students are. We certainly will revisit those data points when we get a bigger cohort of students to look at.

I think the unique challenges that the parenting students face that nonparenting students may not, is really challenges with their scheduling. The childcare is the biggest issue that we’re finding, is that the flexibility of childcare.

All of our campuses, with the exception of maybe one, has a childcare center on campus. However, the hours are limited. So if the student is going to class in the evening, our childcare centers are only open ’til 5 p.m., at the very latest 6 p.m. So the childcare needs do pose a challenge, as well as just the scheduling. If your classes are on different days, at different times, getting childcare to accommodate that flexible schedule is sometimes a challenge as well.

But overarching also just with that, the cost that is associated with parenting students. They have additional costs that other students may not have. Of course, family costs, childcare costs, food, clothing, they have other dependents that relying on them to provide these resources.

Inside Higher Ed: What is AB2881, and how has it changed some of the systems in the CSU?

Murillo: What the bill did was two things—One, it provided priority registration for students who are parenting, or with minor dependents. But it also asked that all of our campuses put resources on each of our websites to allow students to find and locate on- and off-campus resources for them.

So we’ve done that and that’s where we get the data that I was sharing earlier. And it’s why we know in the fall ’24, now that more students are learning about it, is probably going to go increase, because when we implemented it in July of ’23, many of the enrollment windows had already passed for fall ’23. So now we’re in a full cycle of it. We’re anticipating for that to go up.

But really for the system, the largest takeaway one, aside from students being able to identify and get the priority registration and the resources and everything, is [that it] really had us take a closer look at the data collection that we need to do. So that’s what we’re currently doing, is really looking at options to better identify the students. And then we can do a lot of other information and analysis with that data collection of you know, persistence rates, retention, graduation and impacts on that time to degree, and so forth.

Inside Higher Ed: What could those strategies look like using the data to support student parents?

Murillo: It’s just really being more proactive with the students. And if we know who they are, there’s a number of different campus centers that are helping—working with students one-on-one. Many of our campuses have case managers that do a number of things, work with a number of different student populations. And this has been another one. So our counseling centers are talking about this: How centers, but also the case managers are looking at how do we work with the students to make sure they’re getting the support services that they need—connecting them to state services like Cal Works, CalFresh, and also the campus, the U.S. Department of Education campus grants for childcare services and stuff like that. So it’s really, really taken us in a place to look at the student holistically in making sure that they’re getting the services.

The other piece of that is also educating the campus itself so that students and faculty, staff, administrators understand what the needs are of the students also. So there may be times that everyone needs to understand—even the students’ peers—that you might not be able to go to that out-of-classroom study group or project group at eight o’clock in the morning on Saturday or something. There’s other needs that come into play that other students might not, aside from work, have to think about.

So it’s just educating the campuses about that. And one, the existence of student-parent team is first off within those unique needs at the scheduling and the challenges: The demands are, in fact different.

Inside Higher Ed: Among CSU institutions, how have you seen colleges leverage this data or guide decision-making? Will the CSU create additional benchmarks for student success focused on student parents using this data?

Murillo: Fresno State really has been our lead campus looking at this. So they’ve really been looking at the data very closely. They are one of our first that came out in providing clothing, they have a Bulldog Boutique that provides clothing for all the dependents from infants all the way to children. So they’re looking at the needs and doing some work with that.

As far as graduation [rates], it’s still really early, because it’s really early that we’re looking at this to do anything more than that. I haven’t seen any analysis in regards to retention and graduation rates yet, but I’m sure that, again, will be forthcoming.

Inside Higher Ed: What have been the challenges in making student parents aware of these resources and priority registration?

Murillo: It still remains an opt-in. The students still, like many other student categories and populations, need to self-identify with us. But I think there really is just awareness, now that it’s out there.

The one thing I could tell you, working on a number of different college campuses in our central office, word of mouth amongst students travels very quickly, for better or worse. So now that students know, we got 8,500 students that are getting priority registration, they will spread that word for us.

But the other piece is, also during the registration windows, is to also put pop-ups and alerts for students to let them know that, “Hey, you may be eligible for priority registration” and let the students self-identify and give them that process.

It’s really twofold. One, hopefully the word of mouth will work in our favor. But also that is the awareness on campus and informing students who go to our websites about resources, see that priority registration is in fact one of the resources they can utilize on our campuses.

Inside Higher Ed: What advice or insight would you give to an administrator who’s looking to reach some of these groups that need to self-identify to be counted?

It’s a multi-pronged approach. One, the quick data that we’re getting is because students are getting the priority registration. That’s the easy one. The other piece is just in fact, you know, once a student gets connected with basic needs or programs like our Educational Opportunity Program, foster youth—you mentioned veterans—all of these other programs, even our Project Rebound programs, really just start with asking students, “Hey, are you in this situation? Do you need resources?” Do you tap them into the resources?—and just really, from a case management but also from an advising standpoint, just asking those probing questions of, “Hey, we have these resources, just so you know,” without necessarily asking, “Do you have a dependent?” or something like that. But at least getting just get in the habit of just asking that question of: “Here’s some resources.”

And it’s not just this one [subject], there’s a myriad of other resources they can be asking the student about. And then just help spread that constant reminder that we have these resources. We do send out notices about the websites and stuff. But you know, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We just need to get in the space where the students are. I know some of our campuses are utilizing social media, text messaging messages—email usually is not the most effective way to communicate—text messaging and X, formerly known as Twitter, [students are] probably much more receptive to that than they are to email. So just trying to figure out what best communicates and reaches a student.

Inside Higher Ed: What’s next for the CSU when it comes to working with this data?

Murillo: Really, the biggest thing is just us figuring out a formal way to collect the data.

We have data in two places, well, really in one place, but we have to look at it in two different places. We have our campus-level data, which is 23 different data sets and then we have our central office that we can combine all of this data into one system-wide data. And then we can disaggregate by campus and all the other stuff that we want to do. But it’s developing that mechanism to collect the data.

There’s a number of ways that students or campuses are collecting the data on campus to identify the priority registration, but they will vary from campus to campus. So we just need to work with the campuses: If they have a system that works, then how do they feed us the data on or upload data on our enrollment stuff? So that’s really the biggest thing—is the mechanics of the data collection.

And then once we get that, then we can kind of do a number of different things. Not only the analysis, we can think about doing a dashboard on whatever the data elements are for students, so that campuses could see their own dashboards on students and their time to degree, like I said enrollment, number of units attending financial need and all that stuff, Pell-eligibility.

And we can do all of that type of information.

We’re just trying to create that welcomed environment and all of our accounts have pantries but 19 or 20 of them also provide diapers, wipes, food—baby food at some with clothing, as I mentioned, Fresno State already with that. The other thing is for creating that welcome environment.

The one activity I actually loved when I read about it, Cal State Fullerton. They have this program called Tiny Titan bundle when they learn that a student—which they refer to as Titans because they’re the Cal State Fullerton Titans—is pregnant, they actually will provide them with a Tiny Titan bundle that includes a backpack, a diaper bag, the books for the mom and dad, the baby a CSUF onesie, a baby beanie and receiving blankets.

That really speaks to sometimes I think what some of the students run into, but also may feel just internally, the stigma of becoming pregnant at that the age that they might not becoming pregnant either as a transitional age, or even just the stigma of being an older student and having the children and no one else is in their situation. So I think that that, to me, was like one of the most welcoming, at least initiatives, that I read about.

Inside Higher Ed: We talked about how it’s important to have this data to let the campus community know who is a student parent when it comes to supporting them. But also, I think it’s important for student parents to be able to say, “OK, I'm one of many,” this data helps support student parents feel as though they’re not alone on their campus as well, which is really cool.

Murillo: That’s an excellent point. And you know, and that probably could be some of the outskirts that I think some of the campus programs are doing is really developing that community and make sure that you know, people don’t feel that they’re the only ones encountering this situation, and so forth, and that the university is ready to also support them.

Listen to previous episodes of Voices of Student Success here.

This article has been updated to correct Ray Murillo's title, interim assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, equity and belonging at the California State University Chancellor's office.

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