Nontraditional is Traditional: Student-Parents on Campuses

July 11, 2016

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst
Kendall Cook, Graduate Data and Research Intern

NCAN members have seen and heard for years that changing demographics are reshaping the face of the postsecondary student population. Proportions of students of color and adult learners have both grown, but news in the past week focused on undergraduates who have children of their own.

These “student-parents” have a specific set of postsecondary obstacles, and higher education researchers proposed solutions to address them. Because this population needs more flexibility to better balance school, work and family life, it is imperative that colleges meet their needs to make sure more student-parents complete their degrees.

The New York Times featured a joint op/ed penned by Jamie Merisotis and Ann-Marie Slaughter, presidents of the Lumina Foundation and New America, respectively. (Merisotis also made the news in a recent Atlantic article highlighting his remarks on “today’s students” at the Aspen Ideas Festival.) They describe the challenges of the almost 4.8 million undergraduate student-parents. Although they represent a quarter of all postsecondary students, more than half of student-parents stop out without a degree after six years.

But a number of changes could better accommodate student-parents, the columnists suggest. For example, competency-based programs that measure progress based on students’ learning, rather than credit hours or seat time, offer a promising pathway for busy parents. Unfortunately, competency-based programs generally can’t accept students’ federal financial aid, and they face a complicated process to become eligible for Title IV.

The authors also call for on-campus child care. Although half of public four-year institutions and 45 percent of community colleges provide some childcare assistance, both of these figures represent declines over the past decade that mirror a commensurate decrease in federal funding. (The Child Care Access Means Parents in School program allocated $15 million for college childcare in 2015, down from $25 million in 2001).

On-campus childcare was also a focus of an interview by The Chronicle of Higher Education last week with Barbara Gault, executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. (You may recall Gault speaking at a recent Lumina Foundation event featured on the NCAN blog.)

“Women students, especially in community colleges, are much more likely to be raising dependent kids than male students are,” Gault says in the Chronicle video. “And the majority of them spend 30 hours a week or more caring for their kids. So if you combine that with work and school and time for study, it creates a pretty significant challenge and ends up having a fairly big impact on completion rates.”

Colleges “have been a little bit slow to catch up” with the changes in today’s students, Gault says. “I think that there's a tradition of colleges thinking about students as the 18-to-24 age group. And gradually we've seen that the nontraditional really is traditional when it comes to higher education.”

Gault admits that it’s not particularly easy for a campus to host a childcare center, given logistical, legal and financial difficulties. But regarding the latter, the per-child costs could simply be considered a different form of student financial aid, she suggested -- and campuses should keep that in mind when deciding whether to keep a childcare center’s doors open.

There are workforce implications for student-parents’ postsecondary completion rates as well. Merisotis and Slaughter note that although the prevalence of paid parental leave benefits has expanded greatly since the 1960s, there is now a significant disparity in paid parental benefits between workers with college degrees and those with just high school diplomas.

In other words, postsecondary degree completion stands in the way of many working parents getting quality jobs with good benefits that make it possible to be both an effective worker and parent. 

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