PROJECTStudent-Parent Families at the Center

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  • Every year, millions of parents pursue further education or training. Student parents make up nearly a quarter of undergraduate students and nearly a third of graduate students, but parenting students complete college at a much lower rate than other students, even though they earn comparable course grades.

    Whereas the “traditional college student” has been understood as someone in early adulthood whose family supported the cost of attendance, whose primary responsibility was their education, and who was usually white and male, the share of students who fit this profile has fallen since 1970. Today, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only about one in three students is full time and between the ages of 18 and 21 (relative to about half in 1970), and more than four in five full-time students are awarded financial aid. In addition, only about two in five students identify as male and barely half identify as white.

    If we consider social policy systems that affect the daily life of a traditional college student, we can categorize most of them as “college access and success policies.” These include policies and practices that help students enter and persist in college.

    The “Traditional Student” Primarily Interacts with One Policy System 

    Simple graphic of single system

    The single policy system for “traditional” college students contrasts sharply with the many policy systems that student-parent families interact with on a regular basis. Few of these systems are designed with parenting students in mind, which puts a substantial burden on students and families to manage the various supports. By framing Student-Parent Families at the Center, we can visualize how important it is to coordinate and cohere policy systems to help student parents complete college degrees and achieve other education and life goals.

    Student-Parent Families Are at the Center of Many Policy Systems

    Graphic of full framework

    At the center of the framework, we acknowledge the multifaceted, intersectional identities of parenting students could affect how they interact with systems. Identity, family structures, and experiences introduce complexity to their experience, especially given the many structural barriers by race, gender, class, and family status.

    The Student-Parent Families at the Center Framework intends to provide a comprehensive map of the intersecting systems affecting student-parent families and the programs and issues within each. The details of the Framework and a series of fact sheets annotating these policy areas appear on the Systems, Policies, and Programs page. A detailed diagram is available for download. We have developed the Student-Parent Families at the Center Roadmap for Change to highlight opportunities to ease systems, policies, and practices—with the support of research and investment—so parenting students and their families can meet their educational goals.

    Notes on terminology:
    This population has many names, including student parents, parenting students, families pursuing postsecondary pathways, independents with dependents, and students with children. Throughout this work, we have chosen to use the terms “student parents” and “parenting students” interchangeably, along with the terms from policy areas that refer to student parents in other ways. Although some students with children may prefer other terms, these two are the most commonly used. More information about the terminology can be found in this blog post by one of the coauthors, Autumn R. Green. In addition, most of the issues highlighted apply to all types of postsecondary education providers, including two-year and four-year colleges, workforce and training programs, and adult education providers. For brevity, we often use the term “colleges.”

    Leadership Council

    A cross-sectoral Leadership Council identified promising research, practices, and policies that affect student-parent families during two rounds of meetings and smaller group affinity discussions. Many Leadership Council members have lived experience as parenting students in addition to their expertise in policy spaces. We would like to thank our Leadership Council members for contributing to this work. Many of the recommendations and issues raised in these products come from the lived, professional, and studied expertise of the Leadership Council.


    We would like to thank the following individuals who were not formally on the Leadership Council for contributing their insights to this work: Lexi Barrett, Susana Contreras-Mendez, Erica Hernandez, Syeedah White, Derek DeLille, Gayla Sherman, and Lodriguez Murray. We would also like to acknowledge the partnership of Wellesley Centers for Women, including project support by Sarah Galison, Mary Frederick, and Kristi Johns. Julia Payne, Ayesha Islam, and Jincy Wilson provided research and policy analysis assistance at the Urban Institute. This project was completed by Theresa Anderson and Autumn R. Green with funding support from Imaginable Futures.

    Research Areas Education Families Social safety net Workforce Economic mobility and inequality Children and youth
    Tags Assistance for women and children Beyond high school: education and training Child care Child care and early childhood education Child care and workers Community colleges Economic well-being Families with low incomes Father involvement Federal tax issues and reform proposals Financial stability Food insecurity and hunger Higher education Housing vouchers and mobility Hunger and food assistance Inequality and mobility Inequities in educational achievement Infrastructure Job markets and labor force Kids in context K-12 education Labor force Mobility Parenting Paying for college Postsecondary education and training Poverty Race, gender, class, and ethnicity Racial barriers to accessing the safety net Schooling Student parents Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Taxes and social policy Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Welfare and safety net programs Women and girls Work-family balance Work supports Workforce development Youth employment and training
    Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center