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Data Collection Crucial in Propelling Change for Student-Parents

The statistics show that single mothers in the state of California who earn an associate degree are 39% less likely to live in poverty. That number rises to 61% for those who earn a bachelor’s degree. Despite promising numbers such as those, there is very little data on the number of student-parents in California. 

"Forging Equitable Futures for Student Parents in California," was a virtual statewide summit, presented by California Competes, Blue Shield of California Foundation, the Michelson 20MM Foundation, Tipping Point Community, Ascend at the Aspen Institute and the Education Trust. The convening sought to build awareness of the challenges facing student-parents in California and inspire advocacy for effective policy changes and practices.

Keynote speaker Waukecha Wilkerson shared her path to a bachelor’s degree and how it changed her life. Dr. Su Jin JezDr. Su Jin Jez

“I join you today to talk about forging equitable futures for student-parents in California,” said Wilkerson, now gainfully employed and a homeowner. 

In 2015, Wilkerson was a single mother with three children living in the inner city and receiving public assistance. Working seven days a week, she struggled to find quality childcare and even when she did, the cost was staggering. An internet search led her to Project Self-Sufficiency, which noted childcare reimbursement for single moms. The catch was she had to be enrolled in at least two college classes. Thinking back on how she’d failed a class in community college two decades prior, it was with hesitance that Wilkerson registered for two online courses.

The following semester she applied to join Project Self-Sufficiency. She was told what was expected of her—continuous enrollment, passing grades and quarterly check-ins. Then, she learned what she could expect—childcare assistance, textbook reimbursement, scholarship opportunities, gas cards, Christmas where other families would sponsor her children, food boxes for Thanksgiving, summer activities for the kids and back to school supplies.

“I had been living in my apartment complex for over a year and didn’t know a single soul until I was introduced to my neighbors who were single moms and student-parents also,” Wilkerson said. “My community expanded into a network of peers who were several steps ahead ushering me to follow them on a previously hidden pathway of successful student-parents.”

While the next five years were challenging, Wilkerson earned her degree. Tapping into resources and building a network were crucial to her success. Unfortunately, many student-parents are invisible to colleges and universities. Estimates are that more than one fifth of undergraduate students in the U.S. are parents. Student-parents are more likely to be people of color, women, older than 30 and first-generation college students. Forty percent of student-parents report feeling isolated and 20% feel unwelcome on their campuses.

“Serving student-parents will help close equity gaps for populations that have been historically underserved by higher education,” said Dr. Su Jin Jez, executive director of California Competes, who presented an overview of the situation as part of the session, titled, "A Policy Agenda for California Student-Parents." Addressing student-parents’ needs and carving a pathway to and through higher education, "will create ripple effects for education and the economy,” she added,

Jez described four main reforms that California needs to tackle: increasing the availability of affordable and quality dependent childcare; increasing higher education affordability for student-parents; advancing student-parent friendly institutional design and collecting and sharing data on student-parents.

“We don’t have comprehensive data on student-parents and we need it,” said Jez. “It’s really hard to make the case for and make better policies, programs and services for student-parents when we don’t have data of who student-parents are and how they’re fairing in our system.”

Jez mentioned a way to address the childcare provider shortage is leveraging early care and education apprenticeship and training programs.

“It’s higher ed serving itself in some ways,” said Jez. “What we can do around apprenticeships is leveraging on-campus childcare centers as apprenticeship and training sites for students in those programs.”

Dr. Sherrie Reed, executive director of the California Education Lab at the UC Davis School of Education, spoke about some of the “very limited data” available on student-parents in California.

“What we do know is that student-parents are juggling a lot of responsibility,” Reed said. “In a national survey of 23,000 student-parents, which is the largest survey that I know of student-parents, we find that student-parents are 40 hours a week on academic activities, including attending classes and completing assignments, but also 40 hours a week on parenting, which leaves very little time for social activities or seeking additional academic support or being engaged in campus events.”

The demands lead to high levels of depression, anxiety and stress, noted Reed. This in turn, contributes to low college persistence and completion.

“Despite the challenges, we see the number of student-parents is growing across our nation and our state, up almost 30% in the years between 2004 and 2012, which was when the last national estimate was calculated,” said Reed.

Recently, Reed and colleagues began a study on student-parents in California using two sources of data: financial aid filers and CalWORKS data from the Community College chancellor’s office. They found that about 13.4% of financial aid filers in any given year are student-parents. Of those student-parents, 72% are attending a community college. They’re predominantly female, African American and older.

“We think it’s imperative that we put into place systems that can identify student-parents and collect data—both at the local and state level,” said Reed. “It’s what allows us to serve student-parents.

“We need to improve availability and access to resources and support, and increase financial aid awareness,” she added. “Finally, we think that it might be important to consider inclusion of student-parents as a sub-group for supplemental funding and other student-centered funding formulas so that community college campuses are incentivized to identify and support this important sub-group of students.”

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