Nearly a quarter (22%) of today's undergraduates or 3.8 million students are parents, with student mothers making up 70% of that number. At Bay Path, approximately 20 percent of our undergraduate students are single mothers; a conservative estimate based on self-reported data. As we closed out May, a month when we celebrate mothers and the millions of degrees earned by students throughout the country, I was grateful for the opportunity to connect with Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, the managing director of the Student Parent Success Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Through research and policy analysis, technical expertise and assistance, the Student Parent Success Initiative “communicates its research and builds partnerships to lift up the voices of students with children and increase equity in higher education for student parents and other underserved student populations.” Reichlin Cruse’s work examining the impact a degree can have not only on student parents, but also an entire family, as well as what student parents need in order to complete college overlaps with Bay Path’s ongoing commitment to delivering a transformational education to the students we serve. It was a privilege to speak to her about our common goal of building a system and providing support that enables more students to graduate from college.
Sandra Doran: Can you tell us a little bit about what draws you to this work?
Lindsey Reichlin Cruse: Student parents are such an underrepresented population; one that's pretty invisible in larger policy conversations and conversations on campuses, and yet, college education is a life-changing investment and opportunity for these parents, particularly mothers and single mothers. So, I see this topic as integral to the goal of alleviating poverty in marginalized and underrepresented communities. I’m eager to improve the way we think about who college students are, how we think about addressing systemic gaps and access to opportunity, and generally, how we promote the well-being of families, which has been a passion of mine for a long time.
SD: Is there anything you can share with us, in terms of top level themes of how to support student parents?
LRC: Caregiving for children. The childcare aspect is a layer of complexity that exacerbates time poverty and financial poverty. Think about the bandwidth, the emotional capacity, that you need to be a successful student and to make it to graduation day. When I think about supporting student moms and student parents, I generally think about a grand investment in affordable, accessible, high quality childcare, childcare that’s flexible and available when these student parents need it.
I think about baking flexibility into how we think about providing services in general. We're learning a lot about how people's lives, their whole lives, inside and outside the classroom affect their graduation outcomes and ultimately, their economic outcomes. With that understanding, we have to reorient how we think about campus and classroom attendance policies. It gets down to the granular level of how we treat students and what we expect from them. It’s not reasonable to expect that a student who is homeless with a child is going to always get to class on time or be able to take the test when you want them to. Bringing that understanding and empathy into how we think about serving student parents is just so essential, especially in a post-pandemic world that has only exacerbated the gaps and inequities that existed before.
We’ve been beating the drum on childcare, paid family leave and paid sick leave for decades. That was the premise of IWPR being established in the first place. And now we are getting real, serious proposals from the federal level, where we might see that happen, but we're not there yet.
SD: I agree with you. The pandemic has amplified all the things you're talking about, the disparities about who can be in a classroom and who can’t, the impact of child care, etc. We try to address that, and our online program was designed around flexibility. In terms of the empathy piece, I think our WELL (Women as Empowered Learners and Leaders) curriculum is critical, because it encourages women to think about their collegiate experience through the lens of their own lives. It allows them to bring the experience of motherhood into the curriculum, instead of keeping it in the background. As more colleges move to greater flexibility by delivering courses and learning online, it will be interesting. Are you thinking about doing research in that arena?
LRC: I think as we see what impact the switch to remote learning has on the education system and how people want to consume education, we’ll be able to look deeper into that.
SD: I think it will soon become more obvious, the places where we can conduct some research to see what online means for student parents.
LRC: From what I know about Bay Path, you're providing online education but with wraparound support, which I think is the key component. But the completion rates and the time to degree for online learning in general, at least on a pure data level, are not great. One can imagine that there are a lot of reasons for that, but think about what it’s like to breastfeed or to have a three year old around, you aren't going to be able to focus on writing your term paper.
Even when the education is as flexible as it can be, you need supportive services. So, I think that model should be replicated as we think about more online and even hybrid models.
(Note: The graduation rates for Bay Path’s online program, The American Women’s College are consistent with those exhibited in on-ground programs and twice as high as the average online college program.)
SD: With the changing demographic of college students, it's not that rare or unusual to be a student parent. The average college student is 26 years old, but when we talk about “college,” we still have the 18-22 year old in mind and by extension, imagine “student parent” as someone recently out of high school. One of the challenges we face in truly getting a clear picture of how many student parents we serve, and the best ways to serve them, is collecting data. Student parents aren’t always forthcoming. They don't always feel comfortable talking about it, and because a lot of our surveys are optional and voluntary, we’re missing some critical data points. Any thoughts on how to attack the data problem?
LRC: I would say even trying to collect data on parents' status is unique. The large majority of colleges and state higher education systems do not collect data on parent status or anything related to being a parent in college. We have information on student parents from the national postsecondary surveys that the U.S. Department of Education fields. But beyond that, we really have no state or institutional level data that actually asks that question on a systematic basis.
I think getting to the point where colleges and universities understand that there are parents on their campus that they're not recognizing, that those parents have disproportionately poor outcomes because they're not getting the support they need, and that counting them and knowing who they are will enable and empower institutions to provide strategic services that will promote persistence and attainment, which can then position them to recruit more students parents—because they're doing right by the ones that are there. I mean, there are only upsides. Once we’re in a place where college presidents understand that, we’ll be better positioned.
To a certain extent, it's a chicken and the egg situation. Student parents don't feel comfortable disclosing that they’re parents, because they think that their colleges and universities will treat them differently. If we were to advertise public and private high quality institutions as places where student parents are meant to be, places where they exist now, places where they will thrive, in the same ways the for-profit college industry has been advertising for years, we can get to a place where student parents are going to feel more comfortable disclosing the fact that they have children. We have to communicate to them that we want them on our campuses, that we value their contributions to the classroom, and that they are important, integral students to the campus body and to the way we think about higher education more broadly.
Survey response rates are always a challenge. Typically students are busy, they’re getting a million emails and if they've got kids, then there's a lot of stuff on their plates. But I do think that there's some work that can be done from a cultural standpoint, a marketing standpoint, and also just data collection, starting to ask questions on a systematic basis, to get us to a better place.
SD: From a purely anecdotal perspective, for many students and specifically students in our TAWC program, which very intentionally appeals to mothers, the impetus to go back to school comes from having their children get older and wanting to get them on track for college. They realize “this is something that I can be doing as well.”
LRC: Student parents are driven to succeed for their children. It’s a source of motivation that a traditional college student doesn’t have. The traditional student is finding themselves, which is absolutely valuable and important, but we know student parents have better GPAs than students without kids. They’re driven, they want to be there, and they want to graduate. If that’s not happening, it’s not because they don't want it.
There are easier things to do than to be a parent and go to college, so there's a reason they're there, and I think that's an important thing to remember, and something that I think should be really valued and sought after by institutions.
SD: Who else is doing this work to help student parents?
LRC: Ascend at the Aspen Institute is a close partner. Ascend is focused on two-generation strategies serving families, and they have a post-secondary education initiative that we partner quite closely with. They do a lot of convening and coalition building, and they’ve just released a big report on the mental health needs of student parents, based on a national survey that they conducted with the JED Foundation. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice is also preparing to release a series of research, policy and other types of resources and events focused particularly around student parents’ basic needs for security.
SD: And I'm thinking about resources as well, who are the people that fund this? Who is reimagining the structures? All of this work is incredibly resource intensive.
LRC: And that burden should not be solely on the backs of institutions. That's just a simple fact. But right now in large part, it is, so that's why we see declining campus childcare centers, for example. But to answer your question, it’s tricky. There are funders, such as ECMC Foundation, Imaginable Futures, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation that are focused on structural reform and policy reform, campus culture, awareness raising, the work that we do, for example. And then, there are folks who are supporting single mothers, through scholarships, for example, like the Jeanette Rankin Foundation. There are different pieces to this. I think when you're talking about supporting the childcare needs of student parents, we need states and the federal government to step in.
SD: It makes me think about proposals around free community college and free public college. To me, that has a potential for really shifting the debate.
LRC: Absolutely, and Jill Biden is a huge advocate for single mothers, in particular, and women and community college students, more broadly. She has partnered in the past with Achieving the Dream, which is a network of community colleges that are focused on student success to launch what they call the Community College Women Succeed initiative. Something else I'm working on is with the College Promise Campaign and ETS (Educational Testing Service) to think about what a college promise program would look like for student parents in particular, and trying to draw a roadmap for potential future free college programs that might want to intentionally serve student parents. What would we need to strategically make college affordable in all the senses of the word? Not just tuition and fees, but in terms of access to the supports, access to the time, and the emotional and social resources student parents need to be successful in school.
We're also talking about greater investments in CCAMPIS, the Child Care Access Means Parents in School federal grant program which supports low-income students’ access to subsidized childcare. The more we can get folks at the federal level to engage with these issues and understand how they intersect when they're talking about family and economic security, when they're talking about socioeconomic mobility, when they're talking about economic recovery from COVID-19. Student parents intersect with all of those issues, and supporting student parents' success can further progress toward all of those things as well. It’s just a matter of communicating that message and getting people to say “okay, if we invest in this, we are going to make progress towards our goals beyond just what can be seen as a niche population. This actually makes progress for society in a real, meaningful way.”
SD: Well, it's a niche population, but it's a huge population, parents without degrees, moms without degrees. As we know, moms without degrees were some of the first to lose their jobs during the pandemic.
LRC: Absolutely. We're talking about upskilling, reskilling, getting women back into the labor force. Well, if they don't want to go back to their service job because it's not supporting their family, then let's provide a pathway for them to get to the place they want to be.