More than one fifth of undergraduate college students in the U.S. are parents—or about 3.7 million students. While there is fairly robust national data on this population, in California, we know very little about our “parenting students,” whether at the state, system, or institutional levels. For students applying for financial aid, our public colleges and universities collect the number of dependents that each student has, but these data must be linked to other data that the institutions collect and examine to understand the demographics, experiences, and needs of parenting students on their campuses. As California embarks on designing a new statewide Cradle to Career education data system, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to build in data that will aid in understanding the unique experiences and needs of these students.

At EdInsights, we believe that all Californians benefit when our education systems and policies provide equitable opportunities and outcomes for student learning and success. We raise up student voices and experiences in order to highlight their needs and ensure that our education systems and polices are providing appropriate supports. We know nationally from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that most parenting students are students of color, most are mothers, and most of these mothers are single parents. Parenting students are likely to attend community college and are more likely than non-parenting students to be older and to carry significantly more debt. They also have lower rates of degree achievement than non-parenting students.

We also know from national studies that children stand to gain substantially when a parent earns a college degree, yet parents face challenges—some of them unique—to achieving that degree. For instance, parenting students’ higher rate of dropout and slower time to degree have been linked to a shortage of time to devote to school. One element of this “time poverty” is lack of access to convenient, affordable, high-quality childcare, especially for single mothers. Another contributor to time poverty for parenting students is the need to work, not only to pay for themselves and their schooling, but also to support their families. Some parenting students face institutional and course policies that discriminate against them, such as instructors not allowing students to make up work missed due to pregnancy- or childbirth-related absences.

As valuable as these national trends may be, we do not know how well these data generalize to California’s parenting students across all higher education systems. However, with the right data built in, the new Cradle to Career data system could help tailor interventions to the particular needs of parenting students by answering questions such as:

  • What proportion of students are parenting in California? How does this vary across systems or institutions?
  • What are the demographics of parenting students and how do they differ from national figures?
  • Do parenting students differ from their non-parenting peers demographically?
  • Do parenting students differ from their non-parenting peers vis-à-vis indicators of student success (i.e., student learning, engagement, progression, and completion)? Does parenting students’ success differ based on marital status, or the age or number of children they have?

Some California Community Colleges (CCC), California State University (CSU), and University of California (UC) campuses are taking proactive approaches to remedy the institutional barriers facing parenting students. Within the CCC, for example, Los Angeles Valley College’s Family Resource Center (FRC) uses a two-generation philosophy to support parenting students, including through parenting workshops, infant and toddler playgroups, and its Student Parent Success Program. Students who use the FRC have higher semester completion rates compared with other students on campus, regardless of parenting status (80% vs. 69%).

Within the CSU, Associate Professor Larissa M. Mercado-López conducted research at Fresno State examining the experiences of parenting students on her campus. She found that these students perceived discrimination from peers and faculty based on their status as pregnant or parenting students, and that those with greater knowledge of pregnancy rights under Title IX had greater feelings of empowerment. In spring 2019, Fresno State held a resource fair for parenting students and began offering them the opportunity to report their dependent information through their student portal. The campus also established a diaper bank for parenting students. As another example of campus services, the Division of Student Affairs at CSU Long Beach offers several support services for pregnant and parenting students, including publicized advocacy and accommodations through Title IX, a family-friendly study area, and on-campus childcare.

Examples of supports on UC campuses include priority enrollment and an online resource guide for parenting students at UC San Diego. UC Berkeley’s Student Parent Center offers counseling, transition courses, and other services to parenting students.

Parenting students are also receiving attention at the state level. For instance, Governor Newsom proposed to increase financial aid for parenting students, but that plan faced pushback from the Legislature. Critics of Newsom’s plan argued that it would have further complicated the Cal Grant system, without expanding access to aid beyond the small group of currently eligible parenting students. Newly passed California Assembly Bill 809 (Santiago) requires institutions to widely post Title IX protections for pregnant and parenting students and would encourage institutions with a childcare center to give priority enrollment to some single parents.

While these efforts on campuses and in Sacramento have the potential to improve outcomes for parenting students, California does not have the data necessary to understand and address the needs of these students statewide nor to measure the effectiveness of supportive policies. Fortunately, the state is now working to design a statewide Cradle to Career data system. As planning begins, consideration should be given to including information on the number and age of parenting students’ dependent children. Institutions and programs can then use these data, in combination with other demographic and academic data, to determine whether interventions may be needed. It is vital that the system collect such data to help identify and address equity gaps faced by parenting students, so that our state, system, and institutional policies can support their hard work in earning a degree.