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A common equity blind spot: what higher ed leaders need to know about serving student-parents

A Q&A with the founder of Generation Hope

December 17, 2021

As colleges work to eliminate equity gaps, a prominent blind spot is the needs of students who are parents. In a recent webinar, we polled success leaders and found only 21% said they collect data on marital or parental status – let alone data on how this impacts the campus experience for those students.

You may not know someone who had to give up on their dream of a degree, but I do: my mom, my sister, and my partner. That loss of opportunity and advancement is never far from their minds, and our inability to serve student-parents can’t continue. In particular, campus leaders committed to advancing racial and gender equity cannot ignore this group: over 40% of Black female undergraduates are parenting, and half of our student-parents are people of color.

Organizations like Generation Hope work to close equity gaps for student-parents and their children while nationally advocating for their needs. We recently spoke with Nicole Lynn Lewis, the founder and CEO of Generation Hope, to learn about student-parents’ experiences, unmet needs, and what higher education can do to ensure these students make it to the graduation stage. Read on for highlights from our conversation and Nicole’s advice for higher ed leaders.

Q&A: How higher ed leaders can support student-parents

Q: I'd love our readers to hear your story in your own words. What inspired you to support student-parents in higher education?

Nicole: I am fortunate that I get to advocate for an organization of which I’ve lived the mission. I’m a former teen mom. I got pregnant in my senior year of high school. My family was very education-focused: going to college was never a question. So, experiencing a pregnancy was devastating.

In my book, Pregnant Girl, released in May of this year, I talk about my high school and college experience to shine a light on the damaging stigma that persists around young parents. I made a promise to myself and my mom that I would go to college after taking a year off to have the baby. She said, “You’re crazy. You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” Like many moms, she was right on both counts. I didn’t know at the time because no one in my community or at my school had gotten pregnant and then successfully gone on to college.

When I reapplied to college, my boyfriend and I didn’t have a place to live. I found out I’d been accepted while I was eight months pregnant and living in a Motel 6. We were in a tumultuous relationship. Nothing about my life said “college.”

I started college when my daughter was just under three months old. When I stepped on campus, I thought, “these feet don’t belong here.” I was surrounded by students who were supported by their families and had tons of resources—and who didn’t have the responsibilities that I had at home. I constantly made tough financial decisions between diapers and textbooks, trying to make ends meet to put enough food on the table for both my daughter and me. No other students were raising children; I was an anomaly then, but not now.

Q: We can provide financial and academic support, but what are some of the things we forget underserved students might not know?

And how can we help students access that knowledge?

Nicole: Self-advocacy is something we work to cultivate in our students at Generation Hope, particularly our first-gen students. This might look like telling a professor, “I am a mother, or I am a father, and there is a chance that my child might be sick this semester. What kind of communication would you like in those events to make sure that my grades don’t suffer?” At the same time, institutions must equip themselves to answer that question and create safe spaces for these conversations. Many student-parents aren’t comfortable disclosing their parenting status because of negative reactions and consequences.

The other part of the equation is access to resources. Students should be able to make their own decisions regarding their education, but they need help to be readily available. Colleges can ensure student-parents have access to emergency funding, food and housing resources, and a clear sense of the financial aid they can use as parenting students, including funding for childcare.


Q: Aside from programming needs, is there an empathy gap in understanding student-parents?

Nicole: In a survey of our scholars, we found that even when institutions have supportive policies around student-parents, frontline faculty and staff don’t consistently implement them. We need to ensure that college leadership creates inclusive policies and procedures and puts mechanisms in place to ensure frontline staff are empathetic and supportive of the modern student.

Even when institutions have supportive policies around student-parents, frontline faculty and staff don’t consistently implement them.

Many people feel like they would make better decisions in our students’ place without ever stepping in their shoes. There are no easy decisions; there’s always a tradeoff. We have an exercise to onboard our mentors and other groups that gives them a sense of what student-parents are up against, requiring them to make tough decisions. It might be navigating a domestic violence situation or having to turn down a scholarship because it requires you to go to school full time, and you have to work to support your family. Sometimes, you have to live the experience to understand how convoluted the information about support is and how many structural barriers there are to success.


Q: How does Generation Hope view the pursuit of equity?

Nicole: If I could tell college presidents one thing they could do to serve students, especially student-parents, better, I would encourage them to take a big step back and acknowledge that the higher ed system was not set up for student-parents or marginalized students. Period.

As we think about equity, we have to consider how to include the populations we serve or that we’re trying to serve in decision-making processes and in the creation of support. We must ensure that we put people with lived experience in decision-making positions and people of color around the table.

Student-parent work is racial equity work.

I often say that student-parent work is racial equity work. We know that student-parents are more likely to be students of color—in fact, 40% of all Black female undergraduate students are parenting. Over the last year, many higher education institutions have said they want to commit to advancing racial equity. A truly comprehensive race equity strategy requires that they also take action to remove systemic barriers facing student-parents.

Q: Where do you think institutions fall short in supporting student-parents in college? Are there any institutions doing the necessary work?

Nicole: An essential first step is to track the parenting status of their students. So many colleges and universities are flying blind in terms of who on their campuses are parenting, what their needs are, and whether they’re graduating. And we know that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get prioritized or funded.

In terms of the necessary work, I can think of three colleges doing exciting things:

  • Monroe College in New York is collecting and tracking the parenting status of its students. They’re pulling data in multiple ways, including an intake survey where students can self-disclose and ask about parenting status when they register for their classes. We’re currently looking at their model to see what guidance it could provide to the broader higher ed community.
  • Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center is offering more mental health services and virtual activities like family game nights for students’ children. They also simply reach out to student-parents to check in on their wellbeing, helping them feel valued in an uncertain world.
  • Morehouse College has developed their Fathers to the Finish Line Initiative to help student fathers complete their degrees. While people might think this issue only impacts mothers, fathers also need support in graduating (in fact, Black fathers drop out at higher rates than any other student-parent group).


Q: What can colleges and universities learn from Generation Hope when it comes to the disbursement of emergency aid?

Nicole: Get the money in your students’ hands as quickly as possible and prioritize support for student-parents. We had a student who applied for emergency funding because she was about to be evicted from her apartment. She had also applied for funding from her institution, but her institution responded that they would get back to her in six weeks. A six-week turnaround time is not emergency funding. Money today, versus tomorrow or even next week, could mean the difference between being homeless or staying in an apartment. At Generation Hope, our emergency funding has always had a quick turnaround time—between 48 and 72 hours—because as the leader of the organization, I’ve been in those emergencies, and I know how important each day is to keep a roof over your family’s head or food on the table all while trying to stay enrolled.

Q: How can schools better partner with local organizations like Generation Hope to support student-parents and underserved students?

Nicole: I’m also very proud of the work of the four institutions that are participating in Generation Hope’s inaugural FamilyU Cohort: George Mason University, Montgomery College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Trinity Washington University. FamilyU is a national technical assistance program designed by Generation Hope and informed by focus group findings we presented in a report earlier this year to increase the number of parenting college students who make it to the graduation stage. This two-year cohort of a select group of colleges and universities provides individual work plans, one-on-one coaching, peer learning opportunities, and access to field experts to shift the student-parent experience at their institutions. Each of the institutions in our inaugural cohort is doing impressive work to collect data on their student-parents and create inclusive policies and services.

Reach out to understand the services these organizations provide, hear the perspective of those who have proximity to underserved student groups, and learn from the students they’re serving.

The first step in partnering with nonprofits to support students is having the conversation. A big part of my job is talking to institutions. I try to have conversations with the presidents at our students’ schools, so they know who we are and what services we provide. For example, it’s important for these colleges to know that at Generation Hope we help students identify high-quality childcare in their communities, and we provide monthly monetary support so that students can afford it. This is critical support for helping them stay in school.

Institutions can begin initiating these conversations themselves. Reach out to understand the services these community organizations provide, hear the perspective of those who have proximity to underserved student groups, and learn from the students they’re serving. Do that, and college leaders will begin to understand what these students experience and consider growing community partnerships and aligning your work to support student-parents.

In Closing: Steps to Support Student-Parent Success in Higher Education

The changes and shifts we need to make within higher education to support equity require a strategy overhaul. To support student-parents and other underserved student groups we must gather better data, commit to more flexibility, enhance support services, and remove barriers to aid.

We must also try harder to learn from the communities we serve. Most of our institutions have a fraught or non-existent relationship with local communities and organizations within them. If we continue to overlook partnerships with organizations like Generation Hope and others, we jeopardize our institutions’ ability to meet our equity goals, support students, and change lives. Working with local community-based organizations, who take the community’s pulse, can help decision-makers design more effective policy and support on their campuses to enable these students to succeed.

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