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Are You Treating Student-Parents as a Liability or Asset?

Episode 153

June 6, 2023 29 minutes


Generation Hope founder and CEO Nicole Lynn Lewis joins EAB’s Christina Hubbard to discuss the unique challenges and needs of students who are providing and caring for at least one child while they attempt to earn a degree. The two provide context around the relative size and educational outcomes of this vulnerable but highly motivated cohort.

They also point to smart steps (some simple and some more complex) that forward-thinking universities are taking to value student-parents and the contribution they make to the wider campus community instead of treating them like liabilities.



0:00:11.5 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. We all know that many of the students who arrive on campus every semester face challenges they may not feel comfortable talking about, at least initially, with classmates or professors. More of these students than you might imagine are teen parents who are still learning how to be a good mother or father while simultaneously navigating the difficult transition to college life. Your institution can and should do better by this vulnerable population of students who tend to be highly motivated and have so much more to offer your campus community than many higher ed leaders give them credit for. Our guests today will explain what you can do to support student-parents more effectively. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:01:02.4 Christina Hubbard: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Christina Hubbard and I’m a Senior Director in EAB’s Research Advisory Services Division. One area of research that has been a particular focus of mine for several years is how institutions serve the needs of post-traditional students. The fact of the matter is that the percentage of post-traditional learners has been growing for years. While these students are often older, they sometimes are even in their teens. They may have completed a GED instead of a high school diploma, or maybe they’re teen parents who want to pursue college just like many other teens. Teen parents are a population that is near and dear to my heart. Like our guest today, I am a teen parent. I had my oldest when I was 17, and I know well what it means to be juggling parenting responsibilities, work, and academics as well. But I also know that I’m among the lucky few. As a teen parent, the odds of graduating college before you turn 30 are slim, and there can be countless unexpected obstacles along the way. Today we’re going to focus on the unique challenges and needs of student-parents who are providing and caring for at least one child while they attempt to earn a degree.

0:02:09.4 CH: I am thrilled to be joined today by a leading expert in this area, Ms. Nicole Lynn Lewis, Founder and CEO of Generation Hope. Nicole, would you mind telling us a little bit about what led you to found Generation Hope and tell us a little bit more about the mission of your organization?

0:02:25.4 Nicole Lynn Lewis: Absolutely, and thank you so much, Christina, for having me on. I’m so excited to talk more about this with you today. So my story and Generation Hope’s story are so, so aligned. I often tell people that when I share a bit about what Generation Hope is all about. We help teen moms and dads earn their college degrees in the DC metro region and the New Orleans area while helping their children get ready for kindergarten and early elementary school success. And we also advocate for and with parenting college students of any age all across the country. And I came to this work because, very similar to you, I discovered that I was gonna be a mom when I was in high school. I was in my senior year of high school, had just been accepted into several different colleges.

0:03:10.0 NL: In fact, when I discovered my pregnancy, I always tell people I had this stack of acceptance letters on one side of my desk and this positive pregnancy test on the other. And I wasn’t sure how those two things were going to come together. My parents raised both my sister and I to always be focused on college as the next step after high school. And so I had really built and worked towards that goal of continuing on to college. And then suddenly, with this pregnancy, all of that was in jeopardy. And I didn’t know anybody in my community or my network, my school, my family who got pregnant and went to college. Most of the young women in that situation, they disappeared. You didn’t see them anymore, or they were working in food or retail service. You did not see them going off and getting a degree. And so it was very much uncharted territory for me. I was trying to figure out how I was gonna get to college, but also at the same time knew that a degree was the most reliable way for me to provide for this baby and experience economic mobility.

0:04:09.0 NL: And so I started at the College of William & Mary when my daughter was a little under three months old. And I always tell people I stepped foot on campus and thought, these feet do not belong here. You know, I was surrounded by students who had a ton of resources, who had a lot of family support, who weren’t parenting, and students who didn’t look like me. You know, I was one of very few Black students at William & Mary on top of being a parent. And so there were so many things stacked against me, and it was an intimidating experience. But it was also, over the next four years, one of the most transformative experiences of my life. You know, being exposed to people and opportunities and information I never would have been exposed to had I not gone to college, really finding my voice, finding my own social network. And I ended up graduating in four years with my daughter walking across the graduation stage with me.

0:05:06.5 NL: And it was this incredible moment, when you achieve something that people tell you is impossible. But I also knew in that moment that I could do something, and that there was probably a reason that I had defied the odds that you mentioned when it comes to how many teen parents actually get their degrees. And so I started feeling the spark of Generation Hope and feeling like maybe I could do something to make it not so rare for people like me to walk that graduation stage. And that’s really where Generation Hope came from, just kind of my own lived experience. And then looking across the landscape, there were no organizations in the DC region that were doing this work, and very few across the country. And that was really hard for me to accept because I knew from experience how much my college degree had changed my life, my daughter’s life. You know, we were able to do things that we never would have been able to do if I had not gotten that degree. And so I wanted to make sure that other young parents and parenting students of any age had that success.

0:06:10.5 CH: Your story is so inspiring, and I’m so grateful for being able to hear that and sort of hear your own experiences and how that led you to do such mission-focused work. I think one of the things that is really interesting about this topic is that while we knew that it was going to be hard to go to college and people told us it was impossible, I don’t think that people in situations like yours and mine really understood how long those odds are. I know that across the past decade or so, you’ve been exploring this issue more and more and more. Do you have a few data points that you think a lot of people miss that they really need to understand the underlying statistics about teen parents?

0:06:51.2 NL: Even before college, high school is a challenge for this population because we know that about 40% of teen parents graduate from high school, and that’s not enough. We have so much work to do in the K-12 space in terms of making sure this population is successful. And so the ability to continue in school is really challenging. It’s really difficult for this population, not because they don’t have the smarts, not because they’re not cognitively able to do this work, but because of the systemic challenges that exist for this population across all of our systems. We also know that more than half of parenting college students leave school without a degree. So once they get to college, those hurdles, those obstacles continue to exist. And higher education has a lot of work to do to make sure that they are supportive and inclusive of this population. And in the meantime, we know that it’s 10 times more difficult for parenting students to actually make it to the graduation stage. That they have higher GPAs than their non-parenting peers. This is something I always like to share with people, because I think we often look at all of the challenges that young parents and parenting students are up against when it comes to earning their post-secondary credential, but they are incredibly motivated, they are driven.

0:08:15.9 NL: I’m sure you can attest to this, Christina, I know I was literally obsessed with getting my college degree when I was at William & Mary. And I was at, you know, I was attending a really academically rigorous institution as a young teen mom. And it was really an obsession for me to get my degree because there wasn’t a plan B. There wasn’t another thing that I could fall back on that would create economic mobility for my family. And so this had to work. And that is the case for so many parenting students across the country. And I think another thing that’s really important to point out is sometimes people envision this population as being a small niche population that is not really prevalent across higher education. We’re talking about one in five undergraduate students across the country are parenting. This is a significant population, and I always like to remind people that that doesn’t include the millions of parents that would enroll in college if they felt like it was a place where they would be set up for success. So this is an invisible population that falls under the radar, but it is a significant and highly motivated.

0:09:24.3 CH: You’re absolutely right. I think one of the things when I’ve talked to other student-parents, you know, that I often feel is that many times they’re expected to check their parenting identity at the gates of campus, right? They don’t feel like they can show up and be their whole selves on campus. And so I think that that is one of the biggest for student-parents. Now, one thing that I love about Generation Hope is that while you all are such a phenomenal direct service provider to student-parents, you take it a step further and you’re working in the background on, you know, advocating for different policies and you conduct your own research. And I know recently you published a report on a survey of student-parents in the Washington DC area. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? What was the purpose of the study? What if anything surprised you about the findings? And what were some of the key takeaways that you want higher ed leaders to understand?

0:10:16.1 NL: Yes. So it’s also one of the things I love about our work because we get to work directly with families every day, boots on the ground, seeing them do this incredible feat of juggling all of the things, child care and parenting and work and school. And we get to take that amazing experience and really bring it into the systemic change space and be able to do large scale advocacy work at the federal and local level, but then also to really illuminate those lived experiences through research and reports. And so our latest report that we released is one called the Child Care Barrier. And what we wanted to do, we had been involved in other research projects, specifically one with Education Trust around the cost of higher education for student-parents and being able to make the case and make it clear that higher ed is more expensive. Going to college is more expensive as a parenting student in large part because of child care. We know across the country for the past several years, we’ve been having this conversation about the fact that the child care system in America is broken and really being able to see how does that impact parenting students. And so we were able to break down kind of the dollars and cents around child care expenses for student-parents through that joint report with Education Trust.

0:11:35.4 NL: But we wanted to take it a step further and say, well, knowing that child care is so expensive, we wanna know what is happening every day for parenting college students. How are they piecemealing child care together? We know that they’re not able, like many families across the country, to afford quality, consistent child care. And what does that mean for your ability to continue in school? And it was a really interesting experience because it reinforced what we qualitatively knew in doing the boots on the ground work with families, but to put hard numbers around it was pretty impactful. So some of the things that we saw were that about 78% of respondents wish their campuses did more to support their child care needs, really making it clear that higher ed has a part to play in ensuring that students have access to quality child care that doesn’t always have to look like a brick and mortar child care center on their campus. It may look like stipends, it may look like partnerships. We’re seeing some really interesting partnerships, for example, the one with ACCT and Head Start Association, the National Head Start Association, to provide Head Start centers on campuses across the country. So there are a lot of different ways for schools to get creative.

0:12:50.2 NL: But what is very clear is that student-parents are looking to institutions to provide some support and resources around child care. 71% of our respondents relied on informal and/or unpaid child care. So that could be family, friends, neighbors, public school programming. We’re seeing that the vast majority are not able to rely on a traditional child care center as we might think of it, but really having to piecemeal that support together to make sure that they can go to class, to make sure that they can go to work. And that is often great. It’s wonderful to see family and friends helping. But there are also some cons to that in that it’s not always reliable. You might have someone who gets a job and decides, I can’t provide this for you anymore.

0:13:37.4 NL: And so it can be easily interrupted, which of course affects class and all of those things. 92% of our respondents either did not have access to or were unaware of on-campus child care options, which means that the vast, vast majority of parenting college students, at least in our research study, were not accessing any sort of child care supports at their institutions. And then 82% of respondents are living below the national poverty line, which is really important for people to understand. And I think you talked about what are some of those difficulties that student-parents are up against. We know that they are more likely to be students with low income. We know that they’re more likely to be struggling to financially piece things together each and every day. And so child care becomes a luxury for this population, and yet it’s so critical for them to actually finish their degree.

0:14:31.5 CH: Absolutely. The financial impact of attending school as a student-parent is just incredible. I remember before joining EAB, I led a college access and success program at a community college just outside DC. We had quite a few of your students from Generation Hope in the program, and I remember talking to one of the students, and he explained that he was actually using the reviews of professors to try to figure out who required textbooks in their classes versus those who had open access materials. You know, for him, he was explaining that to buy textbooks might mean that he wouldn’t have money to be able to feed his family or to pay rent that month. And that really, really stuck with me long-term, thinking about the financial challenges that so many student-parents face, especially because so many of them are below the poverty line. I think that there are a lot of these equity blind spots for higher ed leaders. It’s something that has come out in our own research. And I’m wondering what you’ve seen in your work with students. What are some of these blind spots for higher ed institutions that they really need to be thinking about in terms of their equity mission?

0:15:35.1 NL: Thank you so much for sharing that story, because I think it’s those stories that really drive home, the importance of this work. And it reminds me, in our most recent report, The Child Care Barrier, we have so many wonderful testimonies just like that, that really take your breath away and talk about how difficult it is to afford textbooks for class when you have to buy clothes, for your children and put food on the table. And I think it’s so important that we are looking at the data, but then we’re also, that’s something that’s so important in all of our work across Generation Hope is to center the voices of parents to really make sure that they are informing those data points and helping people to understand why this work is so important. So I love that you shared that. You know, I think when we’re talking about equity in higher education, we have to be talking about student-parent work. Something you’ll hear us say all the time at Generation Hope is that student-parent work is racial justice work. And that’s because we know that student-parents are more likely to be students of color when we look at the data, we disaggregate the data. We know that almost half of all black female undergraduate students across the country are parenting while in college.

0:16:48.6 NL: It’s so significant when we look at this data and really disaggregate it. It makes it very clear that this is very connected to an institution’s DEI work. We’ve seen, for example, a wonderful trend that has really caught on. And I think the pandemic helped to accelerate it is this discussion around basic needs and college students. And it’s really encouraging to see schools investing in food pantries and really looking to see how can we centralize SNAP benefits and all of these things. But what I tell people is, if you know that a student is food insecure, but you don’t know they have two and three mouths to feed, you’re really missing the mark. And so it’s so important for us to look at this as equity work and look at this as we have to prioritize this population in all of our work, in our basic needs work, in our DEI work, in our work on first-generation college students.

0:17:47.9 NL: For example, at Generation Hope, 79% of our scholars are first-generation college students. I like to tell people that the student-parent population is an umbrella population that has so much intersectionality with the other student groups that we care about, that we’re investing in. And so we have to make sure that this work is woven throughout all of our equity work, or we are going to miss the mark when it comes to really making sure that we’re meeting those equity goals, making sure that we’re graduating more students of color, making sure that our campuses feel like places where all students belong. We have to make sure that this population is really prioritized across the board.

0:18:28.2 CH: Yeah, I think that’s a really great point. Are there any mistakes that you’ve seen, you know, that colleges that are well-intentioned, maybe there is something that they’ve been doing that overlooks this population or doesn’t really support them in the way that they mean to be supporting student-parents?

0:18:43.6 NL: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll tell you kind of the first thing that I hear when I talk to higher ed leaders, and then I’ll give you a sense of how we break this work down a bit. I’ll often talk to college presidents, and I’ll say, you know, I’ll tell them a little bit about our work at Generation Hope, and they’ll say, oh, we’ve checked that box. We have a child care center. And I’m like, [laughter] that’s the tip of the iceberg. Because the first thing I’ll say is, well, how many of your students are accessing that child care center? And then there’s often a pause, right? Because we know that child care centers in general across higher education are becoming less and less.

0:19:21.2 NL: They’re more of a rarity at a time when we need them more and more. But many times, they’re most often used by faculty and staff. They’re not accessible to students. And so I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction to say, well, we’re doing that because we have a child care center. But this work is really, I think, a big kind of mistake for many institutions is to think that this work can be relegated to one department or one child care center or one person. And what we really believe in our work at Generation Hope is that in order for you to be an institution that is truly inclusive of student-parents, it has to be permeating everything that you do at the institution. And so our technical assistance program called FamilyU has a framework. And we look at this through four key components of student-parent work.

0:20:06.1 S21: The first is data. The second is policies. The third is people. And then the overall culture. And so first and foremost, you have to be collecting data on the parenting status of your students. I couldn’t believe when I started Generation Hope, I went to a couple of institutions and I said, hey, can you tell me how many of your students are parenting? They’re like, we don’t collect that data. And I’m like, what? Like this is important. It’s so important. And that was 13 years ago. And today, that’s still the case. Most colleges are not collecting this information. And it’s so important. We know that what gets measured gets invested in. It gets prioritized. And you need the data to be able to make the case for those investments and those resources. And so and also just to know your students, to understand them. If you’re not getting the completion rates you want, this is an important data point to have.

0:20:57.4 NL: In our FamilyU cohort, we’ve helped institutions stand up data collection systems. And some of them find out 30% of their students are parenting. You know, that’s a huge number. And it really helps to have that information to tell the story of your students. So data is important. Policy is key. Institutional policy is what we’re really talking about. I’ll give you an example of a policy that immediately communicates to parenting students that they don’t belong. And that’s no kids on campus. That’s a policy that we see at so many schools across the country. And what it really says is, you’re not welcome here. And your child is not welcome here. And just as you said, Christina, check your parenting status at the door, right? And it also has kind of practical implications. Because if my child care falls through at the last minute, and I was supposed to meet with a professor to get extra help on that test, now I can’t. I don’t do well on the test. I fail the test. I fail the class, right? And so really helping institutions figure out, how do we look at our policies through a student-parent lens?

0:21:55.9 NL: How do we make sure that we create policies that are really about making sure student-parents feel supported and feel like they belong? But looking at all of our policies to really check ourselves and say, how does this exclude this population? The third is people. We know that it’s great and hugely important to have people at the top of an institution believing in student-parent work. But if people who are interacting with students every day don’t also see the importance of supporting this population, then it’s gonna be a fail, right? We wanna make sure that professors and student-facing faculty and staff are really on board with student-parent work, that they understand this experience, that they understand how to be supportive, and that they’re living out those lessons and that understanding in the classroom every day.

0:22:43.0 NL: That’s who our students are most likely to be interacting with every day are those front-facing staff. And so people play a huge part. And then culture. And culture is the tangible and intangible things that make up our institution. So we’re looking at diaper-changing stations. We’re looking at family-friendly study areas. We want parent parking. But we also want to look at, do you have pictures of parenting students and their children in your marketing collateral, on your website? It doesn’t always have to be a huge $5 million investment. Some of these things literally are no cost, but they’re a different way of doing things that says, this is the norm at our institution. This is who we want to bring in to our institution. You belong here. So we really encourage institutions to look at their work through that framework of those four key components.

0:23:34.9 CH: I love those examples. That’s really great. Are there any institutions that you can think of that are doing this really well?

0:23:40.2 NL: Yeah. So through our FamilyU cohort at Generation Hope, we currently support 11 institutions across the country. And they’re doing a two-year capacity building experience through our FamilyU cohort program. And it has been just incredible to watch these institutions. At times, they’re just starting the work. Other institutions are building upon some really great work that they’ve already been doing. Austin Community College is one that comes up for me as I’m thinking. They have prioritized student-parents in their federal work-study programs, a great example of looking at existing structures and saying, how can we really ensure that student-parents are included here and prioritized here, right? Looking at Trinity Washington University in DC, they are in the process of building out their own family-friendly study area in their library. So making sure that student-parents have dedicated spaces that they can come to with their kids. I can tell you at William & Mary, I was in our library, SWEM library, maybe twice in.

0:24:46.5 NL: My entire four years at that institution because it wasn’t set up for my two-year-old to come along with me. So it’s important to have structures and places where families can just be and can be and can be a part of the school community. But there are also institutions outside of our FamilyU cohorts. Monroe College in New York is kind of doing gold standard work around data collection. And they have a really robust way to not only collect the data on parenting status, but also to use that data to then inform their work and to say, how do we create more child care resources now that we know how many of our students are parents? So it’s one thing to collect the data, but it’s another thing to actually use it and to do something with it to make sure that your students are succeeding. So there are so many, I could take this whole podcast to talk about some of the great work that’s happening both in our FamilyU cohort and across higher education when it comes to student-parents. It’s really encouraging.

0:25:44.9 CH: That is really great to hear. You have given so much insight and so many great recommendations for institutional leaders, but I’m wondering if there are any final pieces of advice that you might want to share with school leaders in terms of where to really focus their energy as they’re trying to serve student-parents.

0:26:02.6 NL: My first question when I talk to folks that I really encourage them to ask themselves is do you look at parenting students as an asset or a liability? And I think that if we’re honest with ourselves, many folks would say, well, I’m not really thinking about student-parents first and foremost, but then if you are, many, many of us are thinking of them as a liability. And I really encourage people to shift their thinking about that because this is a population we talked about earlier, highly motivated, highly driven, higher GPAs than their non-parenting peers, but also they bring such rich lived experience into your school community. They are already leaders, they’re leaders in their home. They’re juggling so many different things and often, you know, juggling those things well. And so we have so much to learn from these students. They can come into our school communities and make them better, make them richer, make them more diverse, right? And improve our, the way that we do things.

0:27:06.2 NL: And so I think that’s a really good starting point for student-parent work is to be intentional about how you approach this work and be intentional about the shift that needs to happen from thinking about this population as a liability that, you know, drains resources and on the flip side, really saying, wait a minute, this is a population that brings resources that can help us do this work better, that can enrich our classrooms. And then I would say from then, from that point is the data, you know, really making sure that you’re collecting the data. I always help people to see that this is not a static data point. This is a dynamic data point, meaning I can come into your institution and not be a parent and I can, two months later, I am a parent, right? Like parenting status changes overnight. And so really figuring out how to get something up and running, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be something to start that you can build upon, but you wanna start collecting that data so that you can help to tell the story of your students and be able to invest in changing those policies and investing in more diaper changing stations and investing in training for your staff and your faculty. The data is a great starting point to be able to really launch wonderful student-parent work.

0:28:27.2 CH: Nicole, I know time is running short. I think that you and I could talk about this all day long, but I can’t imagine a more motivating point to end on. So I just wanted to take a moment to thank you so much for your time and your contributions today. Thank you very much for joining our EAB office hours.

0:28:44.6 CH: Thank you so much for having me.


0:28:52.5 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our experts share tips on how to prepare your students and your institution for upcoming FAFSA changes. Until then, thank you for your time.

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