A portrait of community college student parents


A lot has been said about the pandemic’s effects on community college students, especially student parents. But what do we know about these students that can help develop better policies and programs to help them succeed?

A new research brief by the Center for Community College Leadership and Research at the University of California, Davis, provides information about student parents attending California community colleges that illustrates the challenges they faced prior to Covid, which have only been compounded during the pandemic.

Serving these students better can have a generational effect.

“Because higher education for student parents has potential for double benefits – for students and their children, too – this population deserves particular focus and support,” according to the brief.

Using data to sketch a portrait

Researchers dipped into student aid applications to develop a portrait of these students. For example, among the nearly 1.5 million California college and university students who applied for federal or state financial aid in 2018-19, 13.4% were parents. Nearly three-quarters (72%) intended to enroll at a community college rather than a public four-year or private university. And nearly one in 10 students in the state’s community college is a parent who applied for financial aid.

Of the 72% who intended to enroll at a community college:

  • four out of five were female parents
  • about 4% had previously bachelor’s degrees
  • their average age is 33.5
  • average income is $28,495

By contrast, at private four-year/graduate institutions, more than half of student parents hold a bachelor’s degree, indicating pursuit of post-baccalaureate or professional degrees, according to the brief. At the University of California, 38% of parenting students already have bachelor’s degrees.

Student parents planning to attend a community college also reported the lowest family income among financial aid applicants.

Courses and more

The brief also examined course-taking patterns of community college student parents.

During their first year of community college (2012–13), student parents enrolled in an average of 11 units over the entire year, less than a full-time load of 12 units in each term, according to the center. Yet, 41% of students enrolled in at least 12 units during their first semester. Non-parents had slightly higher rates of full-time enrollment and average units earned.

Parents were also more likely to take basic skills, or remedial, courses. However, student parents were somewhat more successful than non-parents in terms of performance: The average GPA for student parents in credit-bearing classes the first year was slightly higher than the average GPA for the comparison group, the brief said.

In general, student parents also take longer to complete their program of study, likely due to their juggling of work, parenting and other obligations.


The center offered recommendations for lawmakers and policymakers that could help student parents. First, colleges and researchers should do a better job collecting and analyzing data on this population of students. They should also focus on support services that would help these students persist and complete, such as childcare, health and mental health services, advising and increased program flexibility.

Better outreach to make student parents aware of available student aid is also important. Special focus should be on increasing financial aid awareness at the state and campus levels, especially among eligible student parents in their first year. Only about two-thirds of student parents applied for aid in the first year of enrollment.

Colleges can also connect eligible student parents with aid that can cover not only fees and books, but transportation, food and childcare. Work-study should be included in this focus.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.