Helping parents reengage with college


Increasing adult degree attainment is critical to building a skilled workforce and remaining economically competitive. Many efforts to do this, however, have overlooked how parenthood affects adults’ ability to reengage with and complete college, according to the authors of a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).

More than a third (35%) of adults with some college credit but no degree are parents of children under 18. Additionally, only 30% of single parents hold an associate degree or higher, while more than half of married parents and 41% of adults without children under 18 hold a degree.

The IWPR report highlights the importance of intentionally engaging, retaining and supporting these adult parents and looks at the policy and practice reforms needed to improve their ability to succeed in college.

“Providing greater support for parents to complete their college education is an important step toward closing racial equity gaps,” IWPR President and CEO C. Nicole Mason said in a release. “As the country recovers from a global pandemic and economic recession that have disproportionately affected Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities, enabling parents who don’t already hold college degrees to earn one is essential to an equitable recovery.”

The gaps and how to reengage

Single parents and Black, Latinx and Indigenous parents – particularly mothers – are the least likely adults to hold a college degree.

“Black, Latinx, and Indigenous parents have a strong desire to earn a college education, yet face structural obstacles that can derail their educational goals,” said Vinice Davis, venture partner of Imaginable Futures, which funded the research. “It doesn’t have to be this way; these are policy choices.”

Only 23% of Latinx, 28% of Indigenous and 37% of Black parents hold postsecondary degrees. Meanwhile, 55% of all white parents have earned a degree. Roughly 70% of Asian and Pacific Islander mothers and fathers hold at least an associate degree (though that number is not broken down to reflect subpopulations).

According to IWPR’s analysis, 65% of parents who hold some college credit have earned at least one year or more of college credit and are not currently enrolled in school or college. Reengaging those 7.9 million parents could help reduce the overall postsecondary attainment gap in the United States.

In addition, college completion not only increases economic mobility among parents, but can have positive effects on their children’s academic success and increase the likelihood that they go on to college themselves.

The report’s authors suggest that postsecondary institutions develop campus-level strategies to reengage parents that hold prior credits, as well as support currently enrolled students with children. This can be done with

  • Intentional recruitment of prospective student parents
  • Forgiveness of small institutional debts that can deter reenrollment
  • Training of campus staff to provide hands-on navigation support to parents once enrolled
  • Creation of family-friendly policies and physical spaces on campuses

Policy recommendations

Getting to higher attainment numbers and increased equity means adequate support, especially for single parents, from the federal, state and institutional levels. Expanding critical student parent supports, such as accessible, affordable child care, is one policy recommendation in the report.

Recommendations for federal policymakers include re-establishing a national attainment goal that includes student parents and has specific racial equity targets, as well as investing in the collection and reporting of data on the number, characteristics and outcomes of students who are parents.  

Federal policymakers need to ensure that student parents are considered a priority population. Policy reforms need to “make higher education more accessible and to increase equity in outcomes for student parents and other marginalized student groups,” the report says.

For state and institutional leaders, the authors recommend setting attainment goals related to parental attainment as a subset of broader state and national targets, including those focused on increasing racial equity. Student parents also should be included in statewide Promise programs that offer tuition-free college.

Another recommendation is for leaders to increase need-based financial aid for tuition and non-tuition assistance, including emergency aid.

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