Bridging the Gap Between Student Parents and Public Benefits

By Clarence Okoh

Student parents pursue higher education to secure a better future for themselves and their children. Completing postsecondary credentials leads to higher employment rates for parents and stronger academic outcomes for children. Unfortunately, many institutions are not fully equipped to address these students’ needs. With almost 7 in 10 student parents living below 200 percent of federal poverty levels—and only 1 in 4 student parents earning a degree within 6 years at 4-year institutions—it is critical to connect these students to a broad array of financial resources that support their success and well-being.

Student parents are a large and growing population. Based on data from the Department of Education (DOE), the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reports that over one in four undergraduate students (26 percent) are currently raising dependent children. Between 1995 and 2011, the overall population of student parents increased by nearly 50 percent. The vast majority of student parents are mothers; of that population, a significant portion are women of color. Black, Native American, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander women have the highest rates at 47 percent, 41 percent, and 39 percent respectively. Many of these students, particularly African Americans, are also single parents. While African American students comprise 16 percent of students enrolled in higher education, they represent 32.5 percent of single parents, according to DOE data.

Among student parents, younger parents experience particularly high levels of economic insecurity. Twenty-one percent of single student parents are between ages 19 and 23, according to DOE data. Among these younger single student parents, 88 percent have a $0 Estimated Family Contribution (EFC)—an indicator of family financial means. The convergence of high financial need and few financial resources places young student parents in a uniquely vulnerable financial position.

With few personal resources available, public benefits are imperative to student parents’ financial stability. CLASP’s Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) initiative focused on increasing coordination between higher education and public benefit systems, including child care assistance and SNAP, to promote improved academic performance. An evaluation of one community college participating in BACC found improvements in student enrollment, credits earned, and degree completion—especially among students who received more than one benefit (disproportionately student parents).

As highlighted in a recent CLASP report, access to public benefits can complement existing financial aid to close gaps in students’ financial need. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act provides an opportunity for Congress to add provisions that strengthen and broaden access to public benefits for low-income students, particularly student parents. This includes:

  • Using federally funded grant dollars to help students apply for benefits;
  • Further testing the impact of benefits receipt on college enrollment, persistence, and completion rates; and
  • Educating more low-income students about the availability of public benefits through various platforms, including the portal.

Policymakers and postsecondary education leaders have much work to do in order to close the gaps in services and resources available for student parents. Nonetheless, by expanding access to public benefits for student parents, among a host of broader strategies, education leaders have the opportunity to strengthen the future of student parents and their children.