Analysis

Analysis: Investing in the Education of Student Parents Benefits Everyone. Here are 4 Ways Philanthropy Can Help

By Andre Bennin, Isabelle Hau, Bethany Miller, Jennifer Zeisler | March 6, 2020

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Updated March 9

There is a reason that many of us working to improve economic mobility also focus on higher education. Research consistently shows that postsecondary education is still one of the surest bets for increasing earnings and improving access to jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.

Leading experts and thinkers planned to gather at SXSW EDU this week to discuss the big, bold ideas that will guide the field, especially as the future of work shifts what society expects from higher education. Although this year’s conference was canceled, the topics that filled the event’s program will still be the focus of important discussions in the months and years ahead. To ensure that the future of work and learning we are shaping now creates greater economic mobility, we should focus the innovative energy sparked by these field-shaping conversations on the needs of student parents.

Student parents make up more than 1 in 5 undergraduate students in the United States. They are more likely to live below the poverty line and have higher student debt than students without children. They are disproportionately women, students of color and first-generation students. They also have higher grade-point averages and deeply understand the connection among their degree, the jobs they can get and their family’s economic security. But due to the compounding financial and time pressures they face, less than half graduate on time.

In short, student parents represent the intersection of many of the populations our systems aim to support, but their needs too often go unaddressed, slipping through the cracks between where one system ends and the other begins.

The philanthropic sector can play a significant role in ensuring that the futures of work and higher education are both grounded in equity by investing now in solutions that bridge these gaps. As funders focused on economic mobility, we have found that investments in student parents benefit everyone.

This moment represents a tremendous opportunity for innovation that can achieve large-scale systems change in how we learn, work and support families. Recent policy momentum at the state and federal levels indicates that there are policymakers primed to champion new proposals to support student parents. At the same time, technological innovation has opened up new avenues for streamlining and improving systems at a rapid pace.

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By harnessing the innovative energy sparked by the changing future of work to support the success of parenting students, the philanthropic community can better arm changemakers with 21st century solutions to improving economic mobility.

Here are a few ways philanthropy’s investments in student parents now can pay off for everyone in the future.

Beyond Systemic: Thinking Ecosystemically

From public transportation to housing, students, especially student parents, do not interact with systems in a vacuum. Take child care, for instance. Access to affordable, reliable child care helps parents complete their degrees, but availability of on-campus child care has been declining for years. Research has shown that partnerships between colleges and Head Start, the largest early childhood education program in the country, offers a promising — and largely untapped — solution to addressing students’ child care needs. So, as one of the Kresge Foundation’s BOOST initiative partnerships, Portland Community College and Albina Head Start in Oregon are expanding their collaboration to serve more students and create tools for other colleges to launch their own partnerships. When more students are able to complete their degrees, local workforces and communities benefit.

Addressing Gender Equity in Higher Ed and the Workforce

Community colleges play a key role in preparing the workforce for jobs of the future. Student parents at these schools are disproportionately single mothers, who, as the sole provider for their families, often pursue higher education to unlock access to better paying jobs. But just 8 percent of single mothers graduate on time.

That’s why the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona, with support from ECMC Foundation, launched a program that provides child care, coaching and other support that is targeted to the specific needs of single mothers pursuing a certificate for jobs in such high-demand fields as logistics or computer-aided design at Tucson’s Pima Community College. Aligning investments with an eye toward gender equity not only addresses persistently high poverty rates among single mothers, but also strengthens the skills of local workforces.

Building a Movement for Future Generations

In addition to supporting the expansion of promising programs to more areas and fostering new approaches, philanthropy can and must make investments that build a sustainable movement of organizations, researchers, policymakers, college administrators and faculty, and, crucially, student parents to activate and achieve systems change over the long term. This is why Imaginable Futures, a venture of The Omidyar Group, focuses on a “whole family” two-generation approach, seeking to drive both littlest learners’ and adult learners’ educational success, economic mobility and overall family well-being. The goal is to specifically champion solutions for student parents to unlock their abilities to create change for themselves as well as their families and communities, improving outcomes across generations.

Imaginable Futures recently partnered with Lumina Foundation and leading higher education organizations to launch the Rise Prize, which will make 10 awards totaling $1 million to innovative solutions driving economic mobility and well-being for student parents. An investment in student parents today is a down payment on economic mobility for future generations.

Investing in Innovations that Will Shape the Future of Work and Higher Ed

By measuring learning in credit hours and on-campus classes, traditional models of higher education leave out many adult students, particularly those with family and work demands. As technology changes how and where we work and learn, NewU Venture Partners, a subsidiary of the Corporation of Western Governors University, has explored how to re-envision traditional degree program models by focusing on workforce transitioning, skills training, and online-based approaches to college readiness and learning. Its goal is to work with education technology companies that can have an impact on hundreds of thousands of students beyond WGU by removing the time and geographic barriers of traditional programs that require on-campus learning and minimum credit hours and can prevent students, especially student parents, from accessing the education they need to secure the jobs of the future.

The systems of tomorrow are being shaped today. By focusing on equity-centered solutions that support student parent success, philanthropy can help public- and private-sector leaders bridge the gaps between systems so many more students can succeed for themselves and their children.

Andre Bennin is the managing partner at NewU Venture Partners. Isabelle Hau is a partner at Imaginable Futures. Bethany Miller is a senior program officer at The Kresge Foundation. Jennifer Zeisler is senior program director for career readiness at ECMC Foundation. 

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