Community Colleges Can Help Parenting Students Succeed by Creating Supportive, Welcoming Environments

Research BriefHigher EducationOct 26 2022

No conversation about educational equity, student success, or economic mobility is complete without a discussion about parenting students, who represent more than one fifth of all undergraduates. Helping parenting students succeed in college is critical to their economic well-being, as well as their families’: Not only does financial stability lead to improved child outcomes, but children of parents who completed a bachelor’s degree are more likely to complete degrees themselves.[1] Despite their strong presence on campuses, our existing higher education system was not designed to serve parenting students, and systemic barriers create educational environments that are particularly unwelcoming for parents of color. Among undergraduate women, 40 percent of Black students, 36 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native students, and 35 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students are parenting. Ensuring that parents have what they need to thrive is critical—not only for current parenting students, but also for students who may become parents throughout the course of their education.

With parenting students comprising over one quarter of public two-year institutions’ student population, community colleges in particular must support these students to achieve their institutional missions of providing accessible education that bolsters student success, economic mobility, and regional strength. Improving services to support parenting students is not only necessary to improve educational equity, but should also be a component of strategies to address the low completion rates faced by community colleges. Currently, 62 percent of community college parenting students do not obtain a degree or certificate within six years.

This brief offers five lessons learned to help community college leaders support the substantial portion of their student body who are parents. These lessons are drawn from the first three years of the Expanding Opportunities for Young Families (EOYF) initiative, for which Child Trends provides technical assistance. The EOYF initiative focuses on supporting young parenting students (ages 18-25), in particular, who tend to have young children; have greater need for financial, food, and housing supports; and be at an elevated risk for discontinuing school. These students are also poised to benefit from interventions early in their educational and career paths. Finally, while the lessons presented in this brief are based on our work with young parenting students and may be particularly important for this unique group, they likely apply to parenting students of all ages. For more information on EOYF, see the box below.

About the Expanding Opportunities for Young Families initiative

Expanding Opportunities for Young Families (EOYF) is a multiyear, two-generation initiative funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to support young parenting students and their children. The initiative is led by three sites (Austin, TX, Miami, FL, and Santa Fe, NM) that are collaborations between local community colleges and community partners that provide resources, advising, and wrap-around services to young parents (including financial, academic, and workforce supports and health care and housing services). Each site uses navigation services to help young parents access community and college resources. EOYF sites largely serve young parenting students of color, particularly Hispanic students.

The EOYF approach is centered on equity by giving young families what they need and want to enjoy full, healthy, and happy lives, and to eliminate disparities in outcomes. EOYF sites center student voice and emphasize equity in program design and delivery by co-designing programs with young parents, striving to serve the young parents who most need support, and taking individualized approaches to meet students where they are.

Our insights here reflect the experiences, knowledge, and ideas shared during the past three years by young parents, EOYF site leads and staff, community college leaders, community partner organizations, and the Casey Foundation. In particular, we are grateful to parenting student leaders Andromeda Vega, Christel Paradowski, Sebastian Alvarez, and Yoselin Cordova, and EOYF site leads Becca Bice, Annmarie McLaughlin, and Stephanie Rivera Silva for sharing their thoughts and experiences, especially during the recent virtual summit.

Five Lessons for Community College Systems to Improve Their Services for Young Parents

1. Make college more accessible and attractive to young parenting students with inclusive design and welcoming environments.

Parenting students are parents first, and community colleges must account for the multiple roles they play when designing and planning environments and services for these students. Inclusive design—“design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference”—is central to creating spaces on campuses that meet the needs of young parenting students. Inclusive design takes into account all aspects of the student experience: For example, it might include planning the physical space of the campus to be conducive to pregnant and parenting students, developing community partnerships with local organizations that serve young parents, designing course formats with working parents’ schedules in mind, and reimagining institutional policies to align with the realities of parenting students’ lives. This approach allows students to meet the practical requirements of simultaneously studying and parenting (e.g., getting to class, accessing child care), but also signals to young parenting students that they belong on campus.

“Child care is a huge component. If parents could access free, high-quality child care at the place where they are studying, I think that that would make our efforts to get a higher education a lot easier. I think particularly for mothers, if there was a place on campus where we can pump or breastfeed our child in a safe environment, that would be great. Also, if colleges could provide lockers for pumps, I think that would be really useful.”

–Yoselin Cordova, Parenting Student Leader 

Opportunities to create a welcoming environment for young parenting students:

  • Offer high-quality, affordable on-campus child care. Explore options for offering both long-term and drop-in options to fit students’ class and work schedules. Also consider ways to connect students to convenient, affordable off-campus child care.
  • Clarify absence policies to better account for missed classes around pregnancy-related conditions.
  • Partner with community organizations that are accessible (near to campus or public transportation options and physically accessible for pregnant students) and meet the cultural and linguistic needs of young parenting students.
  • Designate safe and comfortable breastfeeding spaces for students on campus (i.e., lactation rooms).
  • Dedicate child-friendly on-campus study areas to ensure that students don’t have to choose between caring for their children and studying.
  • Offer short terms (e.g., 8-week) that better meet the needs of students who become pregnant or have other life circumstances interrupt their semesters.

2. Connect with parents through intentional messaging.

Students with young children lead incredibly busy lives. Because they are juggling work, school, and family life, parenting students may be unaware of resources and services that are not directly advertised to them. Students in the EOYF initiative said that it was helpful when colleges explicitly stated which services are available and useful to parenting students—rather than placing the burden on them to identify resources that may fit their needs.

Strategies community colleges can use to message resources to young parents:

  • Explicitly target parenting students when advertising services and programs that may benefit them (e.g., including “great for parenting students” or “developed for parenting students” in program descriptions).
  • Simplify searches for parents by collating relevant resources on a single webpage for their benefit.
  • Reach young parenting students with communications methods that they already use (e.g., campus emails, college social media, WhatsApp/Signal groups).
  • Connect with clubs and other social and activity groups to message resources to members who are parents.
  • Share information about services for parenting students across campus administrative and academic units so that faculty and staff can make relevant referrals when speaking with students.
  • Visually display images of students with children on campus (in murals, posters, flyers, etc.) to normalize their presence on campus.

3. Support continuous enrollment with comprehensive services for students and their families.

When parenting students make the decision to initially enroll in school or to continue their studies, they weigh immediate and long-term needs and resources—not just for themselves but also for their families. Because they juggle family responsibilities alongside school, work, and personal responsibilities, parenting students are more likely to take detours—or exit ramps—away from school. Parents often choose to discontinue their higher education pursuits due to financial constraints, work requirements that conflict with school responsibilities, and a lack of available, affordable child care—all of which can lead to a general lack of time for their studies. Young parenting students, in particular, demonstrate greater need for financial, food, and housing supports and are at an elevated risk for discontinuing school.

Food and housing assistance, child care, mental health care, and emergency financial support can prevent parenting students from pausing or stopping their education entirely. To facilitate persistence in school, community colleges can follow a two-generation model of service delivery for parenting students, in which services are not solely oriented around a student’s needs as a student, but also meet their needs (and their children’s needs) as members of a family.

On their own, colleges are not likely to have the resources to meet all of a student’s two-generation needs. However, community colleges can develop networks of community partner organizations to connect students to services in their communities and close gaps in two-generation service offerings. Community partner organizations that are responsive to local community strengths and needs are strong collaboration partners for improving service referral and provision to parents at community colleges. Community college leaders can also work with city governments to meet the needs of students and their children, so that parenting students can complete school and earn their credentials.

In working with advisors and teachers, no one knew what other offices were doing for parents—how can you be advocates for parents if you don’t know what’s going on? […] When you enroll a student, find out if they are a parent, connect them with resources […] You never know what’s going on—domestic violence, food scarcity, homelessness—it’s important we do touch base with them, make sure they have a roof over their heads, make sure they can get what they need.

–Christel Paradowski, Parenting Student Leader

Opportunities to support the development of successful wrap-around and two-generation services for parenting students and their children:

Draw on existing resources.

  • Develop collaborative relationships with community partner organizations that already work with parents to coordinate service offerings.
  • Leverage partnerships with local, state, and national organizations to advocate for funding streams that support students and their families.
  • Use navigation services to guide young parenting students through complex networks of resources and supports to ensure that their short-term and long-term needs are met.
  • Create and share referral networks with administrative and academic staff within the college so they can readily connect students to services.
  • Reduce administrative burden by streamlining forms and processes for accessing emergency aid to allow parenting students to cover their immediate needs.

Create additional resources to support parenting students and their children.

  • Offer sections of for-credit “student success skills” courses that include a family component, and target registration for these sections at young parenting students, who are likely to be new to both higher education and to parenting.
  • Facilitate access to free or low-cost mental health services for parenting students and their children to support their well-being by either offering these services on-campus or referring students to community resources.
  • Provide parenting resources, such as parenting classes and information about child care options, for parenting and pregnant students.
  • Create opportunities for parents to meet regularly to build bonds and share information about resources like child care.
  • Provide students with the option to self-identify as parents in intake forms and to update their self-identification each term to ensure that services are aligned with the needs of the student population.

4. Improve support systems for fathers to reaffirm that they belong on campus.

Community college systems should be ready to serve parenting students of all genders. In particular, colleges can better demonstrate that fathers are welcome on campus as students and as parents by building and advertising supports intentionally geared toward them.

Many parenting students do not feel welcome on campus. Fathers and other parents on campus who do not identify as mothers may feel especially isolated: Even when resources and services are available to parents, they are often targeted at mothers. Young fathers may feel that they don’t belong in parenting spaces on campus or that parenting resources don’t apply to them. However, student fathers may need even stronger support systems to facilitate their successful completion; fathers disproportionately leave college without a certificate or degree after six years. On top of these challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly hard-hitting for men in terms of its influence on discontinuing enrollment. Young men may also face additional societal pressures to be ”breadwinners,” making their decision to reduce or stop working to complete school more daunting. For these reasons, colleges face unique challenges to create educational environments in which fathers feel that they belong and can succeed.

I would like to mention how important it is for dads to also be supported […] We need support groups, where we have maybe dads who have already gone through the process who can say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I have…’ And it helps a lot to know and to have those support groups and people advocating for us.

–Sebastian Alvarez, Parenting Student Leader

The lessons presented in this brief can be tailored to target fathers and better meet their unique needs. Specifically, colleges can:

  • Create spaces for fathers to provide peer support, share parenting advice, and build community with one another on campus.
  • Connect prospective students who are fathers with current student fathers to discuss potential challenges and opportunities associated with attending school and to help these prospective student fathers envision what higher education might look like for them.
  • Include photos of dads with children on campus in published images to reaffirm that they are welcome.
  • Create materials that explicitly invite fathers to access parenting resources through websites, flyers, and other outreach tools.
  • Host father-specific events to amplify fathers’ presence on campus and connect them with relevant resources and information.

5. Engage parenting students and amplify their voices.

Promoting parenting students’ decision-making power will strengthen the impact of all our recommendations, from inclusive design and intentional messaging to comprehensive services and supports for fathers on campus.

I want to become an advocate for other students who are also parents to do something, and then we can change things together […] One way [is] getting us parents together in a group— like an organization, just like we have with Latinas or African American students or first-generation students. We’re parents. We as parents are very resourceful.

–Andromeda Vega, Parenting Student Leader

Parenting students are experts in their own experiences. Implementation of any or all of these recommendations will be more impactful on parenting students’ college experiences if they are invited to guide policy and programming decisions. Authentic engagement—in which young people are recognized for their expertise and engaged fully in decisions that affect their lives, families, and communities—requires meaningful partnership with parenting students. At the recent EOYF summit, students spoke about the work they are already doing to advocate for young parenting students, along with their hopes that faculty, staff, and administrators would learn more about parenting students on campus and amplify their calls to action. As community college systems and community partners work to improve services for parenting students, collaborative decision making with those students will mean the difference between impactful programs and policies and those that miss the mark on supporting parenting students.

To better incorporate the voices of parenting students, community colleges should:

  • Establish advisory committees with parenting students to make collaborative design decisions (e.g., new classroom set-ups, parking options, digital platform purchases, etc.).
  • Develop on-campus parent support groups to build collective efficacy for parenting student advocacy.
  • Collaborate with community partners and local agencies to develop two-generation initiatives that include positions with decision-making power for parenting students to develop improved local service delivery systems for students and their families.
  • Advocate for including parenting student voice in local and regional discussions about economic mobility, education, and early childhood policy.
  • Work with parenting students to develop trainings for staff about the on-campus experiences of parenting students so they better understand how to serve this substantial student population.
  • Survey parenting students about their on-campus needs as both parents and students and report back to participants on findings and action steps from the college.
  • Reach out to parents on campus, including fathers, to get their input when crafting language and determining the right channels for messaging to students about services and resources.
  • Work with community partners to implement public speaking and leadership development trainings for young parenting students to better prepare them to engage in decision-making and advocacy opportunities.

The Takeaway: Create Inclusive, Supportive Environments That Promote Success for Parenting Students

By understanding the needs of parenting students and their families, community college leaders can implement actions that move the needle toward educational equity and improve completion outcomes. Our lessons in this brief, drawn from the first three years of EOYF and from the growing field of research on parenting students, illustrate what is needed to create inclusive campuses that support parenting students—and particularly young parenting students—in their educational journeys. But community college systems can’t do this alone: By working with community partners embedded in parenting students’ communities, community college leaders can support parenting students on and off campus to give them the tools they need to succeed.


This work was generously supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We thank them for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented here are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.

The authors would like to acknowledge Kristen Harper, Carol Emig, Samantha Holquist, Melissa Perez, Manica Ramos, and Zakia Redd for their reviews of these materials, as well as Brent Franklin and Jody Franklin for their editing support. We would like to thank the students for supporting the development of—and participating in—the recent virtual summit, and for sharing their thoughts on what would improve their higher education experiences. In particular, we would like to acknowledge Andromeda Vega, Christel Paradowski, Sebastian Alvarez, and Yoselin Cordova, who graciously allowed us to use their words in this piece and provided reviews of drafts. We would also like to thank Becca Bice, Annmarie McLaughlin, and Stephanie Rivera Silva and the teams at Miami Dade College, Santa Fe Community College, and Austin Community College, as well as their respective community partners, for their work to support young parenting students that led to the above lessons.


[1] Although community colleges traditionally grant associate degrees, they increasingly offer a wider variety of credentials, including bachelor’s degrees. Additionally, about 32 percent of community college students transfer to a four-year institution within six years of enrollment.

Suggested citation: Warren, J., & Ryberg, R. (2022). Community colleges can help parenting students succeed by creating supportive, welcoming environments. Child Trends.