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Meeting Indigenous Parenting Students’ Needs Promotes Equity in Higher Ed

Research BriefIndigenous Children & FamiliesMay 2 2023



Theresa Anderson, Deana Around Him, Autumn R. Green, and Jessica Warren contributed equally to this brief.

Theresa Anderson and Autumn R. Green of the Urban Institute are experts in research and policy on parenting students, a topic on which they have lived experience.

In 2018, the latest year for which data are available, parenting students[1] made up 27 percent of Indigenous undergraduate students. This rate is higher than the 19 percent of all undergraduate students who were parenting that year—a population of more than 3 million students. Yet Indigenous parenting students receive little attention from researchers, higher education leaders, and policymakers. Indigenous parenting students include those who self-identify as American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) and those who identify as Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI).

In this brief, we share new figures about the rate of parenting among Indigenous student populations relative to undergraduates generally, as well as the ways in which inequities within and surrounding the higher education system can impede Indigenous parenting students’ educational success. These insights can inform conversations about how to develop and support promising pathways for Indigenous parenting students’ families, and we offer suggestions on how higher education systems can mitigate barriers for parenting students and build on their strengths. Such efforts not only benefit these students and their families but also support racial and gender equity more broadly in higher education.

This brief is the first product in a series produced through a partnership between Child Trends and the Urban Institute that analyzes public data from the National Center for Education Statistics, such as the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, to describe characteristics of and issues facing parenting students. Each product examines a subgroup of parenting students and elevates insights that are relevant to helping them successfully meet their education and life goals.

Student parents, generally, are highly motivated to improve their own and their children’s economic standing, often earning similar or higher grades compared to their peers. While college completion benefits both parenting students and their children, these students face major hurdles in a system of higher education not built for them and have comparatively low graduation rates.

Parenting in college is a common experience among Indigenous students.

Twenty-seven percent of Indigenous undergraduate students are parenting, including 30 percent of Indigenous female and 23 percent of Indigenous male students (see Figure 1). Under the larger umbrella of Indigenous students, AIAN and NHPI students have different rates of parenting while in college: 31 percent of AIAN students have dependent children, compared to 18 percent of NHPI students.[2] Additionally, while AIAN and NHPI populations have shared experiences as Indigenous Peoples, they face different structural obstacles and opportunities in higher education and have distinct political histories that have shaped their access to resources and education. Because addressing the needs of these groups of parenting students may require tailored strategies, it is important to consider the data on AIAN and NHPI parenting students separately, even as we look at figures for Indigenous parenting students more generally. Data disaggregated by these Indigenous student identities and by gender are presented below.

Figure 1: More than 1 in 4 Indigenous undergraduate students are parenting

Percentage of Indigenous undergraduate students with dependent children, 2018

Figure 1: More than 1 in 4 Indigenous undergraduate students are parenting Percentage of Indigenous undergraduate students with dependent children, 2018

Source: Authors’ analysis of the 2018 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study Administrative Collection (NPSAS:18-AC) using DataLab

Note: Gender is available as a binary (i.e., male and female) only in the NPSAS: AC, which collects data from administrative records including federal financial aid applications, student records, and ACT data.

Supporting Indigenous parenting students equitably requires recognizing and centering their unique experiences, strengths, and needs.

For Indigenous parenting students, pursuing higher education can be an act of nation building that enhances their own—and their children’s—abilities to give back to their communities. Completing postsecondary education also benefits families in many ways. But Indigenous parenting students face intersecting structural barriers—in both higher education overall and in their access to parenting services—that compound in profound ways.

Barriers to college success for some Indigenous students may begin before enrollment in the form of limited access to high-quality academic preparation. Upon enrollment, they may face financial challenges, including inadequate financial aid to pay for tuition and living expenses, food insecurity, and limited access to the internet and technology, as well as long commutes, poor transportation options, and feelings of disconnection from higher education institutions. Often, Indigenous parenting students must also simultaneously navigate underfunded and understaffed child care systems and disproportionate rates of child poverty. What’s more, educational data on Indigenous college students are lacking, obscuring the realities they face in pursuing higher education and complicating efforts to improve their situations. For example, existing data may exclude many students who are parenting if these data rely on legal or tax system-defined parenting statuses; Indigenous students may consider children who are not their legal dependents to be family members to whom they are responsible for providing care and support.[3]

Higher education can help meet the needs of Indigenous student parents by supporting their families and building on their strengths.

Although structural barriers that negatively affect outcomes for Indigenous youth require solutions at the federal level, colleges and universities can help student parents navigate current systems. There are many resources and strategies that colleges and their partnersincluding policymakers and administrators, nonprofit and advocacy organizations, and otherscan use to support parenting students generally. Additionally, colleges that provide services such as culturally relevant and accessible child care, family housing options, and other family-focused services that build on community strengths and preferences can reduce the impact of some of the aforementioned barriers.

But few institutions use strategies that are tailored to Indigenous parenting students. Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) are an exception, offering examples for other institutions of higher education on supporting Indigenous parenting students with programs and services that build on their cultural assets and the protective factors those assets confer. Parenting students make up 43 percent of TCUs’ student bodies,[4] and TCUs tend to be more accessible to Indigenous parenting students, both geographically and financially. They are located in communities where many AIAN students live and can be the only geographically accessible option available for rural residents or residents living on reservation lands. TCUs also tend to cost less to students than other types of institutions and their students are more likely than Indigenous students at other schools to pay for college with grants or scholarships, rather than relying on loans or other income sources.

Additionally, TCUs promote campus cultures that center the importance of family and intergenerational connection—a critical protective factor for many Indigenous communities. TCUs have developed models of whole family engagement with inclusive campus cultures, programs, and services. Many TCUs’ institutional missions promote belonging, engagement, and success for students with children and their families. TCU campuses commonly provide family services, offer campus family housing, house co-located early learning centers, engage students’ children and families in culturally relevant educational learning experiences and programming, and offer profiles of parenting students to highlight intergenerational and institutional success. TCUs also offer child care at twice the rate of other schools. Salish Kootenai College, for example, has tailored its services in light of limited child care options on reservation and adjacent lands.

Colleges and universities can look to TCUs as leading institutions in efforts to provide accessible, affirming learning environments for Indigenous parenting students. But few TCU strategies have been incorporated more broadly in higher education. New resources and strategies developed to support Indigenous parenting students should draw on lessons from TCU efforts and elevate their profile.[5]

While TCUs are a critical educational resource for AIAN parenting students, NHPI parenting students have no parallel resource.[6] There are intentional efforts in Hawai’i to serve parenting students at institutions with high Native Hawaiian enrollment (see, for example, University of Hawai’i’s Student Parents @ Manoa (SP@M), Kapiʻolani Community College’s Student Parents Program, Leeward Community College’s Hui ‘Ohana parenting student community, and the systemwide Bridge to Hope Program). While these programs serve Native Hawaiian parenting students, they are often not directly connected to Native Hawaiian communities or leaders in ways that facilitate community self-determination and oversight, as in the TCU system.[7]


It is crucial that all colleges learn to more fully support Indigenous parenting students. Indigenous students live across the United States and attend all types of higher education institutions, but many institutions may not recognize the unique experiences and needs of parenting AIAN and NHPI students. Parents and Indigenous students are often considered distinct student subpopulations; services for parents and those geared toward Indigenous students are frequently siloed, preventing colleges from fully seeing and holistically serving parenting Indigenous students.

Foundationally, higher education leaders need more information about AIAN and NHPI parenting students to better serve the Indigenous parents in their student populations. This information should come from the parenting students themselves, from their families and communities, from the institutions that serve them, and from data collection and analysis efforts focused on their strengths and needs. Further, despite existing publicly available data sources, like NPSAS, these populations are often not highlighted in published analyses. The analysis of NPSAS data presented in this brief represents one effort to offer higher education leaders more information to better understand the size and characteristics of AIAN and NHPI parenting student populations.


Suggested citation

Ryberg, R., Anderson, T., Around Him, D., Green, A.R., & Warren, J. (2023). Meeting Indigenous parenting students’ needs promotes equity in higher ed. Child Trends.


The authors would like to thank the following people who shared their expertise on supports for NHPI parenting students in particular:

  • Teresa Bill, Bridge to Hope Univ of Hawaii (Systemwide) and Student Parents @ Manoa (UH-Manoa)
  • Angelique Soloman, Student Parents @ Manoa
  • Cathy Wehrman, Kapiʻolani Community College Student Parents Program
  • Ashley Biddle and Cory Adler, Hui Ohana, Leeward Community College

We are also grateful to the participants in the Student-Parent Families at the Center discussion of issues affecting Tribal and Indigenous parenting students, held in December 2021.


[1] Throughout this brief, we use the terms “student parent,” “parenting student,” and “student with children” interchangeably to celebrate the diversity of perspectives and identities within the population.

[2] Due to small sample size, we are unable to say whether the difference between these rates is statistically significant.

[3] This point was raised in a breakout discussion focused on Tribally affiliated and Indigenous student parents conducted at the Urban Institute as part of the Student-Parent Families at the Center project.

[4] According to authors’ analysis of the 2018 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study Administrative Collection (NPSAS:18-AC) using DataLab. This includes 30 percent of male students and 51 percent of female students.

[5] The Urban Institute recently entered into a partnership with the American Indian College Fund to engage in a knowledge exchange with TCUs to develop insights on serving students with children at rural and Tribal institutions using the Family Friendly Campus Toolkit as part of Ascendium Education’s Building Evidence to Increase Rural Learner Success initiative. This effort will produce new resources and strategies based on the insights shared by TCU staff, faculty, administrators, students, and community stakeholders.

[6] Schools that serve at least 10 percent Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander students can apply to become an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI). Once recognized, they become eligible to receive funds to support these students. This program is very different from TCUs, however, as TCUs are chartered by Tribal governments (or, sometimes, the U.S. federal government) with the specific intent of serving AIAN students, while AANAPISIs must work to adapt their services for the populations they already serve.

[7] Leaders of programs that serve large numbers of NHPI parenting students with whom we spoke recognize the importance of centering cultural consciousness, inclusion, equity, and respect for Indigenous communities and families. They also value leadership from Native Hawaiian communities and are working to bring community leaders into program design and decision-making roles that would support NHPI student parents and their families.