Young parenting students (ages 18–25) are highly motivated to pursue a college education to improve not just their own well-being, but also their children’s. However, young parenting students face many hurdles in navigating their pursuit of higher education, especially as they juggle school with their many other responsibilities—all while they themselves are still developing. And when young parenting students seek supportive services, they too often find siloed systems that are misaligned with their needs.
In this brief, we first provide context and background on parenting students. We then narrow our focus to young parenting students and explore the challenges they face in seeking higher education and services to support themselves and their families. Next, we describe one promising strategy that communities are using to support young parenting students in their journeys through higher education: navigation services. We draw on a broad scan of literature on navigation services to explain how these services can be used to support young parenting students, both in the short term by connecting students with supportive services and in the long term by helping them improve their self-advocacy skills as they navigate complex systems. We also offer examples of navigation practices, based on the experiences of three communities in the Expanding Opportunities for Young Families (EOYF) initiative. Specifically, we highlight navigation service strategies used at these three sites, and three young parents share their stories about receiving or providing these services. We close the brief by describing three opportunities for practitioners to maximize the benefits of navigation services for young student parents.
Drs. Ramos and Ryberg share first authorship. This brief features interviews with Viviana Acevedo, Deja Davis, and Yoselin Cordova—young parent leaders who graciously shared their time and stories.
Supporting parenting students is key to advancing educational equity.
Despite parenting students being highly motivated and having higher grades than their childless classmates, fewer than half of parents with an infant obtain a degree or certificate within six years.
As they navigate higher education, parenting students shoulder a unique set of responsibilities. While all students are responsible for their academic studies, parents have a host of additional responsibilities that include parenting itself, maintaining relationships (including critical co-parenting relationships), and likely employment.
Young parenting students, in particular, shoulder these responsibilities as their brains are still developing. The last part of the brain to develop in adolescence and into early adulthood is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex decision-making processes and executive functioning—exactly the tools young parenting students need to successfully balance their multiple responsibilities and navigate complex support systems at the college and community levels.
Many parenting students, and especially those who are young, struggle to meet their basic needs as they navigate college. Many parenting students experience food and housing insecurities, which are even more common for young parenting students and parents of young children. Mental health challenges are also particularly apparent among young parenting students.
To meet these challenges, many young parenting students take non-linear paths through higher education. Young parenting students are parents first and students second. Because they must balance work, child care, and school—often with few resources—young parenting students may need to adjust work and school commitments over time. This difficult balancing act can lead students with young children to take multiple detours away from higher education and to switch between full-time, part-time, and less than part-time enrollment.
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 collaborate with local community colleges and community partners to provide resources, advising, and wrap-around services (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, 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.
The appendix includes more information on the EOYF initiative, including brief summaries of each site.
For young parenting students to remain focused on higher education, they must first address their and their children’s basic needs. Wraparound supports (such as child care), intensive case management (including referrals to services), and financial assistance have been linked to improved outcomes for parenting students. Accessing those supports, however, can be a challenge. The current system of supports that serves parenting students is dispersed across siloed higher education and social service systems, with separate offices or organizations focused on each specific need. For example, a community may have one organization focused on child care, another focused on housing, and a campus-based office providing mental health supports. To access services and meet their multiple complex needs, students must first simply learn that each service exists. They must then figure out how to access each service, which is complicated by the fact that different programs have different requirements and eligibility criteria. Furthermore, some public assistance programs designed to support families with low incomes exclude students from eligibility, which requires young parenting students to find alternative means to support their families. Once they have identified services and met eligibility criteria, young parenting students may face administrative roadblocks, such as extensive paperwork requirements, limited and inflexible appointment times in physical locations that can be time-consuming and expensive to reach, and language barriers that may prevent them from accessing services.
Higher education systems and social support services place the burden on students to navigate systemic and organizational complexities, which requires time—a very limited resource for young parenting students. Some higher education institutions have been described as taking a “traditional cafeteria approach [to providing services], whereby students must navigate multiple student services offices, consult vague and confusing websites, and make sense of different—and potentially conflicting—sources of advice on their own.” This means of offering services favors students with more time and the social and cultural capital to leverage connections with faculty and peers (to better understand how to access these resources)With less time to learn to navigate these systems and an increased likelihood of feeling isolated on campus, young parenting students may not be aware of available services and may miss out on receiving critical supports.
Colleges generally do not account for students’ caregiving responsibilities in designing programs, services, or policies. For example, many colleges do not recognize child care responsibilities as an acceptable reason for tardiness or missing class. Also, children may not be allowed in libraries or other study spaces on campus, preventing parents from accessing valuable resources such as books or printers. Further, many schools do not collect data on parenting students and do not know how many parents are on their campuses. Young parenting students who do not feel included on their campus—or who even feel actively excluded from campus spaces—can then face disconnection from their schools.
Students who are Asian, Black, Indigenous, or Latino (who comprise the majority of parenting students) may face additional barriers to accessing services due to structural racism. Many services underserve Black fathers, for example. Additionally, students who are first- and second-generation immigrants, who come from low-income families, or whose first language is not English can also be excluded from supports due to language and other informational barriers; this compounds young parenting students’ burdens. These inequalities impede access to information and resources, making the process of trying to gain access less clear and more exhausting.
Moreover, young parenting students disproportionately attend community colleges, but these institutions have limited abilities to address young parenting students’ needs. Just 38 percent of community colleges offered on-campus child care as of the 2019-2020 school year. Additionally, the quality and accessibility of on-campus child care is not guaranteed. However, community colleges tend to offer more services to support parenting students (such as on-campus child care and flexible schedules) than private four-year institutions and for-profit institutions.
Navigation services help people access and navigate complex ecosystems of information, resources, and supports available to them. Navigation services can include referrals and supports (e.g., help filling out forms, transportation to appointments) to help students access resources (e.g., financial assistance, wraparound services, housing, etc.), help with goal-setting and planning, connections to peers and professional networks, and help with building the skills needed to take advantage of difficult-to-access supports. Ultimately, navigation services can empower students to advocate for themselves as they navigate complex support systems.
In the next section, we first explore how navigation services have been used broadly; we then focus on how these services have been used to support young parenting students.
This section describes three themes that emerged from a broad literature scan on navigation services about how navigation services can help young parents navigate postsecondary education. Due to limited research focused on navigation services for young parenting students, the scan included literature on navigation services in health care and child welfare settings, as well as for young parents and parenting students more generally. For each theme, we (1) describe an element of navigation services and cite literature that features it, (2) note how the element can be used to support young parenting students, and (3) share examples of the element from EOYF programming. Throughout, we include videos that feature the voices and stories of young parenting students receiving (and, in some cases, providing) navigation services in EOYF.
Navigation services help young parenting students traverse the complex and sometimes conflicting networks of support found at community colleges, across local agencies and nonprofits, and at the state and federal levels. As a first step, navigation programs can map out the organizational ecosystem available to parenting students. This mapping should include outlining the steps needed to effectively connect parenting students with resources and services. As part of the process, navigation services can support students through organizational roadblocks and work with organizations to find ways to decrease burden. As an example of this burden, many resources are not built with young parents’ schedules in mind. The transition from learning about a resource to accessing it may not be simple for young parenting students. As part of EOYF navigation services, community partners often give “warm handoffs,” in which navigators not only make referrals but also introduce the referred parent to the service provider. Warm handoffs can smooth connections between young parenting students and partner organizations.
Navigation services can simplify processes for students by centralizing navigation services and resources in one location. At the Miami EOYF site, parenting students have a single, campus-based site for a multitude of supports, including mental health counseling, tax preparation, bus passes, and benefits screening and applications. Staff at Miami Dade College SingleStop also connect parenting students to additional on-site (e.g., full-time Department of Children and Families case workers) and off-site resources (e.g., immigration lawyers). While SingleStop’s services are available to all parenting students, Miami Dade College also hosted Registration Days as part of its EOYF programming to guide younger parents through the process of accessing available resources.
Navigation services may also use centralized client management systems to connect regional organizations and institutions, helping programs make and track referrals. Collaboration across service providers is key to connecting young parenting students to the right information and resources. Tracking referrals is important to better understanding the organizational ecosystem and what approaches have been most useful to young parenting students with varying resources and needs. This understanding can aid in the development of more effective navigation services over time. The City of Santa Fe uses an online program called “CONNECT” to connect people with health, housing, transportation, and other resources via referrals for services across the city. CONNECT allows trained navigators at the EOYF-Santa Fe community partner organizations to develop relationships with other service providers in Santa Fe. EOYF navigators then use these relationships to directly refer young parenting students to specific people within these organizations and institutions. CONNECT also tracks which services EOYF students use. Similarly, EOYF Austin uses a community resource tool called “ConnectATX,” which helps families navigate available social services like housing, job training, and child care. Both providers and clients can access ConnectATX, and the program trains young parenting students to use the tool to find services for themselves. EOYF Austin also uses ConnectATX to track young parenting students’ referrals to assess where additional services or resources may be needed.
To effectively support young parenting students, navigators must understand the challenges that young parents face. Because resources and services are often not set up with young parenting students in mind, navigators can help bridge young parents’ access to different services and systems. For example, arranging child care while a parent fills out benefits applications can be critical for young parenting students and may mean the difference between graduating and dropping out. Bridging services allow young parenting students to pursue needed resources that might otherwise be challenging for young parents in college to access.
In Santa Fe, peer navigators like Yoselin—featured in Video 1 below—use flexible funds to arrange ride services, provide rental relief, or offer other linking services that allow young parenting students to take advantage of the other services and resources available to them. Without bridging services, seemingly minor barriers can prevent young parenting students from accessing the resources necessary to stay on track with their educational programs and provide consistent opportunities to their children.
Navigation systems work best when they holistically consider young parenting students—and their multiple intersecting roles as parents, students, and workers. Navigation systems should build off of students’ goals and experiences to develop processes that work best for them and their families. Parenting students may miss critical resources because they are guided only toward parent-specific resources, such as child care, and not directed toward more general support services such as housing assistance.
As part of serving young parenting students holistically, navigation services can use two-generation models to support both students and their children. Navigation services can improve outcomes for young children indirectly by easing barriers to the parents’ higher education and job market success. Navigation services can also directly support children by linking parents to family-related supports such as housing, child care, and family court support. Navigation services may also include parenting skills courses that focus on healthy child development. To maximize the usefulness of these courses, materials should be tailored to the needs of young parenting students, appropriate for their racial and ethnic backgrounds, and feature age-appropriate curricula. By supporting their children and bolstering parenting skills, navigation services also decrease parental stress levels and improve self-efficacy.
Navigation services that follow a two-generation model include a variety of services to meet the needs of young parents and their families, such as child care, family-friendly housing, and parenting programs. EOYF Miami hired a Student Parent Success Coach (SPSC) to improve navigation services for young parenting students by applying a two-generation approach to understanding their families’ needs. The SPSC works with young parenting students to define goals around family engagement and relationship building, family literacy, and child health and development, and to help the parenting students attend to their own needs. This EOYF site plans to embed SPSCs in the Miami SingleStop to further streamline the experience for young parenting students.
One-size-fits-all approaches to service and resource referrals do not work for young parenting students. Navigators can tailor support to the strengths and needs of each individual parent. EOYF Austin, for example, learned firsthand the importance of allowing young parenting students to choose the child care option that works best for their child and family. At the EOYF Austin site, parenting students were initially offered child care vouchers for a local, high-quality child care center near campus. However, students wanted the option to select child care providers near their home; local home-based providers; or family, friend, and neighbor care. Austin pivoted to instead provide young parenting students financial support to choose their own child care option. This lesson highlights the importance of engaging parenting students early and often in program planning to develop supports that are most beneficial to those students—and to develop these supports in ways that students say work for them.
Because students’ schedules fluctuate considerably across time, they may also have extended gaps in school or work as they address competing demands in their lives. Navigators should be prepared to help young parenting students navigate non-linear pathways through higher education. Navigation services may be especially crucial at transition points between phases of their education journeys, and navigators may provide emergency aid and other linking services to support students’ transitions. Parenting students re-enrolling in school may need help reconnecting with financial aid and other resources, or guidance on credits needed for completing their degree or certificate programs. Navigation services should connect parenting students with resources over the duration of their non-linear educational journeys, and should consider their competing responsibilities and roles.
Navigation services require agility to meet young parenting students’ needs across differing identities, experiences, communities, cultures, and resources. Personal and community circumstances—paired with existing inequities in higher education, benefits, and infrastructure systems—mean that navigators may need to pivot their approaches to meet differing needs. Earth Care, a community organization partnering with EOYF Santa Fe, found that young parenting students’ participation in navigation services fluctuated particularly during COVID-19. This fluctuation made it difficult for navigators to develop and maintain the connections more easily made in-person. Navigators adapted and relied on texts to send information and address student parents’ questions and concerns. They also used group advisory meetings, which continued to have strong attendance, to provide navigation services to young parents.
Deja, featured in Video 2, lives outside of Austin in an area that makes it difficult for her to access services provided by the city. Her needs shifted when she left her job to focus on school and family priorities. EOYF Austin connected Deja to resources she may have otherwise missed out on, including technology she needed to complete her coursework; she will soon be graduating with a nursing degree.
Strong navigation services are built on trust and relationships. Parenting students, especially young parenting students, often feel out of place and even ostracized on campus. Navigators can help young parenting students feel supported through sustained relationships built on trust and validation of their identities and experiences. Staff at Fathers New Mexico, a community partner organization in Santa Fe that provides navigation for EOYF students, note that “effective navigation starts with a genuine connection.”
Peer navigators share lived experiences with young parenting students. At the Santa Fe EOYF site, navigation services through Fathers New Mexico and fellow community partner organization Gerard’s House are provided by young parenting students like Yoselin, featured in the first video above. These peer navigators previously received navigation services, and have also received training and support to offer high-quality navigation services to other parenting students. The peer navigators work closely with a small group of fellow young parents to build relationships and provide comprehensive support. As young parents themselves, they can relate to many of their peers’ experiences. They also help improve the navigation experience through their expertise as young parenting students by informing partner organizations about which services, resources, and approaches were most helpful to them.
When hiring peer navigators, the partner organizations in Santa Fe centered hiring efforts on candidates they thought could make strong connections with other parenting students. They designed a recruitment process with a low barrier to entry by replacing resume and cover letter requirements with a simple form. The form featured questions focused on the students’ experiences as young parenting students, how they would use those experiences to support others, and the role that peer support had played in their own lives.
Navigators also support young parenting students by connecting them to one another. A sense of belonging and supportive networks, particularly with other parenting students, are critical to young parenting students’ success. In these peer networks, parenting students learn from and support one another—peer connections offer motivation and community accountability for young parenting students. While all navigators should help foster supportive peer networks, peer navigators have the advantage of peer support being intrinsic to their role as fellow young parenting students. Through their navigation work, peer navigators at EOYF sites often expand their own families’ connections to resources and information, as well.
Student parent ambassadors at EOYF Miami—like Viviana, featured in Video 3 below—work to support fellow parenting students and help them connect with peers. Although student ambassadors are not full navigators, they perform many similar functions. Student parent ambassadors are also critical to the continuous development of the EOYF Miami site, connecting with their peers to conduct research on parenting students’ experiences and reporting on their findings to inform program planning. Viviana notes that part of her motivation as a peer navigator comes from wanting other young parenting students to benefit from the network of support that she found so useful.
Peer navigators also help young parenting students build skills to advocate for their own needs. In the short term, navigators can connect young parenting students with resources to meet their immediate needs. In the long term, however, peer navigators help fellow parenting students directly by providing self-advocacy support. As experts in the field, peer navigators also advocate broadly for young parenting students at local and national presentations and trainings to help organizations and policymakers better serve these students. The students, in turn, develop their own networks and skills. Literature from the health field suggests that self-advocacy support and skill-building are a particular strength of peer navigator models.
Despite promising findings and young parenting students’ stories about the benefits of navigation services, there are challenges and limitations to using navigation services.
Relatively little research has examined the effectiveness of navigation services in general—and of services within community colleges in particular. It is difficult to say with certainty what practices do and do not work well for young parenting students. The little research on parenting students has a broad focus and does not consider the unique needs of young students (e.g., brain development). As with other fields, there is a need to focus on the experiences of people with minoritized racial and ethnic identities, such as the Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students served by EOYF, as well as non-native English speakers. The research methods used also reflect the newness of the study of navigation services. Studies are short-term and often describe only the supports offered to parenting students, and do not examine the benefits of those services. In the literature, navigation services are frequently mentioned only in passing and are generally not a focal point of the work—making it hard to understand their specific benefits. As the field develops and more evidence becomes available, it will be possible to discover which components of navigation services are most useful to which young parenting students, and when.
One of the greatest challenges in providing navigation services lies in the need for the service itself. Navigation services were not intended to be an independent support system. Rather, they bridge the gap between students’ needs and the burdensome support systems at the college, community, and public levels. The siloed (rather than unified) nature of higher education systems and community supports available to young parenting students makes them difficult to navigate.
Navigation services are also resource-intensive for both the navigator and the young parenting student. Navigators must learn, and relearn over time, each support system and its resources—a very time-consuming task. Navigators also spend time building relationships with community colleges and organizations, and the people within them, to understand the services offered and their eligibility criteria. It can also be very time-consuming for young parenting students to meet the demands of each system to receive services. Not only is delivering services time-consuming, it is also costly. Delivering navigation services is a full-time job for at least one trained staff person and, because navigation services are typically crisis-based, most sites require an emergency fund to support young parenting students.
COVID-19 has deeply affected nearly everyone’s professional and personal lives and resulted in major disruptions in service delivery. These disruptions impact all students and are very problematic for young parenting students balancing multiple roles. EOYF site leads have shared that young parenting students are coping with feelings of distress and/or uncertainty for themselves and their children. For example, unexpected illness—for themselves, their child, or another child in their family’s care setting—can disrupt young parenting students’ education. Young parenting students’ needs, plans, and ability to focus on their education can change quickly. These evolving demands have made it difficult for young parenting students to plan, and for EOYF navigators to stay up to date with young parenting students’ current circumstances. Navigators have needed to pivot quickly and often to allow services to continue meeting families’ needs and to support young parenting students’ non-linear higher education paths.
Based on the literature scan, early lessons learned from the EOYF program, and stories from young parenting students, we offer three opportunities to maximize the benefits of navigation services for young parenting students. These opportunities span across the service delivery process. For those who have developed programs and available resources, we offer considerations as prompts to “dig deeper.” For others just starting this work, taking advantage of these opportunities may be limited by available resources. Please keep in mind that any progress is progress.
Navigation services heavily rely on relationships, which means that the “who” of navigation services matters as much as the “what” being offered. Young parenting students are more likely to use services when they trust and connect with the navigator recommending them. When considering who should deliver navigation services for a program, program staff should ask themselves—and young parenting students— “Who might these students connect with?” By increasing the likelihood that young parenting students will connect with navigators, programs can increase the chances they use the services.
Peer navigators represent one option to improve relationships between young parenting students and navigators, and they can serve in many roles. Peer navigators can offer navigation services directly to students. Alternately, a peer navigator can complement services provided by an older navigator by serving as a liaison between young parenting students and the other navigator. Peer navigators may develop rapport more quickly with young parenting students than older navigators since they have similar lived experiences. Additionally, because peer navigators are usually more advanced in their educational paths or have already graduated, they can reflect on how their own experiences could have been improved and implement those improvements in their roles as navigators.
Given that peer navigators have their own responsibilities, it may be helpful to have flexible options for their involvement. For example, programs should consider offering multiple opportunities to provide feedback, along with options for tiered levels of involvement. If opportunities to provide feedback are planned in advance, peer navigators may be given options to inform decisions about program design, content, and/or approach. Peer navigators may also be offered three tiers of involvement that require, for example, 1–3 hours of involvement per month, 5–10 hours per month, or monthly or quarterly involvement over the year. Of course, peer navigators—as with any other support staff—should be compensated for their expertise and time. Regardless of effort level, all navigators should receive training and support. Reflective supervision or mental health check-ins can help navigators find their own balances. These supports are vital as navigation services are often crisis-based and can be overwhelming to navigators.
Taking a strengths-based approach—focusing on strengths rather than perceived weaknesses—can increase engagement in programs and services. As its name implies, a strengths-based approach values young parenting students’ capacity, skills, knowledge, and connections. Navigators can take a strengths-based approach by treating young parenting students as decision makers, rather than as passive recipients of services. In the navigator-young parenting student relationship, each brings different skills and strengths toward meeting the ultimate goal of supporting young parenting students. For example, the fact that young parents pursue higher education reflects their foundational motivation. They are, in fact, highly motivated by a desire to provide for their children. Celebrate young parenting students’ strengths and successes often to keep the big picture in mind—providing for their children.
Equitable service delivery means that young parenting students have fair and just access to the services they need to fully support themselves and their children. Because each parenting student has different strengths and needs, equitable service delivery should be individualized. Developing SMART goals can inform navigators’ and young parenting students’ efforts while navigating services. Parenting students should identify their own goals and prioritize their needs. Joint goal-setting templates can be used to guide conversations for young parenting students to identify their goals. This may be a new experience for some young parenting students, so it may be helpful to have concrete examples ready if no immediate ideas come to mind. To maximize the benefits of this goal-setting process, consider discussing and proactively addressing potential barriers.
Early in the navigation process, navigators advocate for young parenting students and help them manage systems of resources. Over time, navigators aim to help young parenting students advocate for themselves. Self-advocacy, or the ability to communicate one’s needs and make one’s own decisions, will benefit parents throughout their life and help them be a positive model for their children. Figuring out the right time to shift from advocating for to advocating with young parenting students may be complicated. This shift will likely be different for each parent and can occur in phases, keeping in mind that young parenting students’ brains are still developing. At first, self-advocacy may feel uncomfortable for young parenting students, even though it is a skill that can be developed over time. Consider regular check-ins to reflect with young parenting students about how navigation services are going, and when (and in what situations) they want to advocate for themselves. If helpful, incorporate self-advocacy as a goal in family goal-setting templates, and encourage young parenting students to take on this role more over time. Regard self-advocacy as an overarching end goal of navigation services. Even after young parenting students navigate community college systems, they will encounter other complex systems that were not designed with them in mind.
© Copyright 2023 ChildTrendsPrivacy StatementNewsletter SignupLinkedInThreadsYouTube