Universal Mentors Association

New certification identifies supportive colleges for parenting students


Generation Hope, an organization focused on supporting parenting students, is launching a new certification to identify and reward colleges, universities and nonprofits actively supporting students with children.

The three-year certification, called the FamilyU Seal, is open to two-year and four-year nonprofit higher ed institutions and organizations that demonstrate a dedication to serving student parents. Applications are due in July, and one standout college or university and one nonprofit organization will also earn cash awards, of $25,000 and $15,000 respectively, with winners to be announced in September.

Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, said her organization is frequently asked whether there’s a directory of colleges successfully supporting students with children. The question sometimes comes from parenting students considering where to apply and enroll, college leaders looking to learn from other institutions’ best practices, and philanthropic organizations and local policy makers interested in funding efforts to support these students.

“What we really hope is that institutions will be easily identifiable by potential students,” she said. “I think every college and university across the country right now is looking at enrollment and looking at ways to recruit more students. And this is a population that has really been off the radar for many higher ed institutions in terms of intentionally recruiting them, intentionally supporting them.”

She also wants to celebrate and reward creative efforts already underway to support these students, she said.

Parents make up more than a fifth of U.S. undergraduates, about 3.8 million students, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, a program focused on social mobility. These students are disproportionately students of color and experience financial insecurity. Median debt among student parents enrolled in 2015–16 was more than two and a half times higher than that of their nonparenting peers, the report found. Students with caregiving responsibilities are also more likely to consider stopping out of college than their peers, according to a 2020 survey from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation.

To earn a FamilyU Seal, colleges and universities will be judged on four criteria: their institutional data on parenting students, their level of parent-friendly policies, how well prepared faculty and staff members are to support these students, and the overall “culture” for parents, including whether campuses have family-friendly areas in their libraries or on-campus childcare centers. The review committee for applications will include parenting students, who served as fellows for the 2021 FamilyU Cohort program, which helps a group of colleges devise and implement plans to better serve students with children.

“You have the experts around the table,” Lewis said.

The effort echoes other certifications in higher ed created to reward colleges and universities based on the supports they provide for certain student groups and their academic outcomes. For example, Excelencia in Education, an organization focused on Latino student success, annually gives out the Seal of Excelencia to institutions that demonstrate academic progress for Latino students through their data and programming. There have also been designations and lists over the years that identify colleges and universities that best serve veterans and active-duty service members.

Carrie Welton, senior director of policy and advocacy on antipoverty and basic needs at the Institute for College Access and Success, said the new seal could signal to parents that they belong on campuses because it’s such a public “recognition of their experience.”

Speaking from firsthand experience, as a former parenting student herself, Welton emphasized that parent-friendly messaging from colleges makes a difference to these learners.

“It was an identity I didn’t readily share,” she said. “It felt like an othering experience. And to be on a campus with institutions that call it out and make efforts, I think, would feel very much more welcoming and also help parenting students feel more comfortable self-identifying and even finding each other.”

David Croom, associate director for postsecondary success for parents at Ascend, said an “element of prestige,” such as an official seal, can also motivate institutions to do better. He noted that many student-parent advocacy groups have considered starting certifications like this one but have been stymied by a lack of institutional data on parenting students.

“Many institutions are not necessarily collecting robust student-parent data, which is something that we believe systematically but unintentionally excludes student parents from important resources,” he said. “If colleges are not collecting those data, then they don’t know what student parents need and they’re not seeing how student parents are being not served effectively at those institutions.”

He believes the certification program could push college leaders to ask themselves if they collect the right data to show student parents are enrolling, persisting and graduating.

“I think it’ll actually lead to really compelling conversations in this space about what should be tracked, what’s the key information we need to know about this population in order to prioritize it,” he said.

He added that both state policy makers and campus leaders are showing heightened interest in serving parenting students since the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the challenges parents face balancing childcare with their work and academic responsibilities.

Croom noted that there has also been an increased focus in higher ed on students of color, adult learners and first-generation students over the last few years. “Student parents are an amalgam of all of those populations,” he said. So, serving them is “so well in tuned with many of its other priorities,” including closing equity gaps.

Lewis said it’s going to be important to “really look at the totality of the application” and assess institutions “holistically” because of the lack of adequate data on parenting students on most campuses.

“We know that there are institutions that don’t have formalized collecting methods for tracking the parenting status of their students, but they might have made incredible strides in making sure all of their faculty and staff are trained in how to support this population,” she said. The certification process can acknowledge those institutions, as well, while encouraging them “to be reflective” about what metrics they’re missing.

Institutions that serve students with children well help not just those individuals but also create a path for generations of learners after them to get an education and pursue careers, Welton said.

“The ability of parenting students to access and persist and complete a postsecondary credential is so critical,” she said. “We know that occupations requiring more education are now predicted to grow even faster than average. And ensuring that we’re removing barriers for parenting students, and reducing the amount of time it takes for parenting students to complete a credential, is critical not only for themselves but for their children and their broader health and well-being and really for the economy.”


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