Student parent success is a gender equity issue

Community colleges act as drivers for equity and expand access to opportunity for all learners, including women. Historically, access to higher education in the U.S. was largely withheld from women until the 19th century But since 2000, more women aged 18–24 have enrolled in college every year than men in the same age bracket.

But while legal protections and changing social values have led to significant gains in gender equality in higher education, too many college policies and practices are leaving women behind. The data reveals stark equity gaps among women when disaggregated by age, and importantly, by whether they are parents.

One in four community college students are parents, and seven in 10 parents raising children while in college are women, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).

When student mothers earn college degrees, they and their children have greater access to opportunities and economic mobility.

Student mothers often straddle multiple demographic populations important to community colleges — women of color, particularly Black women, are more likely than white women to be raising children in college, and the majority of single mothers in college (89 percent) are low-income with limited family support to cover college expenses. With the high costs of childcare and the added demands on student mothers’ time, many student mothers face barriers to success in community college not experienced by their peers who do not have children.

While student parents as a whole achieve higher GPAs than their peers, just 8 percent of single mothers who enroll in college graduate earn an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with 49 percent of women who are not parents and 28 percent of all student parents.

When student mothers earn college degrees, they and their children have greater access to opportunities and economic mobility. Achieving the Dream is committed to addressing the barriers that face parents in community college, working with institutions in the ATD Network to create robust programs and welcoming environments that ensure all student parents, particularly single mothers, have the resources and support they need to attain a degree.

In 2019, ATD created the Community College Women Succeed (CCWS) Initiative in partnership with the Biden Foundation. CCWS seeks to amplify the voices of student mothers in community college and to work with educational and nonprofit partners to identify gaps in support, develop solutions, and create resources to advance educational equity for student parents.

ATD also joined the National College Transition Network (NCTN) College Success for Single Mothers Project, a three-year initiative to identify the needs of single mother students on campus and to develop a plan to expand key practices and services to enhance their college and career success. Seven of the eight community colleges participating in the project are ATD Network institutions.

Community College Women Succeed Advisory Group expands on ATD’s existing work 

Last year, to further the CCWS initiative, ATD chartered a Community College Women Succeed Advisory Group, which will expand on ATD’s existing work to promote access and equity for women and student parents in community colleges. The Advisory Group comprises 18 leaders in higher education advocacy work who are collaborating with ATD to increase racial and economic equity for community college students and their families.

The gaps in attainment facing student mothers are a gender equity issue, with lasting impacts on these students and their families. Women continue to earn less than their male peers — 82 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2018, and the disparity is even greater in middle-skill, male-dominated occupations. Developing strong policies and cultures of care that allow student parents to reach their fullest potential is an important step toward closing these persistent equity gaps and creating a future with greater opportunity for all Americans.


For those interested in learning more about the programs, policies, and practices supporting student mothers in community college, we encourage you to explore the following resources:

Watch our #CCWomenSucceed testimonial videos, where student mothers from across the country share their experiences, from the challenges they have faced to the support and sense of belonging they have found at community college.

Learn about the two-generation (2gen) approach from Ascend at the Aspen Institute. 2gen approaches build family well-being and economic mobility by intentionally and simultaneously working with children and the adults in their lives together.

Explore research and policy analysis from IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative, which aims to lift up the voices of students with children and increase equity in higher education for student parents and other underserved student populations.

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