The first high school graduate in her family, Cynthia Benitez Hernandez stopped out of courses at Austin Community College (ACC) when she got pregnant. “It wasn’t a possibility,” she says. Then at 34, she found herself living in a single bedroom with her son and realized that working full-time at low-wage jobs would never be enough to improve their lives.
“I had a car payment, rent to pay, food to put on the table, and a son. I was going to be in a cycle and not be able to break out of it,” she says. “I wanted to do something meaningful and purposeful.”
Nearly one in five undergraduate college students is also a parent, according to data from the Aspen Institute. Like Benitez Hernandez, most are women and students of color. At community colleges, more than half (55 percent) of community college students are women. Of them, one-third are mothers, and 60 percent of those mothers are single, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Today, Benitez Hernandez is enrolled full time in ACC’s nursing program, with her sights on becoming an RN. Doing so would not have been possible without resources provided by the college—support for childcare and other financial needs, as well as coaching and connections to community resources coordinated through ACC’s Student Advocacy Center, which provides a wide range of services to student parents and other economically marginalized students at each of its 11 campuses and 25 learning centers.
Across higher education and policy circles, there’s growing recognition of the challenges student parents face, which when left unaddressed can prevent millions of students from reaching their potential. Last fall, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution declaring September National Student Parent Month.
ATD has focused on this population as part of our mission to advance community colleges as profoundly accessible hubs of learning, credentialing, and economic mobility that eliminate inequities in educational and workforce outcomes. In 2019, ATD launched the Community College Women Succeed initiative with the Biden Foundation to help identify and promote effective strategies to help adult women students, particularly student mothers, succeed in community college.
Now, ACC is one of five colleges selected to participate in a project focused on supporting colleges as they look at their structures, policies, and processes that impact student parents. This work, which is part of ATD’s Holistic Student Supports efforts, begins with Student Parent Opportunity Assessments. Led by ATD coaches and supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the assessments support participating colleges as they collect data, gather input from key stakeholders, learn about best practices on other campuses, and identify next steps that meet the needs of their own institutions and the students they serve. ACC is joined by Pierce College in Washington, North Arkansas College, Florida State College at Jacksonville, and Iļisaġvik College in Alaska in this work.
ACC’s experience, which will be featured in an upcoming case study, highlights the potential and the challenges of serving student parents. The college’s decades of work to better serve student parents have been successful due to its institutional commitment, as well as its use of a case management model, highly visible points of contact on every campus, and connections to local resources and social service agencies. ACC is continuing to explore new options to serve student parents, including a $500 monthly stipend to help reduce their reliance on multiple jobs while enrolled full time. At the same time, the college continues to face challenges identifying eligible student parents for services, and lessons learned from ACC and the other colleges participating in Student Parent Opportunity Assessments will help inform the field on ways to reach and better serve this important population.
In the end, the benefits of addressing the needs of student parents will go beyond current students, helping break the multigenerational cycle of poverty. As Benitez Hernandez says, “We’re setting a path for our kids and their future.”