Student parents are good students — they tend to have higher GPAs than students without children. But lack of policies and practices that cater to student parents make it harder for them to achieve their education goals. Being a student parent is associated with unmet financial need, student debt, and low levels of college completion. Student parents often have trouble finding affordable and accessible child care. They run into hurdles when asking their schools for accommodations to breastfeed on campus. And if a student is pregnant or planning to adopt, schools don’t have standard parental leave policies to allow new parents to bond with their child before returning to classes. These barriers make it harder for student parents to graduate.
And there are a lot of student parents: One in five (22%, or 4.3 million) undergraduate students have children. Recent analysis shows that women make up 70% of those student parents. And 61% of those women are single parents, who have to balance parenthood and work responsibilities on top of typical academic demands. More than half (56%) of student parents have young children under the age of five.
This year, Congress has the opportunity to help student parents achieve in higher education. The Higher Education Act (HEA)—the massive set of laws that govern how the federal government regulates, oversees, and funds institutions of higher education—is up for reauthorization. This is a big deal: Congress hasn’t updated the HEA in over a decade, and current law doesn’t do enough to support underrepresented college students. There’s a lot at stake. Improvements in higher education policy are crucial for low-income students, students of color, undocumented students, incarcerated students, students with disabilities, and people at the intersections of these identities and others. The HEA also has the potential to alleviate the barriers student parents face in school.
In October 2019, the House Education and Labor Committee approved the College Affordability Act (CAA), a bill to reauthorize the HEA. The CAA does take some steps to bolster protections for expectant and parenting students. It increases funding for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program (CCAMPIS), helping some schools operate on-campus childcare for students. It requires schools to provide information about resources and accommodations available to expectant and parenting students. It also requires schools to remind expectant and parenting students that they have rights under Title IX.
While these are important steps forward, the bill is still missing some crucial supports to help expectant and parenting students thrive in school.
Standard Leave Policies
In the workplace context, Congress has recognized that parental leave is important for new parents by guaranteeing up to twelve weeks of leave for many employees. Some states have gone even further to fully support working parents by providing paid family leave to their employees.
Student parents deserve the same opportunity to spend time with their newborns, strengthen family bonds, and practice being a parent. But no federal law currently guarantees a set time for parental leave in college. While some schools may have parental leave policies or allow leave in individual circumstances, the lack of federal policy results in inconsistency for student parents depending on what school they attend. Any authorization of the HEA could fix these unequal protections by guaranteeing at least twelve weeks of leave to students for the birth, adoption, and care of a child, and specifying that students are entitled to reasonable accommodations and time to make up any missed work while they are on leave.
The CAA doesn’t require schools to provide accommodations to support students who are breastfeeding, despite repeated studies showing the benefits of breastfeeding for parents and their children. Lactation accommodations are required for most employers under federal law, and any reauthorization of HEA should make institutions of higher education provide them too. All schools should provide a reasonable number of clean, private places for students to breastfeed or express breast milk and guarantee excused break times from class to do so.
As the House considers HEA reauthorization, we continue to encourage members to introduce amendments guaranteeing lactation accommodations and parental leave options for student parents. Doing so will benefit new parents and their children and send the important message that parenting an infant is wholly compatible with success in higher education.