Colleges need more data to help student parents, study finds

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Colleges and universities looking to support parents pursuing degrees need to collect more data at an institutional level, the nonprofit Generation Hope declared in a report published Tuesday.

Many institutions lack data on educational outcomes, like degree completion rates, for students who are also parents or caregivers, people working in higher education told the advocacy organization in a series of regional focus groups. About 1 in 5 college students are parents and are at much higher risk of dropping out, according to federal data.

The Education Department requires colleges and universities to give students the opportunity to report some demographic information, including race and ethnicity, but there is no requirement to collect information on whether students care for children.

“The need for institutional data is clear: We know that what does not get measured does not get prioritized,” the report reads. “We also know that it is difficult to understand the experiences or needs of any group of students if you do not have a sense of who they are or their educational outcomes.”

More than 72 student parents and higher education workers, including success coaches and financial aid officers, participated in the Generation Hope focus groups. Along with collecting more data, the higher education practitioners also said institutions needed to establish campus-wide policies for supporting student parents and to make more money and staffing available. Student parents pointed to insufficient information on campus resources, an unwelcoming campus culture and lack of childcare as top challenges.

Collecting information on an institutional level can be difficult, according to the report, because some colleges and universities are wary of violating federal student privacy laws. Federal data on student parents is gathered through surveys, as well as financial aid applications. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found few state education systems or institutions that collected student parent data.

The report cites legislation in Oregon passed in May allowing students to include if they are parents or acting as parents on demographic information forms as an example of balancing data collection with student privacy. That bill states that colleges may update existing forms to include that question and must submit data to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

“Research and recent state legislation have introduced new methods of data collection and approaches to tracking student parent achievement that do not challenge FERPA restrictions, but allow institutions to better understand student parent needs and create more equitable college outcomes,” the report reads. “Colleges have a responsibility to identify the student parent population as they do other populations of students.”

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