Blog Post | May 31, 2023

Fighting to Support the Next Generation of Student Parents

Author: Sarah Sattelmeyer, New America

This Blog Was Originally Posted by New America on May 31, 2023.

A conversation with Carrie Welton, Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy: Anti-Poverty and Basic Needs at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS)

New America: Could you tell us more about yourself, your work, and your postsecondary education journey? What brought you to the student parent field?

Carrie Welton: Growing up in a low-income household, I had hoped to go to college but I had no idea how to get there. The dream only got further away when I ended up on my own at a young age. Like many people with low incomes, I thought going into the military was my only chance to get to college, so I enrolled in the National Guard. I passed all the tests and was headed off to boot camp when I found out I was pregnant at 16.

It was the summer before my senior year of high school, but because of the instability I had been experiencing, I was at risk of not graduating. Before I got pregnant, the only option that was presented to me was foster care or a residential placement program for “at-risk” youth that was two hours away from my current community. After getting pregnant, I was able to get an apartment in my community and continue at my high school, but I had to overcome a huge deficit to graduate on time.

I worked, took two summer school classes, attended high school full time, and had to take two correspondence classes (my generation’s version of online classes), but I made it to my high school graduation with my one-month-old son in attendance. I spent the next several years working in a series of lower-wage jobs as a single parent with no help from my son’s father or my parents, scraping by and barely making ends meet. I knew that if I was going to get myself and my son out of poverty, I had to figure out how to do it myself. I knew I needed to get a college degree.

New America: What resources, supports, or programs were helpful in supporting you as a student parent? What resources, supports, or programs did you wish were available to you?

Carrie Welton: After spending a couple of years working and sporadically taking community college courses, but not getting ahead, I knew I needed to ramp up my efforts. I was about 20 at this point, and my son was just starting kindergarten full time. This presented an opportunity because my child care expenses went down significantly. I found a way to attend school full-time by cobbling together part-time work; public benefits that included the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, which also provided me with a child care subsidy; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps); Medicaid; subsidized housing; and student loans. I dove into my classes at my local community college and was thriving.

After a year, my welfare caseworker called me into her office and told me I could no longer attend college due to the federal restriction in the TANF program that limits postsecondary education to 12 months. I was devastated. I had to go back to taking classes part-time and working full-time, and it took me 12 years to get my bachelor’s degree. But I had a mission: That day in my caseworker’s office, I decided to make a career out of changing these unjust policies.

New America: What resources, programs, or research does this space need to advance policy for student parents and pregnant students?

Carrie Welton: I work to reform public benefit programs because our inadequate, cobbled-together, confusing patchwork of programs is designed more to ensure people don’t accidentally get a resource than to ensure the resources reach those whose lives they are meant to change. For parenting students specifically, housing and child care are the resources we should secure and strengthen first. Access to these supports would solve the majority of the day-to-day barriers and worries for parents.

Many public programs require all recipients to participate in activities such as work, training, or even volunteering, unless they meet an exemption. In many cases, educational activities are lumped together under “education and training,” which includes vocational education, GED completion, and adult literacy along with postsecondary programs. It would be beneficial to have these data disaggregated so we can assess public benefit receipt and postsecondary attendance. If we could overlay this with higher education data it would improve our ability to identify policies or state efforts that may improve postsecondary access and completion.

New America: Are there any student parent issues that need more attention in the policy space?

Carrie Welton: No one chooses to become a parent because that is the easy path or because our country provides such generous support. The reasons people choose to have a child before completing a college credential or establishing a secure career are complex and different for everyone, but the data show that single-parent births and adolescent pregnancies are positively correlated with poverty and income inequality.

To help make sense of this choice, it is helpful to consider the opportunity cost theory. In microeconomics, opportunity cost can roughly be summarized as when you choose one option, what is the loss in the potential benefit of the other options. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis offers a series of questions to help people think through the opportunity cost of a decision that can apply to financial choices. Those questions are:

  • How much do I value this?
  • What am I giving up now to have this?
  • What am I giving up in the future to have this now?

While the decision to have a child before completing college may not be this linear, this theory and these questions are applicable. Kathy Edin’s 2014 book, Promises I Can Keep, underscores the harm of judging the choices people make through a middle-class perspective and suggests that childbearing decisions are often relative to available opportunities. For me, getting pregnant at a young age, despite how difficult the road was going to be, felt like a gain, not a loss. I wasn’t giving up on some bright, college-bound trajectory, and despite having enrolled in the National Guard, I was terrified to go. As a young person who didn’t see other options, I gained a family and purpose when I had my son. If policymakers truly understood this, I think we would have more space to discuss why affordable housing, equitable K-12 funding, and debt-free college are vital to people and our nation.

New America: What do you want to have accomplished and what do you want the field to look like in five years?

Carrie Welton: I want federal and state investments to support evidence-based approaches that ensure people can participate in activities that improve their economic security and mobility. Research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) showed that single moms who earn degrees have lower poverty rates, have higher earnings, contribute more to taxes, and use public benefits less. A college degree is one of our country’s most effective anti-poverty strategies, yet public programs actively restrict education.

What if I told you that there is a medical treatment that is 70 percent more effective than another? What if I also told you that federal and state governments actively invest billions of your tax dollars every year on the less effective treatment? We know that people with a bachelor’s degree make almost 70 percent more on a weekly basis and experience lower unemployment than people with only a high school diploma ($1432 versus $853 in earnings and a 2.2 percent versus 4 percent unemployment rate). Associate degrees also yield better economic outcomes than high school diplomas with $1,005 in weekly earnings and an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent. Given this evidence, it is mind-boggling that public programs don’t promote postsecondary education as their highest priority.

In 2021, almost 13 million children under the age of 18 lived in poverty. These future adults will likely have very little financial support from their families to attend college, yet they are growing up in a country that tells them college is a worthwhile pursuit and will be seeking jobs from employers who increasingly demand college credentials. Instead of providing a pathway toward financial stability, current policies actively restrict public benefit recipients from accessing higher education. In some instances, volunteering for free counts to meet a participation requirement but enrollment in a college class does not. We can change policies now to ensure students and student parents are not penalized for being born into households with low incomes by ensuring they have access to supports and affordable higher education.

Approximately one in five college students is a student parent. A majority identify as women or students of color, particularly Black and Latina students. Although student parents often perform better academically than their non-parenting peers, they are less likely to graduate from college. A lack of access to resources like child care and transportation—in addition to food and housing insecurity and engaging with college campuses, benefits systems, and policies that are not designed with them in mind—are barriers to postsecondary success.

This blog is part of a series where New America spoke with more than 100 stakeholders in the student parent advocacy, direct service, policy, and research spaces—including student parents themselves—to learn more about their work, what is needed in the field, and student parents’ journeys to and through higher education. In the Student Parent Spotlight blog series, we highlight conversations with some of the experts who are closing gaps in the field by conducting research, developing strategies for policy reform, engaging in advocacy, and supporting and serving student parents.