“Free College” Programs Should Include Adult Students with Children

Press Release

Contact: Jennifer Clark | 202-785-5100 | clark@iwpr.org

Washington, DC—A new briefing paper released today by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) finds that eligibility requirements for many college promise (or “free college”) programs need to change to include student parents, a demographic that is central to improving college access and equity.

One in five college students in the United States are raising children while in school. College students with children—who are disproportionately women and students of color—often take breaks between high school and college, have high child care and other non-tuition expenses, work significant hours, and attend part-time. Student parents take longer to finish school and have more student loan debt than their non-parenting peers, but also earn higher grades.

College is one of the most reliable routes to economic security for parents and their children, and student parents stand to gain disproportionately from earning a degree. The paper recommends that college promise programs can modify their requirements to allow participation among working students with children by:

  • removing requirements that limit participation to recent high school graduates, first-time college students, or students enrolled full-time;
  • ensuring access for underrepresented students with the highest financial need;
  • providing support to students who take longer to complete degrees or who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions;
  • helping students cover non-tuition costs like transportation; and
  • providing supportive services such as child care.

Over half of student parents have children who are child-care or preschool-aged. With the cost of child care exceeding the cost of in-state tuition in most states, the paper argues that expanding access to adult and part-time students and allowing aid to help students cover the costs of child care, housing, food, transportation, and other basic needs will be critical to making college affordable for current and prospective students who are parents.

Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, IWPR Study Director and co-author of the paper, commented on the findings:

“Free college’ has been a staple in many policy platforms championed by 2020 presidential candidates. These proposals should recognize that student parents are central to achieving the country’s college equity and access goals that promise programs are designed to achieve.”

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that conducts and communicates research to inspire public dialogue, shape policy, and improve the lives and opportunities of women of diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and experiences. IWPR also works in collaboration with the Program on Gender Analysis in Economics at American University.

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