Head Start-College Partnerships as a Strategy for Promoting Family Economic Success: A Study of Benefits, Challenges, and Promising Programs
Introduction and Summary
Improving family economic security in the United States requires new strategies to support parents while they develop skills and attain education to prepare them for well-paid jobs. Postsecondary education brings a range of benefits to graduates and their families, including enhanced economic stability and mobility, improved health and well-being, and better educational outcomes among their children (Attewell and Lavin 2007; Carnevale, Rose, and Cheah 2011; Gault, Milli, and Reichlin Cruse 2018; Hout 2012; Magnuson 2007; Sabol et al. 2019; Sommer et al. 2019; Zhan and Pandey 2004). Connecting parents living in poverty with the opportunity to earn higher credentials can help them achieve economic security, and their chances of success substantially improve when they have access to services that help them balance caregiving, financial, and work responsibilities while in school.
The federal Head Start program pairs high-quality early childhood education for children with support for parents. The Head Start Program Performance Standards include a directive for programs to help parents set and make progress toward self-sufficiency goals, including goals related to education and career pathways, in an effort to improve families’ economic security (45 CFR § 1302.50). The directive includes guidance on the use of partnerships with community-based organizations, which can include postsecondary institutions, to support families and parents’ goal achievement (45 CFR § 1302.53).
Research suggests that access to affordable, high-quality child care can increase parents’ ability to complete educational programs, and that without it, their chances of persistence and completion are much lower (Hess et al. 2014; Johnson and Rochkind 2009; Reichlin Cruse et al. 2018). Additional evidence demonstrates how supports like coaching and referrals to services—integral components of the Head Start program—can promote college persistence among students with low incomes (Evans et al. 2017; Scrivener et al. 2015). Greater collaboration between Head Start and college campuses stands out as a potential strategy to increase the postsecondary success of parents who need enhanced support. A substantial share of parents and their children could benefit from more partnerships between Head Start and colleges: nearly half (46 percent) of college students who are parents of children under 6 meet the income-eligibility requirements for Head Start, as do more than half of single student parents with children under 6 (65 percent; IWPR 2019a).
Some Head Start programs and colleges already collaborate, through training and research partnerships, cross-referrals, and colocation. Head Start programs often share information with parents about opportunities to enter job training or higher education and may also help them enroll or apply for financial aid. Some child care centers on college campuses offer Head Start services to families, though not all of these centers serve parents from the college’s student body.
More intentional collaboration between Head Start and institutions of higher education has the potential to bring myriad benefits. College students with children who are eligible for Head Start could benefit from access to high-quality early education for their children that also allows them to pursue postsecondary credentials. Serving families with a parent enrolled in college would help Head Start support families’ ability to establish lasting economic security. Providing Head Start services would also allow on-campus child care centers—which are declining across the United States—to benefit from the additional financial resources and technical assistance that come with Head Start participation (Gault, Reichlin Cruse, and Schumacher 2019). Colleges would benefit through higher persistence and graduation rates among parents, an improved ability to recruit prospective students with children, and strengthened capacity to train the early childhood workforce.
This report highlights findings from a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) to understand the prevalence and nature of existing Head Start partnerships, explore the feasibility of expanding these partnerships to serve more eligible student parents and their children, and analyze the benefits and challenges associated with such arrangements. To address these questions, IWPR conducted a national scan of Head Start-college partnerships, 41 expert and program leader interviews, and 6 site visits to programs (lists of interviews and site visits can be found in the appendices). The report discusses the conditions and resources needed to establish Head Start-college partnerships, characteristics that help make them succeed, the challenges they face, and their benefits to families, Head Start programs, and higher education institutions. It concludes with recommendations for colleges, communities, and policymakers interested in promoting family success through Head Start-college partnerships.
IWPR’s research identified 82 partnerships between Head Start and higher education institutions in the United States. Of these, 62 serve student parents, with 24 prioritizing student parents for enrollment. Nine programs explicitly do not serve students from the partner institution (IWPR was unable to confirm either way for 11 programs; see Appendix E for a list of Head Start-college partnerships serving student parents).
IWPR’s research finds that there are at least 82 partnerships between Head Start and higher education institutions. Of these, 62 serve student parents, with 24 prioritizing student parents for services.
Partnerships serving students with children fit into four broad categories: 1) on-campus Head Start services with additional child care present, 2) stand-alone on-campus Head Start services, 3) off-campus Head Start programs that serve student parents attending a partner college/university, and 4) off-campus Head Start programs that have an educational or workforce pathway for parents operated in collaboration with a college.
When the right circumstances and champions are in place, Head Start-college partnerships can provide high-quality early childhood education for children of low-income students pursuing postsecondary credentials, along with other supports that student parents often need to graduate. IWPR’s research also finds that these partnerships can provide workforce training opportunities, serve as additional sources of support for campus-based child care, and strengthen college and community engagement.
Some communities assume that college students, by nature of their postsecondary attainment goals, would not count as a high-need population, so they could not be prioritized in a Head Start grant application.
Data on economic status and access to basic needs among community college students, however, show that a large share of student parents, and especially single mothers, need Head Start supports as much as other parents with low incomes.
Some of the challenges experienced by partnerships mirror those experienced by Head Start and child care programs more broadly, such as funding and bureaucratic struggles, and difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified teachers at existing pay rates, while other challenges are unique to Head Start college partnerships. Unique challenges include coordinating standards, curricula, and administrative practices across Head Start and child care programs on campuses where both exist, and establishing college students as a high-need, priority population in Head Start applications. Some communities assume that college students, by nature of their postsecondary attainment goals, would not count as a high-need population, so could not be prioritized in a Head Start grant application. Data on economic status and access to basic needs among community college students, however, show that a large share of student parents, and especially single mothers, need Head Start supports as much as other parents with low incomes.
While adequacy and availability of funding, complex bureaucracies, and regulatory and reporting requirements pose challenges, IWPR’s interviews and site visits suggest a number of strategies and conditions that can make Head Start-college partnerships work well. Strong partner relationships with effective communication channels, committed leadership among both Head Start administrators and college leaders, and a strong community-based early childhood infrastructure can help support sustainable partnerships that bring numerous benefits to families and communities. In addition, such partnerships can help both colleges and Head Start programs attain important system goals, including helping families served by Head Start attain long-term economic self-sufficiency and helping colleges improve retention and graduation rates among students with children.
Read more in the full report.
 For previous analyses exploring the potential for Head Start and community colleges to partner to increase parents’ educational attainment in conjunction with early childhood services, see Sommer et al. 2016 and Sommer et al. 2018.
 In this report, “Head Start” refers to any type of Head Start grant program, and “Head Start-college partnership” refers to any kind of collaboration between college campuses and Head Start, Early Head Start, and Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships (EHS-CCP) grants.