New study is the first to identify the number, types, and benefits of Head Start partnerships with colleges

Contact: Jennifer Clark,, 202-785-5100

Washington, DC—As many colleges and universities look for ways to improve graduation rates among their growing adult student populations, a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) provides an in-depth exploration of one promising solution: partnerships between local Head Start programs and nearby colleges and universities to provide greater access to free, high-quality care for children of parenting students.

More than one in five U.S. undergraduates is raising a child while in school. Previous IWPR research shows that access to affordable and reliable child care can increase parents’ ability to complete their degree, but access to on-campus child care is declining.

Head Start, the largest early childhood education program in the country, represents a strong potential support for parents living in poverty while pursuing higher education. IWPR analysis finds that nearly two in three single student parents with children under six (65 percent) meet income eligibility requirements for Head Start. The program does not have work requirements for families to be eligible to participate, and Head Start program standards include a specific directive to help parents set and make progress toward self-sufficiency goals, including through education and training.

IWPR’s study, released during Head Start Awareness Month, 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. Programs are located across the country in 32 states, with highest concentrations in Washington, Oregon, and California. While such partnerships make up a fraction of the 1,700 Head Start programs around the country, their presence indicates that thriving partnerships are possible in some communities and could be replicated in other areas.

“Student parents strive for better lives for themselves and their children, often in the face of poverty and material hardship—and Head Start was designed to provide the kind of whole-family supports that can help parents graduate and succeed over the long term,” said IWPR Executive Vice President and study co-author Barbara Gault, Ph.D.

The study finds that collaboration between Head Start and colleges can bring many benefits:

  • Student parents who are eligible for Head Start benefit from access to high-quality early education for their children that also allows them to pursue postsecondary credentials.
  • Serving student parents can help Head Start support families’ ability to establish lasting economic security.
  • Providing Head Start services also allows on-campus child care centers—which are declining across the United States—to benefit from the resources and technical assistance that come with Head Start participation.
  • Colleges 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.

The report recommends that communities with strong Head Start programs consider partnerships with colleges to provide targeted services to eligible students and their children, and that state and federal policymakers take steps to encourage such partnerships.

“Addressing student parents’ child care needs is an increasing concern for policy leaders and college administrators. This study shows that more partnerships between Head Start programs and colleges would be a win-win-win-win for student families, Head Start programs, on-campus child care centers, and colleges,” said IWPR Study Director and study co-author Lindsey Reichlin Cruse.

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.