Keys to Improving Data on Student Parents:

  • Add mechanisms for measuring parent status to new and existing data collection systems at the national, state, and institutional levels.
  • Disaggregate data by parent status, in addition to variables such as gender, race, and ethnicity, when measuring and reporting in student outcomes.

College students who are parents or caregivers of dependent children make up more than one in five U.S. undergraduates. Colleges need basic information about the experiences and outcomes of the student parents they serve, since these students face distinct challenges, including high rates of economic insecurity and significant time and caregiving demands that can affect their educational outcomes (Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute 2019).

Despite the large numbers of college students with children and their unique needs, most campuses, state data systems, and national higher education datasets do not count students with children or document their progress toward completion. Data on students’ parent status would help campuses, higher education systems, and policymakers assess needs, target supports and services, understand student outcomes, and measure what works to promote student parent enrollment, persistence, and completion. Such information can also be critical to understanding changes in enrollment and graduation rates during times of social and economic upheaval, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Collecting basic data on whether students have dependent children, and the ages of those children, can be done in a variety of ways and at varying times throughout a student’s college career. Data can be collected through admissions forms, in surveys during course registration, and as a part of standard data collection and reporting required by state and federal higher education systems. Some colleges may also wish to collect more intensive data on caregiving demands and available supports through longer surveys or qualitative research.

This briefing paper discusses why data on student parents are critical to increasing equity in college outcomes, and reviews existing and potential new data sources on undergraduate college students with children. It also provides recommendations for improving data collection efforts around parent status, including examples of how these data can be collected by institutions of higher education.