Student Parent Voices Are Critical To Colleges’ Civic Engagement Plans

Connection. Belonging. A sense of community. These are critical to students feeling like they are a part of their college community. Yet, far too many parenting college students feel alone on their campuses. Generation Hope’s national student parent survey found that 40% of student parents felt isolated at their institutions. 

We know that nationally one in five college students is parenting, but the data is harder to come by at the institutional level because most schools do not track the parenting status of their students. This means they do not know how many student parents are on their campus, and the needs and unique experiences of these students are likely to be overlooked. As a respondent to Generation Hope’s survey said: “I feel like there is no one like me walking around campus.”

The invisibility and isolation many student parents feel in higher ed can lead to disenfranchisement, even when it comes to colleges’ important voting and civic engagement initiatives. These institution-wide efforts not only have the potential to be incredibly impactful but they can also bring people together and create a sense of community. However, if student parents are left out, to begin with, they can miss these opportunities and the resources that they provide.

At Generation Hope, a nonprofit I founded in 2010, we work with teen parents who are attending colleges in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Every day, we see their resilience, determination, talents, and skills. In supporting them at 20 different two and four-year colleges across the region, we also see the missed opportunities within higher ed to engage with and learn from this highly motivated group of students.

Student parents should be included in campus voting and civic engagement efforts for so many reasons. In addition to having higher GPAs on average than their non-parenting peers, parenting students bring unique backgrounds and experiences that can enrich an institution in ways that benefit all students. They are balancing school, work, and parenthood, giving them a unique perspective that many of their classmates do not have, especially when it comes to voting and civic engagement. Student parents also often struggle to meet their basic needs. For example, in a 2019 survey of 23,000 parenting students, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 53% of parenting students were food insecure in the prior 30 days, and 68% were housing insecure in the previous year. A global pandemic and widespread economic uncertainty have only exacerbated these challenges. They are navigating some of life’s most difficult challenges — all while going to school.

In short, we need their voices in higher education and the voting booth.

And if that was not convincing enough, supporting student parents is essential for colleges that say they want to commit to racial and gender equity. For example, 29% of Black, female-identifying students at two-year colleges, and 11% of those at