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It’s been one year since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions — a devastating setback for racial equity in higher education. Meanwhile, state and local efforts to block diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have been spreading throughout the country at all levels of education. In the face of this dangerous backlash, colleges and universities should focus on recruiting and retaining student parents. This approach is legally compliant, politically popular, and essential for safeguarding and advancing educational opportunities for people of color.

About a third of students of color are also parents, so supporting student-parents is integral to any effort to recruit and retain students from underrepresented communities. According to an IWPR analysis of 2016 student aid data, 40% of Black women, 36% of American Indian/Alaska Native women, 35% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander women, and 26% of Latinas in undergraduate programs were mothers. Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. undergraduates are student-parents, including millions of students of color. And millions more may be interested in pursuing a degree, but see no accessible pathway to do so.

As the Supreme Court’s decision makes it more challenging for students of color to achieve their educational goals, colleges and universities should redouble their support for pregnant and parenting students. By incorporating student-parents into their institutional post-affirmative action recruitment and retention strategies, colleges and universities can mitigate the impact of the new legal paradigm on student diversity, while cultivating the success of two generations.

Supporting Student-Parents Is Legal — and Popular

Supporting this often-overlooked group of talented students, the majority of whom are historically excluded people of color, can be done without violating the law or provoking anti-equity crusaders. Pregnant students have extensive protections under existing law, but discrimination against student parents is not typically addressed outside of a few circumstances. This lack of legal protection poses challenges, but, ironically, it also means that educational institutions have considerable freedom to prioritize support for these students, provided they do not discriminate based on other protected classes, like race or sex. Colleges and universities can consider parental status in enrollment decisions and other efforts without facing the “strict scrutiny” applied to race-based decisions under law.

In this political climate, many administrators hesitate to take proactive steps to diversify their student bodies. But support for student parents’ educational attainment is recognized across the political spectrum. For example, Texas banned DEI initiatives and limited access to reproductive healthcare while simultaneously passing transformative pieces of legislation to protect student-parents. Legislation requiring student-parent data collection has been adopted with strong bipartisan support in other states as well. Even in Congress, some of the very same legislators who oppose diversity and reproductive justice efforts also sponsor legislation supporting pregnant students.

How Institutions Can Recruit Student-Parents

The first step for institutions ready to support student-parents is recruitment, which offers many opportunities. A simple start is for colleges and universities to feature student-parents on their webpages and in their marketing materials to send the message that they are welcome and belong. What’s more, student-parents’ lived experiences should be a positive consideration in admissions decision-making. Often, student-parents are labeled as “nontraditional” or derided for having responsibilities beyond school. Staff should be trained to recognize the many assets that parenting students bring to the institution. Studies show that student-parents have higher GPAs on average than their childless peers, despite juggling caregiving, work, and study obligations.

Recruiting student-parents also requires ensuring they can afford to enroll, an issue requiring urgent governmental action. Institutions can start to do their part by including financial aid information that’s relevant to student-parents in acceptance packets and adjusting the cost of attendance for student-parents, who typically need more aid than other students to meet their food, housing, and child-care expenses. Proposed legislation in California, known as the GAINS for Student Parents Act (AB2458), would do just that, if enacted. According to 2020 data by the Hope Center, 53% of student-parents were food insecure and 68% were housing insecure (with nearly 1 in 5 student-parents experiencing homelessness in the past year). Many support services exist, but they need to be more widely publicized, so that students know that help is available to meet their needs while enrolled. New laws in California and Texas mandate sharing information about basic needs support because it helps keep student-parents in school. But institutions in other states need not wait for new laws to act; providing basic needs resource navigation for student-parents is already a growing best practice at many institutions in Oregon, New York, and places in between.

A longer-term student-parent recruitment strategy should include forging stronger partnerships with community colleges to create accessible transfer pathways. Public two-year institutions enroll the most student-parents, but a lack of coordination between these colleges and four-year institutions can lead students to fall through the cracks.

How Institutions Can Retain and Support Student-Parents

Removing barriers to ensure that student-parents can complete their degrees requires systemic changes like governmental investment in child care and debt reform; however, institutions can make a number of impactful low-cost changes on their own. The starting point is straightforward: follow the law. Title IX prohibits discrimination against students based on pregnancy and requires institutions to provide accommodations and leave to pregnant and postpartum students. While other student-parents may not be legally entitled to accommodations, minor adjustments to academic policies can be transformative. For example, offering excused absences for caregiving can prevent the harm caused by strict attendance policies that and automatically fail or otherwise penalize students for missing class, even when caring for their children during emergencies.

Connecting parenting students with resources to meet their basic needs is crucial for retention. The lack affordable child care is a major barrier for student-parents. At minimum, institutions should apply for funding to provide child care and refer students to community resources. Colleges should also fund on-campus or near-campus child care, including backup and after-hours care, prioritizing students most in need.

Registration changes, such as priority registration for student-parents — which was recently enacted in California — helps them plan around caregiving schedules and can be a vital support for student parents. Colleges and universities can also provide family-responsive scheduling and course formats (including online courses) that accommodate student parents’ needs. This would prevent the common issue where student-parents can’t take the courses they need to graduate because the course times conflict with their caregiving responsibilities.

Finally, identifying and removing barriers for student-parents requires data. Institutions must know how many student-parents they have in order to serve them effectively. As momentum for student-parent data collection builds nationwide, institutions should set definitions, plan for data collection, and share available information.

Conclusion

Supporting the academic success of people of color in the current climate may seem daunting, but it is essential for protecting the futures of this generation of students, their children, and our communities. In this make-or-break moment for students of color, focusing on supporting parenting students is an effective way to overcome backlash and promote diversity in higher education.

Jessica Lee is co-director of the University of California College of the Law San Francisco’s Center for WorkLife Law and leads the Center’s Pregnant Scholar Initiative. The Pregnant Scholar is a nationwide legal resource center dedicated to advancing the rights of pregnant and parenting students in postsecondary education.