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Parenting as a College Outcome

Amidst the flurry of a vital and long-overdue national conversation surrounding college completion, affordability and debt, and post-graduate employment, it is easy to conceive of the outcomes and value of higher education as mostly economic. Do students learn skills and earn credentials that lead to fruitful labor force participation and economic self-sufficiency? However, as change and innovation sweep across higher education, it is important to keep in mind the broader range of valuable outcomes and goals we hold and ensure they are not only kept from eroding, but fostered and adequately studied.

One important and vastly understudied area is the impact of college on students as parents. Discussions abound about the “non-traditional” present-day college student, who is older and holds multiple social roles, and yet somehow their current and upcoming parenting role is mostly left out of those conversations. Although over a quarter of college students (and counting) are parents, and many more students will become parents not long after leaving college, data on students who are parents and the parenting or family outcomes of postsecondary education are greatly lacking.

Raising and rearing children is perhaps one of the largest social contributions the average adult makes in their lifetime. Adults’ college experiences influence their parenting and children’s subsequent developmental outcomes, including their social adjustment and their own educational achievement—and consequently the human and social capital of the next generation. Research finds that more highly educated parents engage in more positive parenting practices that benefit their children, and that some children benefit developmentally when their parents increase their education levels. Very little is known, however, about the influence of students’ college experiences more generally on their parenting.

When confronted with the finding that one in five community college students is experiencing hunger, an important, but unasked, follow-up question should be: How many young children’s healthy development is suffering as a result? At the other extreme, are there skills that students learn through coursework or navigating the complex postsecondary landscape, that translate into beneficial parenting? Students might learn about the benefits of early childhood learning in an elective psychology course and, as a result, enroll their child in preschool or engage them in educational activities at home. Or perhaps students learn firsthand the value of acquiring strong study skills before entering college and help their children develop them. I can envision a myriad of ways in which present-day college students’ experiences can both hinder and promote their children’s future outcomes.

Last week, a post on the Gates Foundation website highlighted how an incomplete and disconnected postsecondary data infrastructure in the US precludes us from adequately answering questions about postsecondary “outcomes and value.” While it offers the typical (and important) emphasis on completion, affordability, and employment, the post acknowledges outcomes such as increased civic engagement and better health among graduates, and poses the important question of what students contribute to society. I would like to add the following to the list of important questions to be answered: How can we ensure that we identify, preserve, and foster skills that contribute to socially valuable non-economic outcomes in students, and that we consider the repercussions of existing challenges in higher education and proposed solutions on such outcomes?

To fully recognize the challenges that our postsecondary students face—and the potential benefits of higher education to this and future generations—these types of questions should accompany broader discussions of data needs, innovation, and policy change surrounding higher education today.

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