A Question For Nicole Lynn Lewis

How Can Colleges Help Student Parents? 

By Elena Loveland    //    Volume 30,  Number 2   //    March/April 2022

Nicole Lynn Lewis is the founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope, a nonprofit organization that engages education and policy partners to drive systemic change and provides direct support to teen parents in college as well as their children through holistic, two-generation programming to ensure all student parents have the opportunities to succeed and experience economic mobility. A former teen mother who put herself through college with her infant daughter in tow, has also written Pregnant Girl, which was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2021. Nicole holds a master’s degree in social policy and communication from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of William & Mary.

What do trustees and college presidents need to know about student parents as a college population?

First, trustees and college presidents need to know that student parents exist. I think that’s one of the most difficult things about advocating for this population. Most people working in higher education don’t know that this is a significant group. One in five undergraduates across the country are parenting, and 40 percent of all Black female undergraduates are parenting. It’s nearly 5 million students nationwide, and while the largest share of student parents attend community colleges, 17 percent attend public four-year institutions, and 13 percent attend private nonprofit four-year schools. There’s a good chance that these students are sitting in classes at your institution, and they’re in need of support that could help them get to the finish line. Second, we want institutional leaders to know that this population is an asset to your campus community—not a liability. While parenting students need tailored supports (i.e., priority registration for classes, policies that consider the needs of both parent and child, etc.) and connections to campus and community resources (i.e., sufficient financial aid, affordable childcare, etc.), they are highly motivated to complete. Student parents have higher GPAs on average than their nonparenting peers, and they bring so many amazing skills and experiences to any space that they enter. Lastly, student parent work is racial justice work. Because student parents are more likely to be students of color, it’s imperative that institutions include this population in their DEI efforts. Not doing so creates a major blind spot when it comes to ensuring that the most marginalized students are making it through college and having a rewarding, impactful academic experience.

How can higher education institutions serve student parents to meet their specific needs on campus so they can achieve their postsecondary degrees?

We encourage institutions to start with the data. Most colleges and universities aren’t tracking the parenting status of their students, which means at any given time, they have no idea how many of their students are parenting, what they need, and how many are even graduating. Because there is so much intersectionality between student parents and other marginalized student groups, it’s important for schools to have this information so they have a full and complete picture of what their students are up against. For example, if you want to ensure more students who are experiencing housing insecurity are getting the support they need to stay enrolled, knowing that they’re also parenting would be key information to have to truly address their needs. We also know that data doesn’t tell the whole story. If you want the whole story, you need to ask your students.

How do you think your organization, Generation Hope, is changing the landscape of higher education?

Because this population has been invisible for so long, I think Generation Hope is helping to make them visible in a variety of ways. We’re modeling how to serve student parents authentically with our direct work with teen parents in college, and we’ve had incredible outcomes, including a graduation rate that’s higher than the national average for all college students. We’re also addressing the systemic barriers that make student parents 10 times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree within 5 years than their peers through our technical assistance program for colleges and universities called FamilyU, our federal and regional student-driven policy work, and our research and reports. And at the core of everything we do is student voice. Again, we consider them the experts, and I think that’s another important way that we’re helping to change the landscape of higher education. Students must inform everything we do if we want to see true change.

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