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Can Behavioral Science Help College Students With Children Graduate?

Posted by Cassie Taylor

Without a doubt, college degrees remain key to economic mobility and well-being in the U.S. Getting a college degree opens up new career possibilities and helps people earn more income over their lifetimes. Yet far too many aspiring graduates never obtain the degrees they are seeking, which leaves them without the benefit of the degree but often holding student debt. Making it to graduation day is challenging for many students, but it is especially difficult—and especially important—for students who care for dependent children.

And more college students than you think have children. While not typically seen as the “traditional” college student, student parents make up nearly a quarter of all current undergraduates. But despite high motivation and generally strong academic performance, only 17% of student parents enrolled in four-year programs will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 60% of their peers without children.

On top of the challenges that all students face, student parents also have to manage the demands of parenthood in an environment that isn’t always supportive. For example, student parents tend to have lower financial resources than their peers, even before considering the added expense of caring for children, and yet colleges rarely provide sufficient access to on-campus childcare. Lack of affordable childcare is just one of many barriers that make it difficult for student parents to complete college degrees.

When student parents pursue college degrees but do not graduate, the ramifications impact both them and their children, persisting across generations. Because of this, identifying and reducing barriers to graduation for parents would create lasting impacts on economic mobility for millions of people. We partnered with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), which—along with its member institutions—has a long history of supporting adult learners, to learn more about how colleges can best meet the holistic needs of student parents and their children. In particular, we explored how behavioral barriers might exacerbate structural challenges facing student parents.

To assist these students, some institutions are introducing 2Gen (“two generational”) programming, which focuses on supporting the needs of both student parents and their children. There is limited research on the direct impact of these efforts on academic outcomes; there is even less research on behavioral barriers and solutions. That said, we learned that there are concrete opportunities for a behavioral perspective to contribute to and expand upon existing efforts to support student parents. Here are a few of the insights we uncovered in our research:

Time scarcity affects priorities. Compared to their peers, students with young children have nearly 90 extra hours of tasks every week. Having limited time exacerbates the human tendency to be present biased, or to prioritize short term “wins” over longer-term goals. Because of time scarcity and present bias, student parents may, for example, choose to get a certificate or a two-year degree, even though four-year degrees have more meaningful benefits over the long term.

Perceived norms heighten isolation. Even though nearly a quarter of all undergraduate students have children, many student parents don’t realize how common their situation is. Subtle contextual features of higher education—like bathrooms that don’t have changing tables—can unintentionally make parents feel unwelcome, making it harder for them to be resilient in the face of challenges. When colleges offer family friendly campus environments and work to build peer communities, the impact can be powerful.

Juggling roles creates extra hassles. On top of balancing the competing demands of raising children and managing academics, student parents often have many other responsibilities: as employees, as members of extended families, and more. It can be difficult to regularly switch back and forth between roles, and this burden may present a cognitive bandwidth tax that leaves less energy available for academics.

A more detailed summary of our research findings, as well as suggestions on how a behavioral perspective could contribute to addressing structural barriers to graduating, can be found in our new white paper available here. Having identified potential opportunities for behavioral science to support student parents, we hope to work more closely with partners in higher education to better understand the unique needs of student parents and ultimately design solutions that turn our insights into impact and help more parents make it to graduation day.

Uncovering new behavioral insights (and solutions) and exploring the application of behavioral science in developing effective 2Gen programming is one of many steps to level the playing field for today’s college students, regardless of their background or obligations, as well as their children, the students of tomorrow. It’s a critical step in improving the economic chances for millions of people in the United States.