Students with Children: Access, Attainment, and Achievement

In a continued trend since the Recession in 2008, a growing number of academics, and economists in particular, have questioned whether or not the investment in higher education is worth the investment of time and money from both individuals and the federal government[1]. There is a wealth of scholarship on the rising costs of college and increased student debt[2]. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016 reports that the median weekly earnings between those who have a Bachelor’s Degree are $459 higher than those who only possess a high school diploma. As such, an increasing number of students with children are pursuing Bachelor’s degrees with the hopes of securing a solid economic foundation for themselves and for their families[3]. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR, 2017), 4.8 million undergraduate college students are raising dependent children, which is a 30% increase from 2004[4]. These students are often thought of as exclusively community college students, but there are 1.1 million undergraduate student parents attending four-year degree granting institutions. While there is much debate about the emotional and financial toll of pursuing higher education, degree attainment is an undisputed tool of economic mobility – providing degree-holders with increased access to labor market opportunities and cultural capital[5].

Many colleges are responding to the rise of students with children by providing targeted institutional support, but current federal and state-level social policy does not align with college and university efforts.  One resource student parents find critical to their academic success is the use of social services. Social services most frequently accessed by student parents include: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or welfare, and Medicaid (low or no cost health insurance) for themselves and their children[6]. However, contrary to popular belief, enrollment and maintenance of social services programs is very difficult and requires a substantial amount of time for case management to avoid sanctions. TANF, in particular, is a program designed to put “work first” and discourages participants from pursuing higher education as a means of exiting the welfare program. Instead, the program funnels them into low-wage and unstable employment[7]. Signed into law in 1996 by former President Bill Clinton, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), PRWORA was designed to add time-limits to welfare, strengthen sanctions against recipients, and promote work above all else, including education[8].

One of the major ways in which PRWORA aims to promote work-first is to require recipients of cash assistance to participate in a Welfare-2-Work activity. Participation in a Welfare-2-Work (W2W) Program is a mandatory condition for receiving cash aid. W2W activities are intended to promote hireability among cash aid recipients and promote one and two-year degree programs as the only acceptable educational pathway for participants.  W2W activities are intended to ensure that cash benefit recipients are not receiving cash assistance without trying to gain employment, participate in job training activities sponsored by county welfare offices, or working in work that does not pay enough to disqualify them from receiving cash assistance. As such, four-year institutions are not eligible activities under W2W since they do not promote immediate employment, barring students from transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions for fear of losing their benefits and exacerbating their families’ economic conditions.

There is an increasing national focus in the student affairs community on basic needs security for various student populations including former foster youth, veteran students, undocumented students, and students with children[9]. Often, these students are the first people in their families to pursue higher education to improve their life chances in their pursuit of the American Dream. It is time for social policy to catch up and provide both students and institutions with the tools necessary to meet the needs of a truly diverse student body. With an increasingly specialized labor force, a Bachelor’s degree is still one of the best predictors of financial stability for individuals and their families[10].


[1] Vedder, R. (2004). Going broke by degree why college costs too much. Washington, D. C.: AEI Press.

[2] Goldrick-Rab, S., Anderson, D. M., & Kinsley, P. (2017). Paying the price: college costs, financial aid, and the betrayal of the American dream. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.



[5] Behrman, J. R., & Stacey, N. (Eds.). (1997). The social benefits of education. Retrieved from


[7] Seefeldt, K. S. (2008). Working after welfare: How women balance jobs and family in the

wake of welfare reform. Kalamazoo, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute.


[8] Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Pub L No. 104-193 (1996)

[9] Goldrick-Rab, S., Anderson, D. M., & Kinsley, P. (2017). Paying the price: college costs, financial aid, and the betrayal of the American dream. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[10] Attewell, P. A., & Lavin, D. E. (2009). Passing the torch: does higher education for the disadvantaged pay off across the generations? New York: Russell Sage Foundation.