Amid College Success Push, The U.S. Overlooks The Fact That One In Four Students Are Parents

Jaime remembers the exact moment he decided to get a college degree. It was the second he learned that he was going to be a father. He and his wife had been getting by financially, but he wanted more than that for his child.

He had looked for more stable, lucrative jobs online from time to time, but they all required college degrees that he didn’t have. So he enrolled at a local university. It was his second try at college, and this time, he was confident it would be different.

Jaime’s college admission story is increasingly common, but still largely overlooked in our popular narrative. Parents in college number 4.8 million at latest count, or 26% of undergraduates, and millions more are in other postsecondary training programs. Our estimates, using demographic and enrollment trend data, put the likely number today at closer to 6 million. Like Jaime, parents have heard the message that the best jobs in today’s economy, the ones that can support a family and provide economic mobility, require at least some postsecondary training.

But when parents enter postsecondary education, they meet a system that isn’t designed with them in mind. That’s a major reason why only 33% of parent learners earn any degree or certificate within six years of enrolling, compared to 50% of students overall.

It’s not that these parent learners aren’t capable. Parent learners bring a whole host of assets, from creativity and determination to time management and problem-solving, to postsecondary education. But the institutions where they enroll are not designed to accommodate the fact that they have a child along for the journey.

Our research provides insight into how we can change that, as well as clear evidence that the time to do so is now. The relationship between education and work is shifting rapidly amid seismic technological change. Almost all—99%—of the jobs added during the recent economic recovery went to people with at least some college education. And when parents are successful in education and work, it lifts families economically, provides stability for children, and improves communities. College graduates, in particular, contribute more in taxes, are less likely to need government services, and help expand the economy through spending and increases in productivity.

We used a human-centered research process to understand the lived experiences of parent learners. That process uncovered a number of consistent pain points and opportunities for innovation, from inadequate childcare to education programs that require parents to have large, unbroken periods of time to study and attend class in-person or online.

Constrained & Shredded Time

A recent study in The Journal of Higher Education found that “time poverty, ”a lack of time to study or complete coursework, was one of the most significant factors in parent learners’ lower completion rates. And parents’ time isn’t just constrained. It’s shredded. They learn on their phones while traveling on the bus between jobs, at night once their children are asleep, or in the morning before the rest of their household wakes up. We talked to one mom who did class work while she was up in the middle of the night nursing her infant. Courses designed to better use mobile technology could help parent learners use these bits of time more effectively. Cell-Ed, a mobile-first adult education provider, is already partnering with businesses and community-based organizations to deliver micro-courses to the cell phones of adults learning English literacy, basic education, and workforce skills.

Better Data & Guidance

Another clear challenge for parents and a major opportunity for improvement is the lack of clear data and guidance about jobs, the skills required to obtain them, where to go to get those skills, and the potential payoff. Jaime decided to major in accounting simply because he saw a Yahoo news article touting it as a valuable degree. Another student, a mother of two, entered an online program in early childhood education on the recommendation of her boss, only to lose all her credits when she decided to switch majors and had to transfer. Yet another mother signed onto a short-term training program for dental assistants because of an email she received out of the blue. Parent learners like these are piecing together their education and career paths with incomplete and, at times, unreliable information. It doesn’t have to be that way.

We have the technical know-how to harness data to create better navigation and guidance around pathways that lead to family-sustaining wages. Today, when you search for how to become a software engineer in Baltimore, what comes up are ads and hard-to-compare information on a smattering of programs. That’s why Google is developing its new pathways tool, which guides users to education and training options based on the job they want. Now, just imagine if Google’s search results also included wage and outcomes data so parents could see in plain English the return on investment for any given pathway.

Creative Use of Resources

Beyond technology-enabled solutions, we need better coordination and transparency around the support services, from subsidized childcare to transportation, available to parents at the campus, local and federal level. Think a one-stop shop for parents.

Creative financing could also help parent learners by lowering the financial barriers to training and education, while also reducing the risk associated with not completing. One example of a novel form of financing is an income share agreement (ISA), where a program covers the upfront costs of tuition in exchange for the student paying back a percentage of their income for a set timeframe after graduation. At Clarkson University, for example, a student who used $40,000 in ISA funding over four years would pay back 6.2% of her income for 10 years after graduation. Another form of non-traditional financing is earn-and-learn, in which a student makes money as she learns. Some examples include cooperative education and apprenticeships. Techtonic Group, a software development firm, recently created a six-month apprenticeship for developers that pays participants to work on its clients’ projects while they are learning the field.

Faster On-Ramps

Programs like these aren’t just a better way to pay for an education. They provide faster on-ramps to careers. Although a college degree remains the gold standard for economic mobility, many parent learners simply don’t have four, or even two, years to wait. Programs that provide faster routes to career, including short-term credentials, apprenticeships, skills academies, and on-the-job training, hold great promise for parent learners. The market for these alternative credentials is exploding, and providers should be designing them with parents in mind. Creative solutions could dramatically improve the connection between education and career for parents who need to move up or into a career quickly.

Just ask Jaime, who attended college full-time while working as a dishwasher and taking care of his daughter. His grueling schedule recently paid off in a bachelor’s in accounting, a credential that will likely serve him well long-term. Nevertheless, the last time we talked, he was still looking for a job.

He doesn’t have time to waste. Neither do we in getting the education system right for parent learners.

— Allison Dulin Salisbury and Michael Horn

Allison Dulin Salisbury is the president of Entangle Studios, an education innovation studio headquartered in San Francisco. Michael Horn is a co-founder of and a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

This post originally appeared in Forbes.

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