Sarah was a teacher’s aide and wanted to take her passion for children to the next level and become a certified teacher. Alejandro needed financial stability, and saw a career in accounting as a path to achieve his goals. Julia knew that she could do more with her life than the retail jobs of her past.
These three individuals had two things in common: 1) They wanted to improve their career prospects and knew they needed more education and training to make it happen, and 2) They were all parents of young children. They are part of a large and growing group of nearly 5 million postsecondary students who have a dependent child.
According to Parent Learners: Insights for Innovation, a new report released today by Entangled Solutions: “[Parent learners] represent more than a quarter of all undergraduate students in the United States, and millions more in other postsecondary programs. They’re motivated. They’re tenacious. They have big dreams. And yet, they’re largely unseen.”
Parent learners represent more than a quarter of all undergraduate students in the United States. They’re motivated. They’re tenacious. And yet, they’re largely unseen.
Omidyar Network partnered with Entangled Solutions to bring more visibility to this population and to inspire innovative solutions that deliver the education, training, and credentials that many parents want and need. Omidyar Network invests in the education of two generations, both parents and young children, because we believe in the potential for meaningful multi-generational benefits and economic mobility for families.
To better understand what parents desire from postsecondary education, Entangled Solutions wisely started by asking them. They sought to understand their motivations around education, their hopes and dreams, and how they thought a higher education degree could benefit them.
Not surprisingly, parent learners dream of better lives for themselves and for their children. A better life often involves financial security, but it also includes pursuing meaningful work and exceeding the expectations that others place on them — reaching the expectations that they have placed on themselves. Said Alejandro when asked what motivated him to pursue further education: “My daughter. I really want to give her a great life, a life I didn’t have.”
For parent learners, a better life often involves financial security, but it also includes pursuing meaningful work and exceeding the expectations that others place on them.
Narratives around parent learners today often focus on the challenges parents face to complete postsecondary education. Parent learners incur more costs, notably childcare costs, typically have to work while attending school, and borrow more debt. On average, they take longer to graduate because they tend to enroll in fewer classes at a time or move in and out of formal education due to parenting and work demands. All of this results in the bleak statistic that parents are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than students who do not have children.
But bleak statistics do not tell the whole story. They miss the many strengths that parent learners bring to their educational pursuits. They approach postsecondary education with relentless determination — they are masters of time management, skilled at prioritization and wise at using resources because it’s not an option for them not to be.
What if we thought more about the strengths of parent learners and used that lens to create new opportunities?
Within the report, Entangled Solutions looked at parent learners’ strengths in the context of their learning journey:
They’ve highlighted eight key areas of opportunities for innovation, including improving data, navigation, and guidance at various parts in the learning journey by asking how it could look if parents had more clarity on pathways to achieving their goals. And what if, once they started their educational journey, both parent learners and their institutions had a menu of resources and strategies they could leverage to increase postsecondary persistence and completion?
One of parent learners’ greatest pain points is affordable, flexible, high-quality childcare. What if parent learners were able to choose easily from many high-quality, affordable childcare options in their communities that meet their unique needs?
And what if we thought differently about where and how learning happened, how we financed it, and how it’s measured? What if learning met parents where they are in their lifestyle rather than parents having to fit life into an inflexible institution? And what if we could recognize all of the skills and assets they are building in their everyday lives as parents, workers, and learners, and package them in a way that gives them credit for all of the work they already do every single day?
What if we thought differently about where and how learning happened, how we financed it, and how it’s measured?
These are only a glimpse of the opportunities for innovation that Entangled has surfaced, many of which also benefit the broader population of adult learners and even all postsecondary learners.
If as a society we choose to invest in parent learners’ success, we have the opportunity to positively impact entire families. Research shows that a $3,000 increase in family income during the first six years of a child’s life yields a 17 percent increase in their earnings as an adult. College graduates also contribute more in taxes, are less likely to need government services, and help expand the economy through spending and increases in productivity.
Omidyar Network is committed to supporting the postsecondary successes of parent learners and those who can help enable those successes. As we look to the future of work and the future of learning, we see parents at the center. We envision a society where the stories of Sarah pursuing her bachelor’s degree to teach, Alejandro studying accounting and perhaps even becoming a Certified Public Accountant, and Julia finding a more promising career path, all while raising children, become the commonplace narrative.
We are grateful for all of the incredible work, thoughtfulness, creativity, and care of the Entangled Solutions team, and hope that this new report will only be the start of the conversation.