This article was originally published in Higher Learning Advocates.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic upturned how all of us work and learn, nearly four million student parents—

more than a fifth

of the entire U.S. undergraduate student population—faced

near-impossible demands

on their time and resources as they worked to juggle school and child care. Life before the pandemic was not working for most student parents. 

To survive through the pandemic, the higher education field was forced to adapt and innovate quickly. The massive overhaul occurred seemingly overnight—many institutions stepped up and applied creativity and critical thinking to nurture their classroom and reshape their delivery of curriculum and student support services. However,  student parents, as they were before the pandemic, are still left out of the conversation across many campuses. We can—and we must— harness the innovation sparked by this unprecedented moment in higher education to develop better solutions and policies that make it easier for student parents to succeed.

One way that philanthropy can advance innovation is through seeding and incentivizing promising ideas and evidence-based solutions. This year, Imaginable Futures and Lumina Foundation partnered to raise awareness about the challenges student parents face and to encourage new thinking about how to support their success. Along with 10 leading partner organizations, 20 expert advisors, and a judging panel that included two student parents, we created the Rise Prize,  awarding $1.55 million to 15 solutions that specifically addressed the needs of student parents, also known as Risers

Winners represented a wide range of approaches, but they all met one or more of the 6 C’s for supporting student parent success. The 6 C’s Framework include supports, services and factors that, when available,  help student parents succeed in their postsecondary  journey, including: child care, community of support, completion time, convenience first, cost, and credential connected to a career.  For instance, Everett Community College’s “Weekend College” program provides child care and courses that fit around parenting students’ schedules, while Rivet School’s  BA program, which can be completed in two to three years, allows student parents to spend less time and money completing a degree. Edquity and FutureGrad by Yenko use technology to make it easier for student parents to get the emergency and financial aid they need to pay for school, while Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona supports single mothers in securing credentials for in-demand jobs that pay family-sustaining wages after their education is complete. Prison University Project, American Indian College Fund’s “Ina wa wounspe pi” (Mothers who are learning), and Morehouse College’s Fathers to the Finish Line provide support among specific student parent communities.

We can apply the same 6 C’s framework to achieving needed innovation in public policy too. 

With the 6 C’s as our guide, we can increase access to financial aid through Pell Grants, which would especially help student parents, who are more likely to have lower incomes than non-parenting students. We can also expand the Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPIS), which has been a critical lifeline for student parents who need access to affordable child care in order to complete their degrees.  Even with recent budget increases, the program still meets just 1% of  child care need for student parents. Student parents, who must support themselves as well as their children, also need more emergency aid beyond what was allocated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security  Act (more commonly known as the CARES Act) to continue their education amid the pandemic. And as we recover from the pandemic’s economic, social and health toll, we must also consider new policies that help student parents secure credentials for in-demand jobs that will help us rebuild for the future.

Student parents are more likely to be single mothers, students of color, or the first in their families to attend college. These Risers sit at the intersection of the big issues—child care, college access and success, racial justice and economic mobility—that we must address if we want our future to be more equitable than the past. For too long, this meant that student parents fell through the cracks in our systems. By centering student parents, higher education can draw on its history of ingenuity and innovation to finally realize a more equitable future—not just for student parents, but for their children, and everyone.