A college degree has long
to be a reliable path toward greater economic mobility — if students actually complete their degree. For student parents, who represent
nearly one in four
college students in the United States, the stakes are high: Nearly
of student parents have low incomes.
They know that higher education can position them for better jobs that can improve their family’s well-being. And they are right: A $3,000 increase in parental income has been shown to lead to a 17% increase in their children’s future earnings. But students with children are 10 times less likely to graduate on time than students without children.
On top of the significant time and financial demands that make it difficult for them to persist in school, 40% of student parents have said they feel isolated as a parenting student on campus. The pandemic has only magnified this isolation as instruction and services moved online. With more than half of parenting students being students of color, addressing these challenges is a prerequisite for advancing racial equity in higher education.
We all stand to gain when student parents thrive. Single mothers, the largest subset of student parents, can earn $610,324 more over their lifetimes with a bachelors degree than with a high school diploma. Just 8% of single mothers who enroll in college graduate on time. Still, they are more likely than any other group of women to have started, but not finished, a postsecondary degree, often citing childcare responsibilities as the primary reason for their withdrawal.
Student parents have strong motivations for pursuing higher education, but need more support to keep them connected to school and services, so they can complete their degree. That’s where Upswing comes in.
A Platform Designed with Post-Traditional Students at the Center
Upswing is an integrated student services platform, designed particularly for online and post-traditional students. Launched in 2013 as an online tutoring service that could support online students and complement in-person tutoring, Upswing has since expanded its services to include advising, an online writing lab, collaboration tools and mental wellness, all of which are easy to access through the company’s 24/7 conversational virtual assistant, Ana. When students have questions — whether about classes, financial aid or other parts of student life — they can ask Ana at any time of the day, whenever a need arises.
Working primarily with online institutions, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Upswing has optimized its suite of services to better serve underestimated student groups, including student parents and virtual students. Currently, more than 500,000 students and counting have access to Upswing’s platform through their school. Nearly half of its users are students of color and more than one in four are student parents.
Upswing’s CEO and Co-Founder, Melvin Hines, told CultureMap Austin that his inspiration were his own parents, who had been student parents working toward their bachelor’s degrees while Melvin was young.
“We didn’t set out to create Upswing to target Black or brown students,” he told CultureMap. “We set out to target a certain need that resonated with me growing up. It just so happens that half of the students that are now using our system happen to be minorities. So I think that’s what happens when people from different perspectives are finally able to build products that reflect their backgrounds.”
Institutes of higher education spend more than $30 billion each year on student success, yet these platforms are often difficult to discover, confusing to navigate, and disconnected from students’ everyday lives, especially the realities of post-traditional students — including student parents, students of color, adult learners and working students — who are now the majority of college students. These students are particularly concentrated in online and community colleges and Minority-Serving Institutions, which often have fewer resources than private institutions to provide one-on-one support.
Upswing's superpower is efficiently providing student engagement through Ana and connecting students to the right resource at the right time. Upswing has also proven to be a valued partner to institutions as well, serving as a nimble and responsive vendor working to meet the needs of both the institution and the student.
We didn’t set out to create Upswing to target Black or brown students. We set out to target a certain need that resonated with me growing up. It just so happens that half of the students that are now using our system happen to be minorities. So I think that’s what happens when people from different perspectives are finally able to build products that reflect their backgrounds.
Strengthening Virtual Connections between Students and Schools amid the Pandemic
Upswing’s focus and commitment to serving students who have traditionally been underserved in higher education is why Imaginable Futures is investing in its future. We feel strongly about Upswing’s commitment to students, including student parents and adult learners, that we led the company’s $5 million Series A round, along with other leading investors, including JPMorgan Chase, SustainVC, Lumina Foundation, Rethink Education, Impact America Fund, the Agave Fund, Village Capital, Bonsal Capital, and others.
Crucially, this investment from Imaginable Futures will enable Upswing to expand its reach to more students, particularly student parents. Upswing directly addresses two areas within our 6 C’s Framework for supporting student parents: convenience first and community of support. Perhaps more than any other group of students, student parents have limited time to navigate the traditional demands of school, let alone find quality information on services that can support their success. Upswing not only provides targeted information on a schedule that works for them, but it also serves as a tangible connection between students and campus so that student parents feel less isolated, especially during the pandemic.
In its first seven years, Upswing reported that it had prevented over 43,000 students from dropping out of school, earning recognition on Fortune’s Impact 20 List. This was also good news for its partner institutions, who saw a 12% increase on average in persistence after adopting the platform. As a result of the pandemic, the demand among current users has increased over 300%.
Arletha McSwain, the senior educational technologist at Upswing partner Bethune-Cookman University, an HBCU in Daytona Beach, Fla., has seen the impact firsthand, as she noticed their students today are more likely to respond to a text message than an email. "Giving our students action items they can respond to is so important during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's this aspect of Upswing we're so excited about moving forward," she said.
With its student-facing focus, Upswing was able to be highly responsive to the needs of students during the pandemic, launching a new mental health and wellness module to ensure students get the mental health supports they need, a critical support for student parents, who feel acute stress juggling the competing demands of school, caregiving and often work.
The success of student parents is a key metric for how well our educational, economic, and social systems are serving us — and by every measure, we are falling short. The pandemic did not create the cracks in our systems that student parents often fall through, but exposed and widened the challenges that keep too many from completing their degree. By centering the real needs of these students, innovative solutions like Upswing can help repair the torn connective tissue between promising students and their schools, benefiting us all.