Student in graduation regalia with child
Story Student Success

Counted: Data Collection on Student Parents

Alex Beall

To comply with a recent California bill, the CSU is now collecting data on student parents—which will help the university better serve this group.

Student in graduation regalia with child

Photo courtesy of Cal State ​East Bay, ​Kelley L Cox/KLC fotos


​Even though they represent more than one in five college students in the U.S., student parents have historically not received the targeted focus they require and deserve along their educational journey. Champions across the CSU have been working tirelessly to ensure student parents have the support and resources they need to persist to graduation.

“This is a huge swath of people who are not being served as well as they could be, who are being treated like every other student when they have, in a lot of ways, more barriers," says Julia Rose, director of basic needs at CSU Channel Islands. “But they also have more wisdom and more life experience than some of their peers, and that is not being engaged because the population has been invisible. … I think about this work as inclusion work. The first step is remembering that this is a population on your campus that you need to consider when you're planning things and when you're building things, whether it be a program or a physical facility."

As part of the CSU Pregnant and Parenting Student Network—a committee sponsored by the Michelson 20MM Foundation that includes campus representatives from Fresno, San Luis Obispo and Sacramento, among others—this group of champions recently threw their support behind California Assembly Bill No. 2881 (AB 2881). Passed in 2022, AB 2881 seeks to improve access to classes and information about basic needs resources for student parents, smoothing their path to graduation. One provision required that the CSU and California Community Colleges, and requested that​ the University of California, offer priority registration to student parents.

To provide them with priority registration, universities need to identify their enrolled student parents—making the formal collection of data on this student group a beneficial byproduct of the bill. Such data will help universities understand the unique characteristics or challenges of their student parents, such as their personal demographics or first-generation or Pell-eligible status.

“Student parents are a visible population in terms of the sheer numbers, but they're also invisible because we don't intentionally collect that data on them," says Larissa Mercado-López, chair of Fresno State's Department of Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies. “AB 2881 allows us to take advantage of that data to better understand the experiences, the challenges of our students and help them to feel a stronger sense of inclusion."

“This is an opportunity to make visible this population that's been so historically invisible—but that has tremendous skills and assets that we could be uplifting—and be purposeful in how we support and include and recognize them," she continues. “Through their experiences, they enrich our classrooms. They have such deep connections to their education because they're sacrificing time spent with their children to be in our classroom—so there's so much intentionality that they bring."

By the bill's deadline of July 1, 2023, the CSU was able to implement a mechanism in the online student registration system that allowed students to self-certify their student parent status and receive priority registration for future semesters.

“AB 2881 has presented a wonderful opportunity for the CSU system to collaborate between our Registrar's Offices and our Basic Needs and Housing constituency groups in order to find and ultimately better support our pregnant and parenting student population," says Liz Reed, CSU assistant director of Enrollment Management Technology. “We are in full compliance across the system with AB 2881 and are pleased to share that 2.1% of our total student population self-reported that they have at least one dependent under the age of 18 during the fall 2023 semester and received a priority registration date."

The Data Advantage

Before AB 2881 passed, some of these CSU champions had been informally identifying their university's student parents to collect related data by individually marking students in the online system. For example, Haley Myers Dillon, director of Strategic Partnerships, the Parents & Families Program and the Women's Resource Center at Sacramento State, has been able to gather extensive data on Sacramento State's 9,430 student parents​, who make up about 30% of the student body.

Her data collection has revealed that student parents are overrepresented in terms of historically marginalized groups, such as women, students of color, Pell-eligible status, first-generation status and student loan debt. It's also shown that 98% of Sacramento State student parents are transfer students.

“The CSU is an institution that is helping reduce intergenerational poverty," Myers Dillon says, adding that investing in student parents is investing in two generations. “They are the future of the state, and the CSU is providing an education that can be more of an economic equalizer. These student parents are the people the CSU is working for."

By instituting a systemwide process for collecting data on student parents, the CSU will have even more extensive data to better equip itself for meeting these students' needs.

“When we focus on student parents, we're also focusing on first-gen students, students of color," Mercado-López says. “Student parents are at the intersections of many inequity categories, and so when we specifically target them, we're also lifting up progress in all of these other graduation equity areas. There's real potential for moving our progress forward rapidly with some investment."

With such data in hand, student parents can be automatically added as a group to the CSU's early alert systems, like the CSU does with other groups, such as Guardian Scholars and Pell Grant recipients. A March 2021 report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that more than half of student parents stop out of college before earning a degree. The early alert system can help CSUs ensure these students are receiving sufficient support and outreach early on if they begin to move toward stopping out.

Similarly, CSUs can use the data to target student parents with reenrollment campaigns, a key equity priority for Graduation Initiative 2025. “It's important to know how many of those students who​ stopped out are parenting students because the support that those students would need to return to campus is different than their peers," Rose says. “If you know who those students are, you can know how well they're doing, how many you are keeping from year to year, how many are graduating, and how to increase those numbers and make sure that we have an educated workforce."

CSUs will also be able to implement targeted group communications about student parent events, on-campus resources and other services that will help connect the students with each other and their campus.

Lastly, the data will be able to demonstrate how large this student group is, which would help drive the development of additional programs, services and efforts to ensure their needs are met—such as adding a university staff member dedicated to student parents and adjusting classroom and academic policies for their benefit.

“I'm hoping that it will shape, from a faculty perspective, how we think about our own classroom policies: Who is in our classroom, who we are 'invisiblizing,' who we are creating more challenges for through our absence policies or our late work policies," says Mercado-López, who has created a student parent competency training module for faculty that includes such policies. “Through the data, it will create more visibility of this group so that we can be more attentive to them in our syllabus."

Myers Dillon says one such improvement could be offering upper division courses as hybrid courses with online components and during evening hours and summer session to meet student parents scheduling needs.

“There need to be multiple modalities, methods and times that students can access the material," she says. “Our student parents are hungry to make an economic investment in themselves and their future for their children and their family. They just can't always make it work because, especially in single-income earner households, they don't have time."

A Model of Best Practice

Through the Urban Institute Data-to-Action Campaign for Parenting Students—which focuses on data collection on parenting status as a way to support student parents—CSU Channel Islands and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are receiving additional support to meet AB 2881 requirements. Along with a collection of U.S. universities and colleges, the two CSUs were awarded $60,000 grants through the campaign's College Community of Practice, and will benefit from the Urban Institute's expertise and guidance.

“The Urban Institute project's aim as a whole is to be on the ground floor of helping universities across the country identify and better support parenting students," Rose says. “It is about being able to build resource guides and create best practices around how to identify and count parenting students with an eye towards improving services and policies for those students."

To participate in the project, the two universities created multidisciplinary teams, with representatives from student affairs, institutional research, the Title IX office, the student body and more. Together, they are building practices for how best to collect and evaluate data to improve and expand resources and programs for student parents. Their processes would then serve as a model for the rest of the CSU.

“This grant has allowed two campuses to create a proof of concept: Here are some lessons we learned, here are some pitfalls that people should look out for and here's how we've done it," says Tina Cheuk, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo assistant professor of education. “We're trying to make the best decisions along the way and bring in as many people as possible, so that we get the best outcomes for our students with dependents. … I'm hopeful that Cal State will be one of the first public systems to gather student data on student parents in a systematic way."

​Serving Student Parents

​Though the new influx of data will help improve services for student parents, CSUs already have a range of support available for them. Many campuses offer on-campus childcare, and CSU students may qualify for subsidized care at the on-campus children’s center or at off-campus facilities. Some campuses also offer student parent support groups in-person and online, like the Dolphins with Dependents parenting student support group at CSUCI or the Stude​​nt Parent Peer Ambassadors program​, Dads’ Collaborative and Zoom-based support group at Sacramento State.

Through the Basic Needs Initiative, campuses may also provide child-related items through their food pantry or clothing closet. For example, Fresno State houses the nation’s first university-based diaper bank, hosts a children’s clothing closet and stocks groceries like formula in its Amendola Family Student Cupboard​. Other campus resources may include grant options and spaces on campus like a mother’s room or family study room.

Students should check with their respective campus for specific services and resources offered.​

Find a campus's parenting stude​nts webpage.​