What Do Parenting Adult Learners Consider When (Re)Enrolling in College?

In partnership with Lumina Foundation, AIR is conducting a study to better understand adult learners’ educational journeys and what institutions can change to better support these adults in pursuing their degree—especially adult learners who identify as Black or African American, Latino or Latina, or Indigenous. This blog focuses specifically on adult learners who are parents. Read the full report and other studies.

AIR conducted a deeper analysis of parenting adult learners that informed this blog. Learn more and read the research brief.

About one in three undergraduates in the United States are adult learners at least 25 years old, and nearly half of these students have at least one dependent child. For these learners, pursuing postsecondary education is complicated. Parenting adult learners have to consider family expenses, such as child care, in addition to college expenses, and must make tough decisions about how to dedicate their time across school, work, and family responsibilities. Still, substantial research shows that these learners are highly motivated and resilient, and they feel that earning a credential will improve the economic outlook for their families.

Our study explores the fact that better supporting adult learners means making significant changes to the learner experience at postsecondary institutions—institutions that were not designed for them and do not always consider their realities in policies, programs, and practices. In this blog, we focus specifically on findings that are particularly meaningful for parenting adult learners.

Overall, we find that parenting adult learners have many experiences that are similar to those of adult learners who are not parents. This is not surprising, because all adult learners have responsibilities and priorities that prevent them from orienting their lives and time solely toward college courses and activities. In particular, we found that:

  • Parenting adult learners have motivations much like those of other adult learners, centered on accomplishing personal goals and securing financial stability. Some parenting learners also cite the importance of being a role model for their families as motivators for enrolling. 
  • Parenting adult learners consider some of the same factors when making their decision about when or where to attend—with flexible scheduling and course delivery options being particularly important, along with affordability. 
  • Parenting adult learners reported taking advantage of supports (e.g., academic advising, career counseling) less often than other adult learners although they described similar needs for such supports. 

Institutions that are specifically focused on or interested in recruiting more parenting adult learners should keep in mind that: 

  • Sometimes, solutions that may work for adult learners overall may not work for parenting adult learners without tailoring to their interests or constraints. For example, one parenting adult learner explained that their institution offered evening and weekend courses, which would have been helpful—but the on-campus child care was only open during business hours, which made it difficult to take advantage of the evening and weekend courses. 
  • Parenting adult learners with at least one child who was 3 years old or younger found on-campus child care to be especially helpful. When institutions cannot offer cost-free child care, they should calculate financial aid with the understanding that the additional child care costs are part of the cost of attendance for parenting adult learners. Currently, the burden is on parenting students who must ask for an allowance for dependent care costs in their financial aid calculations.
  • Although parenting adult learners need and would benefit from specific, tailored supports, they reported challenges with taking advantage of these supports. To address these challenges, institutions could create a specific liaison or staff role that connects parenting adult learners with supports and makes resources about the application process readily available so that these learners do not have to spend their limited time navigating these processes. 
  • Finally, institutions can and should collect and examine data on parenting adult learners—who they are and what their outcomes are. Adding parent/guardian status to basic demographic data collection and reporting academic outcomes to include disaggregation by parenting status are relatively easy ways to do this. 

Parenting adults are likely to be a growing share of the learners enrolling in college as the economy continues to shift, so it is valuable for institutions to think about the ways they may best address the discordance between their own practices, policies, and processes, and a parenting adult’s life. 

Vanessa Coca
Senior Researcher
Jessica Mason Headshot
Senior Researcher