Making College Work for Parents in Skills Training: Highlights from NSC’s Network

By Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, April 12, 2024

More than ever before, new majority learners are seeking college credentials to achieve their education and career goals. These learners, such as working adults, students of color, first-generation students, immigrants, and people impacted by the justice system, don’t fit the mold around which our higher education system was originally built, yet they understand the role that education plays in advancing one’s economic prospects.

Parents are an important subgroup of new majority learners. Roughly one in three adults who could benefit from opportunities to pursue postsecondary education and training (those whose highest level of education is some college credit or lower) are parents, many of whom are Black, Latino/a or Hispanic, or Indigenous. Nearly a quarter (twenty three percent) of community college students are parents, the majority of whom are mothers (seventy four percent).[i] Like many new majority learners, these parents juggle family, work, and school for themselves and their children, with tight budgets and limited time, on top of the systemic barriers to education and access to needed resources that they also often face.

For parents who want to advance their careers and economic prospects, quality short-term education and training programs that provide relatively affordable and fast opportunities into meaningful career pathways represent promising avenues to do so—especially when paired with intentional, student-centered supports and services. Most states have goals around educational attainment and meeting those goals depends on effectively serving parents and other new majority students with a focus on racial and gender equity. That’s why states, along with community colleges, community organizations, and advocates across NSC’s network are working to provide these opportunities and supports to parents, presenting promising strategies that can be replicated and scaled to advance NSC’s Making College Work policy goals.

Closing Childcare and Opportunity Gaps for Single Mothers in Mississippi

The Mississippi Low-Income Childcare Initiative’s Employment Equity for Single Moms (ESSM) project supports single mothers who want to pursue workforce education and training as a route to economic mobility. The program works to fill the major gap in access to affordable and quality care experienced by single mother-headed families and address the challenges this gap creates for mothers seeking viable pathways into quality jobs with opportunities for advancement.

In addition to providing direct services for single mothers, ESSM works to better align the childcare, public benefits, and workforce development systems so they more effectively support single mothers’ economic stability and mobility. For example, ESSM successfully added a question asking whether someone needs childcare to the questionnaire used by the state’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Hubs to screen for public benefits eligibility and referrals to community resources. They are also advocating for the state’s WIOA and CCDF systems to formally coordinate through a combined state plan and for policy solutions such as making it so that parents who are eligible for WIOA or CCDF childcare assistance are automatically eligible for the other program (otherwise known as ‘categorical eligibility’).

ESSM has also changed state rules regulating public benefits programs that create unnecessary roadblocks to single mothers’ access to needed resources. Last year, they successfully advocated for the removal of the requirement that mothers must open a legal child support case to be eligible for the state’s childcare assistance program. They continue to advocate for loosening the state’s requirement that parents be enrolled full-time in education and training to receive childcare assistance and to remove the same child support rule for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Expanding Parents’ Access to Early Learning and SNAP E&T at Arizona Community Colleges

Leaders at Pima Community College and Child Parent Centers are spearheading a new partnership to leverage a new Head Start rule to benefit student parents. As of April 2022, the Administration for Children and Families issued a memorandum that anyone eligible for SNAP will be categorically eligible for Head Start, an early learning program that provides culturally responsive early childhood education and family engagement services to help parents achieve goals for themselves and their children. As Pima rolls out a new initiative to connect more students to SNAP Career Advancement Network (SNAP CAN)—Arizona’s SNAP E&T program—it is taking advantage of the rule change to help student parents receiving SNAP access much needed services for their family.

Pima is now screening students at intake for SNAP CAN for whether they might need Head Start services, by indicating whether a student has childcare needs through the Employment and Career Development Plan created for students in the program. These screens allow Pima to refer students to Head Start when they know they could benefit from its services. They are already seeing success, with Pima students in SNAP CAN being referred to Head Start.

New Head Start college partnerships are also launching at additional colleges. Northland Pioneer College, a Tribal College working closely with Pima, has formed a partnership with the Northern Arizona Council of Governments Head Start. Together, they opened an on-campus Head Start center with two classrooms in September 2023. Northland Pioneer’s Head Start leaders are learning from Pima’s experience and hope to integrate referrals to and from Head Start and SNAP CAN into their program.

The college-Head Start partnership models at Pima and Northland Pioneer will serve as examples for other Arizona colleges that are starting their own SNAP CAN programs. In addition, Pima and Northland Pioneer are working closely with the Arizona Department of Economic Security to explore which state policies and processes could support a broader implementation of this referral process to benefit more student parents.

Learning from Parents’ Lived Experiences to Advocate for Policy Change in Indiana

The Indiana Community Action Association (IN-CAA), a statewide nonprofit made up of twenty-two agencies serving all ninety-two counties in the state, has taken action in support of parents in education and training and the workforce who need access to affordable and accessible childcare. For example, Thriving Connections, a cohort-based social and direct support program operated by the South Central Community Action Program, serves families working to achieve economic security and mobility through relationships, leadership development, and community building.

Thriving Connections’ participants are a majority women, many of whom are mothers pursuing postsecondary education. The program pairs participants with volunteers who want to deepen their understanding of poverty and provide encouragement to participants as they navigate these journeys, alongside support to access needed resources. Thriving Connections staff observe the range of roadblocks and “unseen costs” that mothers face when juggling school, work, and their children’s care and schedules, including inflexible and unreliable childcare, transportation challenges, and limited access to digital skills and resources.

Observing the importance of childcare for parents to complete college and enter good jobs, the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, a research and policy advocacy program within IN-CAA, presented testimony on behalf of the Indiana Skills 2 Complete Coalition to the Indiana General Assembly’s Public Health, Behavioral Health, and Human Services Interim Study Committee in August 2023. In addition to focusing on working parents’ need for childcare, the Institute’s testimony also called for support for student parents. The testimony outlined how essential accessible childcare is for Hoosiers to access the many career pathways available in the state and to meet employers’ demands for skilled workers. It also recommended critical investments in making childcare more affordable and accessible, including services and supports that can boost student parents’ ability to enroll and complete college.

Advancing Policy and Systems Change to Make College Accessible to All Learners

NSC is proud to showcase the innovative efforts of its network members who are working to make our postsecondary, workforce, and human services systems work better for working families. NSC’s Expanding College and Career Pathways Initiative will continue to spotlight and share examples of how states, colleges, and advocates can work to make affordable and high-quality skills training opportunities and holistic supports a reality for all learners.


[i] NSC analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 2020 Undergraduate Students (NPSAS:UG).