As Alternative Higher-Ed Pathways Take Off, We’re Still Forgetting...

Opinion | Digital Learning

As Alternative Higher-Ed Pathways Take Off, We’re Still Forgetting Parent Learners

By Allison Dulin Salisbury, Jasmin Schiener and Lauren Pizer     Oct 18, 2018

As Alternative Higher-Ed Pathways Take Off, We’re Still Forgetting Parent Learners

Higher education has, in some ways, woken up to the realities of demographic and technological change. Institutions can’t keep preparing the same students for the same jobs in the same way they always have. The savviest colleges and universities are adapting to better serve adult and lower-income students, and the ones that aren’t are losing market share to a bevy of new providers.

Both long-time and new providers, however, are still overlooking a key group: parent learners. A quarter of undergraduates—4.8 million—are parents, and millions more are in other postsecondary training programs, according to a 2014 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In less than a decade, the number of parents in traditional institutions alone has grown by 30 percent.

Parents clearly understand that the best jobs in today’s economy—the ones that promise stability and a family-sustaining wage—require at least some postsecondary training. But education providers have yet to meet the needs for this growing population of learners.

Entangled Solutions recently published a report with Omidyar Network, where we talked with parents who say they are unwavering in their belief that a credential was the passport to a good job. One student, Jaime, carries a full course load at a local university, even as he works full-time and raises his toddler daughter and teenage cousin on his own. It’s worth it, he says, to move out of the physically-taxing and unpredictable construction trade. Another student profiled in the report, Sarah, is recently divorced with two young children. She attends classes full-time online as she works toward the bachelor’s she needs to move up from being a teacher aide to a teacher.

Learners like Jaime and Sarah are determined, focused and creative. But when they enter the postsecondary system, they are met by roadblock after roadblock—from inadequate childcare and transportation to programs that required large blocks of unbroken time for class and study. Students with children sometimes have to bring their kids to class, dividing their attention. And they often must fit in coursework and studying after their children go to bed or in slivers of time between taking care of them on weekends.

The lack of time to study or complete coursework is referred to as “time poverty” and it is one of the most likely factors to derail parents’ plans to earn a degree, according to a recent study in The Journal of Higher Education. There’s only so much time management and problem solving one can do.

These barriers are a major reason why only 33 percent of parent learners earn any degree or certificate within six years of enrolling, compared to 50 percent of students overall. We’re wasting a tremendous amount of talent by not designing programs with parent learners in mind.

The good news: there’s a big upside if we change that.

Our partner in this parent learner research, Omidyar Network, is deeply committed to ensuring postsecondary education enables economic mobility for parents and, ultimately, families. Our research reveals a number of promising ways we could better design postsecondary education with parents in mind. Here, we highlight four:


We need to get over the notion that childcare is ancillary to postsecondary education. For a quarter of undergraduates, it’s absolutely essential. Childcare, especially infant care, is incredibly expensive to deliver using traditional models. But we have the technology to do for nannying what we’ve done for transportation, expanding the pool of potential providers and making it easier to get affordable and on-demand service.

We could use our brick-and-mortar campuses better, too. For example, by identifying underused spaces on campus or nearby that could serve as study-and-play spaces for parents and kids. Wonderschool, which provides start-up assistance and an operational platform for at-home childcare providers, is already exploring the ways technology could expand the number of small childcare providers. Their model and online interface makes it easier for people to run childcare centers out of their homes, while simultaneously making it easier for parents to find small providers.

Learning Design

Because parents’ time is constrained and shredded by childcare, work and managing a household, they need to be able to learn in short bursts at any hour in any place. We talked to one mom who did class work while she was up in the middle of the night nursing her infant. Courses designed to better use mobile technology could help parent learners use these bits of time more effectively. Cell-Ed, a mobile-first adult education provider, is partners with businesses and community-based organizations to deliver micro-courses in English literacy, basic education, and workforce skills via cell phones.

Recognize Learning Where it Happens

Beyond bringing the classroom to learners’ phones, we have a two-fold opportunity to better serve parents by acknowledging that learning happens outside instructional constructs. We need to reward and build on parents’ existing skills as part of the educational process, and help parents translate those same skills to would-be employers. Prior learning assessment and competency-based programs are already doing the former, but there’s room to push further. The truly unexplored opportunity is helping parent learners translate the soft skills they practice as parents into the language of the workplace.

ReBoot Accel, a training and placement provider, incorporates both approaches into its programs to support mothers returning to the workforce. They provide online training and in-person workshops built around returning workers’ existing assets, while simultaneously helping job seekers translate their skills to and connect with employers. “It’s really important for our economy to engage these women in our workforce,” said co-founder and CEO Diane Flynn. “And for the women, they are finding purpose, connections, and financial freedom.”

Faster On-Ramps to Career

Upskilling academies like ReBoot, as well as many of the emerging providers for people just starting out in their careers, such as General Assembly, primarily focus on learners who already have a degree. We need similar on-ramps for those who don’t. A college degree remains the gold standard for economic mobility, but many parent learners simply don’t have four, or even two years to work toward a credential and a better job. The market of alternative credentials that provide faster routes to a career—short-term programs, apprenticeships, skills academies, and on-the-job training—is exploding, but providers aren’t designing them with parents specifically in mind. They should be. We have a critical opportunity to get this right, as these programs are still developing.

Creating a better system isn’t just about parents, after all. Their children stand to benefit immensely too. We all do.

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