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How children benefit from having a parent in college

Remember the Game of Life, where within the first few spins of the game’s wheel, your career path—and your income—was determined? Some players spin themselves immediately into a job, while others wind up on the college track. The earning potential is different, with the college-level professions earning more than their non-college counterparts. As you move forward, your plastic car starts filling up with pegs representing a growing family. Your outcomes are based on that original spin, until you reach the end.

Unlike the game, in real life, working adults have the opportunity to change their trajectory through education. For many adult students, the choice to go back to school is related to a change in career goals and desire for economic stability. And for the 26 percent of students who are also parents1, the decision often directly relates to the well-being of their children and families.The education process itself can benefit a student’s children in a number of ways beyond economic stability. Data shows that children of parents with college degrees are more likely to go to college themselves and persist through graduation2, and the value they see their parents place on education can have a direct impact on the decisions they make about their own future.

Access to and persistence in higher education

When children have educated parents, they are more likely to have access to and persist in a post-secondary environment. While preparation for moving beyond high school often begins in earnest in the final two years of the secondary education world, research shows that a child’s attitude toward the importance of a college degree is impacted earlier than parents may recognize.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that “[h]igh school graduates whose parents did not go to college tend to report lower educational expectations than their peers as early as 8th grade.”3 So the way parents talk about and model behavior related to educational goals from early childhood on – regardless of whether the parent is a current student or planning to be one – can impact a child’s views of their own potential goals.

Once high school students are in the process of exploring and preparing for college, parents who have completed or are pursuing a post-secondary education can provide guidance and support. From their own experience, they are able to help navigate the processes of searching for a good college/program fit, various academic and financial aid applications, admissions processes, and so on.

Parents without experience may not have the knowledge to support their children in this way, or even know where to find information to support. Research indicates that parents who did not attend college offer less assistance to their children in the process of applying for admission and financial aid, and children from low-income families with less-educated parents are less informed on the details of cost related to post-secondary education.4

Beyond the processes of applying for, being admitted to and securing funding for a post-secondary education, children whose parents did not attend college struggle more with persistence. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that first-generation college students who are pursuing a bachelor’s degree are less likely than students who are not first generation to remain enrolled beyond year three of their program.

While some support can come from a rigorous high school curriculum, students who do not have parents who have experience navigating the post-secondary education world are at a disadvantage when it comes to persistence.5 So a parent that understands the processes and can support their child in preparing for, applying for and succeeding in higher education can make a difference.

Children benefit with parents as role models

Parents have the opportunity to set an example for their children to inspire them and create a legacy for themselves and their families through education. One such benefit includes learning delayed gratification, according to Dr. Pamela Roggeman, dean of the College of Education at University of Phoenix.

By nature, children emulate the behaviors they see in their parents, for better or worse. Seeing the hard work and determination that a working adult student puts forth over time to be successful is powerful, she said.

“Children of adults who are in school see that long-term goals sometimes take decades,” Dr. Roggeman said. “Parents returning to school set a positive example for their children. They are not only investing in their own education, they equip their children with the same tools to tackle theirs in the future.”

Dr. Roggeman described the many ways a student parent displays behaviors related to the discipline, time and effort it takes to overcome obstacles that face a working adult student and what it takes to meet their obligations. From working on an assignment in the elementary school pick-up line to using their lunch hour to meet with an instructor for office hours, each time a child sees mom or dad hard at work, it is meaningful. It plants seeds related to the connection between effort and outcome.

“When children see their parents set these kinds of examples, it pushes them to succeed,” Dr. Roggeman said.

Also, seeing the correlation between these behaviors and success can shape a child’s perspective on their own behaviors. Theories related to behavior modification indicate that “a person’s attitude often determines whether he or she will use knowledge and transform it into practice. In short, if one does not believe in or value knowledge, one is less likely to act upon it.”6 Thus, seeing a parent engaging in the education process instills its importance and impresses upon the child the value of that experience.

When a parent walks across the stage on graduation day, they are not walking alone. Every family member and supporter is part of that success. And who stands to benefit the most directly from their parent’s achievement? Their children.


When a parent is engaged in their own education, they are serving their children in a role they took on the very day they became a parent – they are their child’s first teacher, said Dr. Roggeman. Being a student parent allows for modeling in both academic and non-academic ways.

Children of student parents have a front-row seat to watch the way an education can transform a life. They watch the effort of homework completion, studying after a long day of work, prepping for exams and meeting with instructors lead to the outcome of a college degree. And importantly, children of student parents see that it is never too late to pursue a dream


1. AAC&U News (2018), “Misconceptions about Today’s College Students”, retrieved from:

2. IES, National Center for Educational Statistics (2018), “First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Post-Bachelor’s Outcomes”, retrieved from

3. National Center for Educational Statistics: Susan P. Choy (2001), “Students Whose Parents Did Not Go to College: Postsecondary Access, Persistence, and Attainment, retrieved from:

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Committee on Supporting the Parents of Young Children; Breiner H, Ford M, Gadsden VL, editors. Parenting Matters: Supporting Parents of Children Ages 0-8. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2016 Nov 21. 2, Parenting Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practices. Retrieved from: