Scholar Houses Fill Void for Parenting Students

For students who are also parents, completing higher education in an in-demand field can lead to greater opportunity and financial stability. Though a growing number of young parents are enrolling in higher education programs, postsecondary institutions are often structured to serve recent high school graduates who do not have children depending on them. 

Parenting students juggle costs of tuition, housing, and child care while attending school. These parents typically spend 14 percent of their income on child care—twice what the federal government recommends child care should cost a household. Two-thirds of young parents balancing work and education have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and parenting students are also less likely to be able to pay costs such as rent, mortgage, and utilities in the past year than nonparents. COVID-19 exacerbated barriers to financial stability and affordable child care. 

These stressors can affect students’ sense of belonging and mental health. One study found that parenting students are more likely than nonparenting students to feel they do not belong on campus. Additionally, parents who had difficulty paying rent and other bills had significantly higher rates of depressive and anxiety symptoms than parents who did not experience these stressors. 

Partnerships between higher education institutions and housing agencies—such as the Scholar House model—provide affordable housing, child care, family advocacy, tutoring, and other supports to parenting students as they complete their educational programs. Parenting students live with other parents pursuing education, creating community alongside programming.

To learn more about these programs and how they fill gaps for students, I spoke with Sonja Nelson, vice president of resident initiatives at Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority and Kate Brackett, chief operating officer at Family Scholar House in Louisville, Kentucky. Their insights can help other programs and schools support parenting students.  


The Columbus Scholar House gives residents Section 8 project-based vouchers through a collaboration with the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. Across their housing units, residents can access on-site child care along with supportive services and on-site service coordinators.

What were the primary needs you heard from students in your program before the pandemic? 

Sonja Nelson: Affordable child care, scholastic resources, housing stabilization, and basic needs like food and toiletries. For scholastic support, our partners at Columbus State Community College and Ohio State University offer supports for students depending on their needs, and on-site service coordinators work with representatives at these schools to connect residents to supports. Working with these two schools helps inform questions for students going to other schools. For example, by knowing it’s standard to provide a type of tutoring support for someone suffering from dyslexia, we can take that information and ask Franklin University if they provide the same types of supports.

How did those needs—and your program—shift during the COVID-19 lockdown?

SN: We are dealing with ambiguity in COVID. Most of the time, we didn’t even know what the scenario would be the following week. Job hours might be different from the standard 40 hours because of the pandemic, your child care needs might change, and kids are home and not getting meals from school, so now you need access to more food. While those resources did come, they came later, and we had to do a lot of crisis stabilization.

We continue to work with service coordinators to understand the needs and work with the fluctuation that our community partners are experiencing. Today, we are used to operating in this environment. There are some assumptions that we account for and supports have become available to address shifts.

Within your housing and education partnership, where do the two partners fit together, and where do areas of misalignment exist? 

SN: It was the best of both worlds having Columbus State as the application intake and Ohio State’s Access Collaborative program to provide supportive services.

Not only do they have their specific roles, they represent their respective schools: a community college and a university. There are some things that people experience while in school that might be less evident in a school like Ohio State. As a community college, Columbus State is more used to engaging with students that need housing support and delivering flexible schedules for nontraditional students than Ohio State might be. There is an opportunity for cross-education between the two. Ohio State University is learning from Columbus State how to better identify when these situations happen. And Columbus State is learning about housing topics from a university that manages dorms.

What are some necessary policy changes that would help you in your work?

SN: Increasing more opportunities for this type of housing. Whether it’s providing funding to build communities like Scholar House or vouchers that are specific for those attending college.

Also making college more affordable. Education helps increase the earned-income potential of a household. But for them to have this increased income, they must be able to afford to go school in the first place.

Finally, addressing the benefits cliff. When students graduate and start their careers, they are going to hit the benefits cliff with their increased income. So, how do we keep this household stabilized as a family that has done everything they needed to do to position their household for economic self-sufficiency? 

What would this program look like if you had all the resources you needed?

SN: If all the things I mentioned before have been met, I would say it’s the things outside of policy. It’s more intangible. It’s the perception of the individuals when they go out in the world. We can’t help them address the stereotypes and the biases of someone who was a teenage parent, or someone who received benefits, and generalizations because of their journey. That is one thing that I would like to see somehow addressed.


The Family Scholar House in Louisville, Kentucky, offers access to academic coaches, family advocates, career development workshops, child care, and children’s services for more than 11,000 parenting students. Its residential program offers 279 units of affordable housing through Section 8 project-based vouchers for single, parenting students.

What were the primary needs you heard from students in your program before the pandemic, and how did those needs shift during the COVID-19 lockdown?

Kate Brackett: Before the pandemic, and throughout, parents come to us needing safe and affordable housing. We require parents in our program to enroll full time in postsecondary education, and that is very difficult to do if you don’t have stable housing. Housing supports give them time back and allow them to focus on things beyond immediate needs.

When the pandemic hit, we saw a greater need for housing. But the process of enrolling people pretty much halted. When individuals move in, they can be very transient, their phone number may or may not work, and collecting documentation virtually can be a challenge. It got complicated quickly, and we had to rethink everything from our intake process to our orientation. 

For our current residents, everything—from their coursework to their children’s classes—went online. Within two weeks of the shutdown, Family Scholar House workshops went virtual, including family advocate meetings and home visits. Our staff began dropping of residents’ Section 8 paperwork as well because transportation was a huge challenge.

In our current COVID-19 environment, what needs are you seeing?  

KB: In the pseudo-post-COVID context, need for mental health support is at an all-time high. A lot of our families have experienced domestic violence or have witnessed violence, and that trauma is being retriggered. We’re all going through a collective trauma of the pandemic. If we had all the resources we needed, we would increase access to mental health services. There is always room to improve and increase mental health access and quality for our adults and our kids.

Within your housing and education partnership, where do the two partners fit together, and where are there areas of misalignment?

KB: In Family Scholar House, our partnership with the property management allows them to do what they do best: manage. For them, the partnership with us takes pressure away from them to run programming. We work on educating our property management about the trauma our families have experienced and how to work with them compassionately. For example, we work together to ensure that families submit their paperwork on time. This understanding could be an issue if you are not aligned.

What are some necessary policy changes that would help you in your work?

KB: Reforming asset limits for individuals receiving government assistance. We encourage participants to move from surviving to thriving in our program. But for residents in our housing, they have an asset limit they cannot go over. So, it’s almost discouraged to save money because savings can be held against them. 

Our CEO is actively involved with policies around the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program. To build affordable housing, we rely on the LIHTC, which is awarded based on a lottery-based scoring system that includes a variety of components. The application process can be very competitive, limiting our ability to build much-needed affordable housing.