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Toward a Two-Generation Approach: Innovative Strategies to Improve Education and Training for Parents


Center for Law and Social Policy
By creating clear career pathways and introducing more comprehensive postsecondary financial support systems, low-income parents can get the support they need to move into stable careers and set their children on the pathway to success.

In today’s economy, postsecondary education and workforce training are the gatekeepers for economic mobility — both for individuals and their families. Nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require at least some postsecondary education by 2020. For low-income workers, postsecondary credentials are crucial to obtaining stable, family-supporting employment, entering the middle class and ending the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Evidence indicates that a parent’s economic status is inextricably linked with child well-being; children in poor families are substantially more likely to be poor as an adult compared to children in more affluent families.[1] Growing up in poverty negatively impacts a child’s early learning and development and reduces access to basic needs such as nutritious food and stable housing.[2] Improving parents’ educational and employment prospects today will give their children a better shot at success in the future.

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) is a strong proponent of the two-generation approach. We work to expand access to child care and early education while also improving postsecondary education policies to benefit low-income students and workers. Our Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success promotes two policy and systems change strategies that can help institutions improve outcomes for both generations:

  1. Career pathways
  2. Comprehensive financial supports (including public benefits and financial aid)

These strategies provide adult participants who have families the opportunity to climb out of poverty by increasing their access to job training and economic resources.

1. Career Pathways

The career pathway approach connects progressive levels of education, training, support services and credentials for specific occupations in a way that optimizes the progress and success of individuals with varying abilities and needs.[3] This approach helps students earn marketable credentials, engage in further education and employment and achieve economic success. Career pathways deeply engage employers and help meet their workforce needs and they also help states and communities strengthen their workforces and economies.

Career pathways are well connected and transparent, have multiple entry points for various populations (especially non-traditional students) and have multiple exit points that lead to family-supporting wages. Pathways are participant focused, ensuring students can meet the demands of their work and family lives, and offer a variety of support services such as child care, transportation and tuition assistance. Support services are crucial to helping parents remain on a pathway to completion.

2. Comprehensive Financial Supports

Whether a parent is enrolled in a career pathway or in a traditional college certificate or degree program, access to comprehensive financial supports (such as financial aid and public benefits) is crucial. Over the last three decades, the cost of college has increased nearly four times faster than the median family income.[4] For parents returning to school themselves, the ability to meet the dual financial obligations of college and family often determines whether they can attend and complete college.

Changing financial aid programs to better account for the needs of students who are parents — just over a quarter (26 percent) of all undergraduates — is one innovative strategy that supports a two-generation policy agenda.

Federal Pell Grants can be used by low-income students with families to pay a range of postsecondary education expenses, but financial aid alone rarely covers the full cost.[5]  This unmet need, in combination with family responsibilities, can drive student parents to work more than 20 hours a week while attending college part time, which can threaten their completion. Access to public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, child care subsidies, transportation supports and health insurance can be pivotal in increasing student parents’ retention, completion and economic success.[6], [7]

Student parents would tremendously benefit from financial aid reforms that more flexibly respond to their needs, such as:

    • Allowing students to receive aid for year-round study , enabling them to respond to changing family and life circumstances or accelerate their studies;


    • Requiring that students who submit the federal financial aid application are made aware of public benefits for which they may be eligible through college financial aid award letters; and


  • Supporting colleges in connecting low-income student parents to an array of public benefits  through institutionalized policies and practices, including integrating screening and application assistance for public benefits with the services and supports they already provide (e.g. financial aid counseling and registration) and partnering with local and state human services agencies to better provide these integrated services.[8]


Career pathways and comprehensive financial supports are two strategies that can support a two-generation approach that provides better opportunities and outcomes for both parents and their children. They can lay a foundation for even more intentional efforts to provide education and resources that benefit both parents and their children.

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[1] Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan, “Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence,” The Urban Institute, September 2012. Accessed at

[2] Stephanie Schmit, Hannah Matthews and Olivia Golden, “Thriving Children, Successful Parents: A Two-Generation Approach to Policy,” CLASP, July 9, 2014. Accessed at

[3] Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, “Shared Vision, Strong Systems: The Alliance for Quality Career Pathways Framework Version 1.0,” CLASP, June 5, 2014. Accessed at

[4] Pathways to Good Jobs, “College Costs Rising Four Times Faster Than Income, Two and a Half Times Faster Than Pell,” CLASP. Accessed at

[5] Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, “Act Now to Help Save Pell Grants,” CLASP, August 3, 2012. Accessed at

[6] Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, “Benefits Access for College Completion,” CLASP, September 10, 2012. Accessed at

[7] Stan Dorn and Elizabeth Lower-Basch, “Moving to 21st-Century Public Benefits: Emerging options, Great Promise and Key Challenges,” Coalition for Access and Opportunity, May 2012. Accessed at

[8] Vickie Choitz and Patrick Reimherr, “Mind the Gap: High Unmet Financial Need Threatens Persistence and Completion for Low-Income Community College Students,” CLASP, April 2013. Accessed at

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