Parent Perspectives on Barriers to Postsecondary Education

by Aliya Pilchen
October 15, 2020

(Repost of a September 10, 2018 post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

Photo of Father Helping Daughter Sitting At Table

Parents undoubtedly want the best for their children, including good health, economic security, and happiness. Postsecondary education can support these aspirations, because those who attain postsecondary credentials have well documented advantages in rates of employment, earnings, positive health outcomes, and civic engagement.1 Despite the known benefits of postsecondary education, parents experience many barriers to their children enrolling, persisting, and completing a postsecondary credential or degree. These challenges are particularly acute for many families who live in states supported by the Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia (REL AP), such as low-income families, families from rural communities, and those with a student who is the first in the family to attend college.

Financial barriers are a top parent concern

Many of the most significant barriers to postsecondary education are financial. In addition to paying rising costs for tuition, students must be able to budget for costs associated with school fees, books, transportation, food, and housing. For a student whose family income is at the 20th percentile, the cost of attending a community college may be more than 20% of the family income, and the cost of attending a public 4-year institution may be upwards of 45%.2 Although seven in ten undergraduate students in the nation receive some kind of financial aid to pay for college, many eligible students and their families are not well-informed about available sources of aid or struggle to navigate the complex financial aid process.2

Parents, especially those who did not attend college, often do not feel confident about their ability to be involved in their child’s college-planning process. Concerns about the cost of college and lack of knowledge about payment options may interfere with parents’ encouragement of their children during the college application process, even if they have high aspirations for their children.3

Parents and policies can drive postsecondary success

Despite these challenges, research suggests that parental involvement can have a positive impact on students’ college-planning process and decisions. Even if parents do not feel confident about their knowledge about the application process, their interest in and support for their child’s college planning and application can positively affect their child’s postsecondary success. For example, in one study, first-generation college students were more likely than other college students to report that they went to college because of their parents’ encouragement, even if their parents lacked helpful knowledge of the application process.4

Additionally, numerous policies and interventions exist to make college more affordable and feasible, particularly for low-income and first-generation college students. Several communities across the country have implemented “promise” programs, which offer free tuition to local two- or four-year institutions, and these communities have experienced increased rates of high school graduation and college enrollment and graduation. Other interventions that offer information and advising services to guide students through the college admissions and enrollment process have had positive impacts on postsecondary outcomes as well.2 Identifying and sharing information about programs and policies to promote postsecondary education in the REL AP region could help to address some of the barriers families face.

For more information on this topic, check out Ask A REL!

The REL AP Ask A REL team has responded to several questions from stakeholders in the region about college and career readiness, including the

If you have additional questions on this topic or others, feel free to e-mail or submit your question to REL!

Additional resources on college and career readiness


1 Ma, J., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2016). Education pays 2016: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. New York, NY: The College Board.

2 Page, L. C., & Scott-Clayton, J. (2015). Improving college access in the United States: Barriers and policy responses. (NBER Working Paper No. 21781). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

3 Kirk, C. M., Lewis, R. K., Nilsen, C., & Colvin, D. Q. (2011). The role of parent expectations on adolescent educational aspirations. Educational Studies, 37(1), 89–99.

4 Palbusa, J. A., & Gauvain, M. (2017). Parent-student communication about college and freshman grades in first-generation and non-first generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 58(1), 107–112.