Why College Is So Hard for Student-Parents

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A baby clad in only a diaper holds a graduation cap on his head with an open-mouthed expression
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Over the past five years, Yoslin Amaya would return home most days in the early-morning hours from her night shift as a janitor to her in-laws’ house in Rockville, Maryland, where she lived in a bedroom with her husband and two sons, Andrew and James. Though she was often exhausted, her long days were not over. While her family slept, she would crack open a laptop to finish assignments for her classes, first at Montgomery College, and later at the University of Maryland. She was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in government and politics with a minor in public leadership. Her dream: to one day “be on Capitol Hill, making decisions about what bills get passed or not. I see myself as an advocate for change.”

Amaya’s story mirrors that of nearly 4 million college students across the country who are parents. A 2017 study found that, after completing work and household responsibilities, college students with preschool-aged children had about 50 percent fewer hours left for things like studying and sleeping than their nonparent classmates. And national data show that student-parents are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than nonparents.

America’s higher-education system is not set up for student-parents to succeed. In many ways, classes and campus life are designed for those who come to college right out of high school and who aren’t parenting or working full-time. Though this kind of student is often portrayed in American culture as typical, 74 percent of undergraduates in this country don’t wholly fit that profile. They are parents like Amaya (single or married), working full-time while going to school, paying for college on their own, attending school part-time, or older than 25, or they have earned a GED. This stereotype of the “typical” college student is damaging, because it obscures the needs of those who don’t fit that mold. When four-year institutions require that all freshmen live on campus, that creates challenges for students who need to live at home to take care of their family. When campus offices, such as financial aid or student affairs, are not open in the evenings, students who have to work during the day can’t access important services that could help them stay in school.

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Student-parents, who make up nearly a quarter of the U.S. college population, are particularly vulnerable to this blind spot because caregiving comes with a unique set of challenges. Parenting responsibilities rule schedules, and financial need extends beyond tuition and books to child care and housing costs. Student-parents are also more likely than nonparents to be people of color, women, low-income, older than 30, and first-generation college students, adding layer upon layer of obstacles to degree completion. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 70 percent of student-parents reported that they were housing-insecure. Forty percent of all Black female undergraduate students are mothers. As a young child, Amaya emigrated from El Salvador with her mother. She is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, which means that on top of being a parent in college, a Latina student, and a first-generation college student with few resources, she also had to navigate her uncertain immigration status.

As a former young mother in college—at 19, I possessed both a beautiful infant daughter and an acceptance letter to the prestigious William & Mary but no clear path to my degree—I have a firsthand understanding of the various ways in which college is not built for student-parents. Sometimes the hurdles were subtle, such as not being able to register for the classes I needed for my major because they were offered at times when I had to be home with my daughter, or being unable to attend group-project meetings in the evenings because they were past her bedtime. Other times, the hurdles were so significant that they threatened my ability to stay enrolled. Take the never-ending challenge of finding affordable and reliable child care as a single mother, or how afraid I was to disclose to professors that I had a child, because the culture made clear that being a parent was an inconvenience that would not be accommodated. (Once, a professor told me that if I did not show up for class in the middle of winter, when my 2-year-old had walking pneumonia, she would fail me. So I bundled up my daughter and took her with me to class despite how miserable she was.)

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Twenty years later, some colleges—many of them community colleges, which have the largest share of parenting students—have launched programs to support student-parents on their campuses. The City University of New York has invested in creating child-care options for students with daytime and evening hours, parenting workshops, and connections to community resources. In Atlanta, Morehouse College, the world’s only historically Black four-year liberal-arts college for men, has developed its Fathers to the Finish Line Initiative to help student-fathers complete their degrees by providing “academic support, mentorship, professional development, leadership training … and access to financial resources.” Although people might think this issue affects only mothers, fathers also need support in graduating. (In fact, Black fathers drop out at higher rates than any other student-parent group.) The Single Parent Scholar Program at Wilson College, in Pennsylvania, provides family-friendly on-campus housing year-round to single student-parents and their children. This is a rarity—just 8 percent of all U.S. colleges and universities offer on-campus housing for student-parents. In the fall of 2020, Wilson dropped its housing fee for participants in that program.

These examples are encouraging but do not represent the offerings of most colleges and universities. Even the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program, which provides funding to establish child-care centers on college campuses, was serving only 1 percent of parenting college students who qualified—11,000 students—as of 2019, according to estimates from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. If more colleges were to do things like this, student-parents would have far easier roads to their degrees, giving them the ability to build a better life for themselves and their children. But a truly inclusive college environment for parents would require schools to consider them in all aspects of campus life, not just housing and child care. To have a broader impact, institutions would need to include student-parents in their diversity and equity efforts, and address how every step of getting into college and attaining a degree might present challenges, from enrollment practices to financial-aid procedures to everyday treatment in the classroom.

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Amaya graduated this month from the University of Maryland, beating tremendous odds. But despite having a higher GPA on average than their peers, 52 percent of student-parents like her leave college within six years without completing their degree. If more colleges and universities could widen their vision of who their students are—and who they could be—that number could change, preventing millions from having to decide between going to college and raising a family.

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