Why College Is So Hard for Student-Parents
Read: The quiet struggle of college students with kids
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.
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.
Read: The typical college student is not who you think it is
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.)