College Students With Children: An Underserved Group
To our readers: The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found in a recent study that there are 4.8 million college students with children, an increase of 30% since 2004. But the number of child-care centers at two- and four-year colleges is plummeting. Following is a GoodCall® special examination of the college mom experience.
Ezra Calado kept a secret when she started at Richland Community College in Dallas. No, not her major plans nor her test scores nor her dreams for the future. No, her secret had to do with her status as a teen mom and the three-month-old daughter at home.
Calado was luckier than some in her situation. A strong support system gave her the opportunity to pursue an education. She also was fortunate that Richland had a program that put her in touch with textbooks she could rent and child-care resources.
But nothing came easily.
For one, there was that secret: “I was at odds with myself, my grades, and the emotions of humiliation and shame from the stigma of being a single teenage parent.”
But as she became more active on campus, it became harder to juggle all her roles.
“A semester of curiosity, failure, tradeoffs, and growth allowed me to accept myself, and I realized continuing my education has been a refuge from my own personal ignorance and a pleasant surprise in my academic career,” Calado says.
Much of that feeling of failure came from within.
“The biggest difficulty was not feeling guilty every time I left the house to go to class,” she says. “It was difficult at times to put sacrificing my time with my child in a positive light and remind myself that this is an investment for the future.”
But once she decided to embrace every element of her life, Calado says she experienced a breakthrough. “I pushed myself to become involved, to dive in the college experience without compromising motherhood, and I earned a broadened perspective of myself, my goals, and the value of knowledge.”
Wearing three different hats (parent, student, and employee) presents three different conflicts that have to be resolved, she says: “It has definitely been my experience that time management, prioritization, encouragement, and self-reflection have been essential in my growth and progress.”
That progress now has taken her to the University of Texas at Dallas, where she is majoring in accounting and international political economy. But her experience isn’t typical.
How parenthood negatively impacts college students
Calado’s success offers hope to the growing segment of students with children. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research study revealed the following numbers, most of which aren’t so encouraging:
- Almost a third of undergraduate women are mothers, and 60% of those are single mothers.
- Only 27% of student parents are likely to attain a degree or certificate within six years.
- 45% of student parents attend community colleges.
- Student parents are more likely (66%) to work full-time and attend school part-time.
- Since 2004, the number of child-care centers at community colleges declined from 53% to 44%; at public 4-year institutions, the number declined from 55% to 27%.
Lindsey Reichlin, senior research associate at the institute, believes that being a student parent can motivate students to obtain postsecondary credentials. She also knows that they face obstacles.
“Student parents who juggle classes and coursework on top of providing family care and, often, working part- or full-time, experience substantial demands on their time and finances.”
Since they’re more likely to enroll on a part-time basis and also have a heavy workload, Reichlin says they are more susceptible to leaving school before receiving credentials. “For student parents, who, on average, leave college with more debt than their nonparent peers, dropping out early means they are faced with repaying hefty student loans without the credential they need to get a job with family-sustaining wages.”
The importance of child care
Reichlin believes childcare that is both affordable and reliable is a critical component in the success of student parents. “Child care allows parents to attend classes, devote their full attention to studying, and for many, hold a job, so that they can progress successfully through their educational programs while providing for their family.”
And when they don’t have this option and have to choose between caring for their children versus going to class or doing homework, she believes they will be more likely to drop out of college. “Access to child care, however, has been shown to facilitate college retention and completion among student parents.”
What else can colleges do to help students with children?
Reichlin says it’s important to protect affordable child-care centers from being closed. “Also, institutions can work to make campuses more family-friendly by establishing programs, events, and spaces on campus where children are welcome and student parents can engage with campus life.” She adds that these types of interventions should be scheduled so they can accommodate part-time and working students.
And since student parents have fewer financial resources, “Institutions can work to ensure they receive the full extent of financial aid and public benefits for which they are eligible, rather than putting the onus on the students to reach out for additional sources of assistance,” Reichlin says.
Finally, she advocates for collecting data to understand how to meet the needs of students with children and assess whether support services are making an impact.
Tips for student parents
Getting external help is great, but students with children also must learn how to help themselves. Johnny Castro, a child development expert and teacher preparation faculty member at Brookhaven College in Farmers Branch/Dallas, Texas, has four tips that can help parents in college:
- Practice time management. It’s something all students need, but college students with children will likely have to adhere to and sacrifice other aspects of their very busy daily schedule in order to forge ahead.
- Have a winner’s mindset. If you think you can, you will. For all students, this is a recommendation for you to consider; avoid past pitfalls or a negative mindset. After all, college and college work is stressful in the interim, but it eventually ends.
- Expand your social network. Develop a back-up to the back-up plan when things go awry – like someone to help haul the children, handle child care when you have to cram all weekend at the library, etc. Even the most prepared parent will face a time when almost everyone has the flu, so a back-up plan is essential.
- Take care of yourself. You still have a family and a lot of commitments, so be sure you do some self-care.
Tabitha Robinson’s experience as a student parent at East Field College in Mesquite, Texas, has been bumpier than Calado’s, not to mention different from the experiences of her “regular student” peers. “Some of the main reasons I feel this way is due to lack of support, a lack of help, and a lack of understanding within the college,” she says.
Robinson sees plenty of room for improvement and has several ideas that she says schools could implement. “I do feel that the schools could do more for single parents by giving longer grace periods for classwork if needed, extending the time to pay off tuition and fees, and maybe giving childcare vouchers to single parents if needed.”
Still, she offers support – and advice – for fellow student parents: “Keep pushing, never give up on your dreams, and you can overcome any obstacle that you may have in life. It may take a little longer but the end result is bettering your life so that you can better your child’s life.”