For many students, the college experience is a far cry from long hours in the library and weekend parties -- it's about balancing the demands of parenthood, and often full-time employment, with the challenges of pursing a degree.
More than 1 in 5 college students are raising children while attending school, with 53% raising a child under age 6, according to a 2021 Institute of Women's Policy Research report.
"This is a very invisible population when it comes to higher ed," says Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and chief executive officer of Generation Hope, a nonprofit focused on increasing economic mobility for student parents. "Most colleges and universities have no idea how many students on their campuses are actually parenting, what their experiences are, what their needs are and whether or not they are completing."
Challenges for Parents Attending College
High dropout rates for student parents -- 52% of student parents leave school within six years without obtaining a degree, according to IWPR -- are not always associated with academic struggles. Child care access, financial insecurity and time constraints serve as barriers to college completion for parents, experts say.
"There's a lot of stigma associated with being a student parent, and colleges have not done enough to remove that stigma," says David Croom, assistant director for postsecondary achievement and innovation of Ascend at the Aspen Institute.
Child care costs and accessibility.
Over the last decade, the percentage of public academic institutions offering child care services decreased from 59% in 2004 to 45% in 2019, with the largest drop -- 17% -- at community colleges. The average cost of center-based child care for an infant, toddler or 4-year-old is $10,000 annually, according to IWPR -- about as much as in-state tuition at a four-year public college.
Not only is the cost limiting, but many child care centers also have long waitlists for enrollment and limited hours.
"If there is a center on campus, then often the availability of slots is a problem," says Chaunté White, senior research associate at IWPR. "There are simply not enough slots to meet the needs of students, and they end up competing with faculty."
A lack of access to child care can cause learning disruptions. In a 2019 survey, 56% of student parents who used child care reported missing one or more days of class due to child care-related challenges, with 24% missing at least three days, according to data from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.
"We see a lot of student parents relying on family and friends for daycare situations because they can't afford child care centers or they don't have access to the flexibility in hours that they need," Lewis says. That means their child care "may not be reliable."
College can be expensive, especially for student parents who are more likely to face housing and food insecurity. Sixty-eight percent of student parents live in or near poverty, as do nearly 9 in 10 students who are single mothers, according to a 2020 IWPR report.
"As a student parent, you're having to make these impossible decisions every single day," Lewis says. "When you think about the hierarchy of need for you and your family, you have to put a roof over their heads, you have to put food on the table and keep them warm. Your education continues to fall lower and lower as a priority even though we know a college degree or postsecondary credential can be game changing."
Already juggling a full-time job and parenting, Claudia Davis struggled to find balance when she enrolled in 2019 as a student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the issue, as classes for both Davis and her son went virtual.
"It was challenging to monitor him while also studying and taking notes for my classes as well," she says.
Davis is not alone. More than half of student parents work 25 hours or more per week, IWPR reports.
With more responsibilities than the average student, many student parents experience "time poverty," White says.
"Student parents are good stewards and managers of their time but don't have enough time and they find themselves needing flexibility on due dates," she adds.
What to Know as a Parent Applying to College
Not all colleges are transparent about available support services on campus, so while applying to or reenrolling in college, student parents should to take the following steps, experts say:
1. Look at photos featured on the school's website and materials to determine whether the current student population includes other parents.
2. See if the school offers several modes of education, perhaps including remote or hybrid courses.
3. Check on whether the school offers a student parent affinity group and mentoring programs.
4. Ensure the school gives out grant aid (which doesn't need to be paid back) rather than only emphasizing loans.
5. Disclose your status as a student parent to faculty members or advisors, if you're comfortable doing so, to better understand available resources on campus.
"In a historical context, colleges and university systems were designed with a specific type of student in mind," White says. "And that student was often white, male and heterosexual, and that's not what today's student looks like. I do think that it's the responsibility of the universities and colleges to be mindful of who today's students are and what their needs are."
College Resources for Student Parents
Some colleges and universities have developed resources specifically for student parents, such as child care, support groups, advising and financial support.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney's Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center, for example, offers full-time child care services to students, faculty and the local community. Fees are determined by a child's age but hover around $750 a month. Students receive a discount, saving about $70 a month.
And under a new program called Project ACCESS, funded by a U.S. Department of Education grant, eligible UNK students can receive up to a 75% discount on child care services. Extended child care hours are also available one night per week so that parents can study or complete coursework. Applications are open to Pell-eligible students with children, and need is determined by the students' estimated family contribution and other factors.
The center also offers tutoring and access to donated clothes, toys, books and food through a swap-and-share program.
"We are going to be able to get those student parents involved even more by providing extra trainings, activities and events," says Chelsea Bartling, interim director of the Plambeck Center. "And really letting them know that they are not alone. There are people here in the community that are there to help. Just showing them the importance of getting your degree and still being a parent. You can do both, you don't have to just pick one."
To increase degree attainment of student parents, New Moms, a nonprofit, partnered with the City Colleges of Chicago to launch a three-year pilot program that offers both academic and financial support. Each participant receives a $500 stipend per month to meet basic needs, in addition to academic coaching and career workshops. Twenty-five students are set to participate in the pilot program, with 15 enrolled this spring and the remaining scheduled to start in the fall.
"We feel that trifecta of supports (i.e., financial, career and academic) will really help move a mom quicker and help them stay more attached to their academic goals," says Gabrielle Caverl-McNeal, senior director of employment and academic coaching in workforce development at New Moms.
KSU offers the Students who Parent support group, which includes sessions and workshops focused on behavioral strategies, early childhood education, time management, self-care, social capital and financial literacy.
"To promote the health and well-being of a student is recognizing a whole-family approach and a two-generation approach," says Allison Garefino, clinical director for Children and Family Programs and a research scholar in KSU's Wellstar College of Health and Human Services. "So you not only support them as adults but recognize they are adults in kids' lives and kids need help also."