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The Silent Population: Student Parents Face Barriers To Academic Success

Shaersti Anderson and her daughter Raelynn bond after Anderson picks Raelynn up from daycare. Anderson said that balancing taking care of Raelynn and doing her school work has not been easy, especially since the transition to online classes.

CHAMPAIGN — For years, “traditional college students” have been considered 18- to 21-year-old recent high school graduates whose main responsibility is homework.

But that narrative has been changing.

Listen to this story here.

Note: Community college includes all public two-year institutions. Four-year institutions include all public and private nonprofit undergraduate institutions. For-profit institutions include all for-profit colleges, less than two years and above. Other includes public less than two-year institutions, private nonprofit less than four-year institutions, and students who attend more than one institution. All institutions include all public and private institutions, and students attending more than one school. total for all institutions will not add to the sum of the institutional subcategories due to rounding. Source: IWPR analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study 2003-04 (NPSAS:04); 2007-08 (NPSAS:08); 2011-12 (NPSAS:12), and Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Institutional Characteristics and Fall Enrollment 2003-04, 2007-08, 2011-12

More than one in five college students are student parents, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Nationally, student parents make up 26% of the total undergraduate student population, and half of those parents are single parents.

However, research also shows that childcare availability on college campuses declined from 53% in 2004 to 22% in 2015, even though the number of student parents has grown within the past two decades. 

COVID-19 has heightened the need for resources for student parents and is forcing colleges to rethink how they can better support student parents as many of them return for in-person classes this fall, college officials say.

Shaersti Anderson, 19, is a single mother. Her daughter Raelynn Anderson is almost 2 years old. Anderson is also a full-time student at Parkland College, and she said the shift to online classes has made her job as a college student and a mother more difficult.

Raelynn points to flowers growing in front of her house in Champaign after coming back from daycare. Raelynn’s daycare had been shut down for periods of time but is now open more regularly, which has allowed Anderson to go to work and attend online school. Carolina Garibay/WILL Student Newsroom

She said that this forces her and other student parents to adapt their schedules to the school’s curriculum.

“They don’t really cut slack on the work because they’re like, ‘Oh, well, she’s at home, she can just do it on the computer’” Anderson said. “But what they don’t understand is or what is not really built into their curriculum is, ’Oh, what if these people have kids?’ It’s not really like a built-in thing.”

Meredith Manze, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy at City University of New York, said she found a similar trend with other student parents.

In a study conducted in March with undergraduate student parents, Manze said she found that 30% of the students involved reported that childcare interfered with school somewhat moderately/moderately/a lot in the last year.

She also said that in almost all situations, student parents were expected to advocate for themselves, which she said doesn’t always come easy for them.

She said that the hesitancy to self-advocate might come from the lack of accommodation groups that student parents belong to have faced in the past. 

This idea of expecting student parents to self-advocate for resources and extensions is something that Parkland officials said the school is aware of, and they do currently offer multiple resources for student parents, including lactation rooms and an on-campus child daycare center, as well as a line on the back of their ID cards that invites them to speak with the dean if they have children or are pregnant.

Dr. Marietta Turner, Dean of Students at Parkland, said Parkland isn’t currently tracking their student parents.

“We have not been tracking our students with their own children,” Turner said. “Usually they reach out to me, and they have an issue in terms of childcare or food situations or housing situations.”

“We want to create a feeling of, ‘We will help you, and we’re here to help you,’ and that’s what part of my office’s duty is as advocate for students is to help them with what I call the life challenges and the ‘gotchas’ of life.”

(Editor’s note: After this story was published, Parkland Vice President Stephanie Stuart contacted our newsroom to clarify that Parkland does track data on students who are parents. She sent the following statement: )

The college does track data on students who are parents and reports that information to state and federal authorities annually. We collect data on our enrollment application on the number of students who are single parents, and this data is recorded as part of our A1 annual data set that is shared with the state and federal government. While this is self-reported data, we have more than 200 students currently who have indicated this and make intentional efforts to support students who are parenting. Additionally, our dean of students is actively working with pregnant students to help them stay in school in the event of a birth of a child. The college is also pursuing a federal grant opportunity to help to parenting students stay in school by assisting them with daycare tuition costs at our on-site child care center.

When students don’t feel comfortable asking for accommodations, though, they may start to fall behind. Even though student parents have a lower graduation rate than non-parenting students, research shows that they have higher GPAs.

Source: Institue for Women's Policy Research analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16)

study published in “The Journal of Higher Education” said that the lack of available time student parents have for homework versus the amount of time non-parenting students have might be the main reason for this difference. 

The differences are even more stark among single mothers. According to an IWPR analysis in 2018, single mothers in college spend nine hours a day on care and housework. Female college students without children spend under two hours a day on care and housework combined. 

Manze said the conflicting statistics about GPA and graduation rates might be due to student parents’ need to master skills necessary to succeed in college so that they can keep up with the demands of being a student and a parent. She said this is why colleges should view student parents as a priority.

“It’s just an enormous amount of responsibility that it’s just so clear to me how motivated and how much they excel as students and are a real asset to the classroom and to the workforce when they graduate,” Manze said.

Chaunté White, a senior research associate for the IWPR in Washington D.C., said that colleges should add student parents to the current “traditional student” definition and design their curriculums around student parents’ needs rather than expecting them to maneuver their lives around the current system. 

“Student parents should be added to that mix, in terms of when we think of who today’s college students are and actually be real with those numbers. We see in these reports that a very significant population of students are parents,” White said. “If that’s ever brought up or not, it needs to be thought about more.”

Raelynn smiles as she explores some of the tie dye shirts her mom makes. Along with caring for Raelynn and completing school work, Anderson said she also she tie-dyes shirts and sells them. Carolina Garibay/WILL Student Newsroom

Anderson is fighting the statistics stacked against her, but she said she had to give up a lot to make the student-parent life work.

“I’ve had to sacrifice my youth. And I had to turn from a child to an adult really quick, without a choice really,” she said. “I could almost say it was an overnight shift that had to happen.”

Anderson said that even though it’s been hard navigating college as a student parent, Raelynn’s future is motivating her to be both a successful student and a good mother. 

“I just don’t want her to, I don’t know what to say, suffer from me not doing something at an early age,” Anderson said. “I don’t want her to develop wrong or something because I didn’t do something or correct a bad behavior that I didn’t see because I was too busy caught up in my own life.”

Carolina Garibay is a University of Illinois student reporter who contributes to the WILL Student Newsroom.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Tuesday 6/2 to include a direct quote about Parkland not tracking student data, along with clarification from Parkland Vice President Stephanie Stuart that the college does track this data, which is self-reported.

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