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College is hard enough — try doing it while raising kids

Hannah Allen attends Hudson County Community College and is the mother of three children. "First you put your kids," she says. "Then you put your jobs, then you put your school. And last, you put yourself."
Yunuen Bonaparte
The Hechinger Report
Hannah Allen attends Hudson County Community College and is the mother of three children. "First you put your kids," she says. "Then you put your jobs, then you put your school. And last, you put yourself."

When Keischa Taylor sees fellow students who are also parents around her campus, she pulls them aside and gives them a hug.

"I tell them, 'Don't stop. You've got this. You didn't come this far to stop. You're not going to give up on yourself.' "

Taylor is exceedingly well qualified to offer this advice. She began her college education in her early 20s, balancing it with raising two sons and working retail jobs in northern New Jersey. And she just finished her bachelor's degree last semester — at 53.

It's a rare success story. There are more than 5 million student parents attending U.S. colleges and universities. Yet they are disproportionately less likely to reach the finish line. Fewer than 4 in 10graduate with a degree within six years, compared with more than 6 in 10 other students.

Many have long had to rely on themselves and each other, as Taylor did, to make it through.

Now, however, student parents are beginning to get more attention. A rule that took effect in California in July, for example,gives priority course registration at public colleges and universities to student parents, who often need more scheduling flexibility than their classmates.

New York State in Septemberexpanded the capacity of child care centers at community colleges by 200 spots. Its campus child care facilities previously handled a total of 4,500 children, though most of those slots — as at many institutions with child care on campus, nationwide — went to faculty and staff.

For Taylor, child care was a huge issue. She first attended Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, N.J., and later moved on to Rutgers University. While she was in community college, she put her sons in a Salvation Army day care center.

"It's a matter of paying for college, paying for the babysitter or sneaking them into class," Taylor recalled. Even though the community college is among the few that have improved its services for student parents, she remembered asking herself back then, "How am I going to do this?"

Keischa Taylor began her college education in her 20s, balanced it with raising two sons and working retail jobs. She recently finished her bachelor's degree at age 53.
Yunuen Bonaparte / The Hechinger Report
The Hechinger Report
Keischa Taylor began her college education in her 20s, balanced it with raising two sons and working retail jobs. She recently finished her bachelor's degree at age 53.

Experts say there are several factors driving the new efforts to serve student parents:

  • They are a huge potential market for colleges and universities looking for ways to make up for the plummeting number of 18- to 24-year-olds. "If you want to serve adult learners, which colleges see as their solution to enrollment decline, you have to serve student parents," said Su Jin Jez, CEO of California Competes, a nonpartisan research organization that focuses on education and workforce policies.
  • They offer a potential solution to the need in many states for workers to fill jobs requiring a college education.
  • Many parents already have some college credits. More than a third of the 40.4 million adults who have gone to college, but never finished, have children under age 18, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, or IWPR.
  • Another reason student parents are more visible now: The COVID-19 pandemic reminded Americans how hard it is to be a parent generally, never mind one who is juggling school on top of work and children.
  • A new body of research has also drawn attention to the benefits for children of having parents who go to college. "The greatest impact on a child's likelihood to be successful is the education of their parents," said Teresa Eckrich Sommer, a research professor at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research.

For parents struggling to juggle courses, study time and raising a child, the conflicting demands can seem overwhelming.

Tayla Easterla was enrolled at a community college near Sacramento, Calif., when her daughter was born prematurely four years ago; she took her midterms and finals in the neonatal intensive care unit. "I just found that motherly drive somewhere deep inside," she recalls.

Now 27, Easterla is majoring in business administration at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Krystle Pale is about to get her bachelor's degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz. When she looks at her children who live with her, who are 5, 7, 12 and 13, she chokes up. "I want better for them," she says. "I just want them to have a better life."

Sydney Riester of Rochester, Minn., who is about to earn her dental assistant associate degree, also said her children — ages 3, 6 and 7 — were foremost in her planning: "These kids need me, and I need to get this done for them."

There'sa surprising lack of information about students in college who have dependent children.

"Ask community college presidents what percentage of their students are parents, and they'll say, 'That's a really good question. I'll get back to you,' " said Marjorie Sims, managing director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, one of a growing number of research, policy and advocacy organizations focusing on student parents.

This is slowly changing. California, Michigan, Oregon and Illinoishave passed legislation since 2020 requiring that public colleges and universities track whether their students are also parents. A similar federal measureis pending in Congress.

Broader national data compiled by the Urban Institute show that nearly 1 in 4 undergraduates, and nearly 1 in 3 graduate students, are parents. That's more than 5.4 million people. More than halfhave children under age 6, according to the IWPR.

Women make up more than 70% of student parents. Just over half (51%) are Black, Hispanic or Native American. Student mothers are more likely to be single, while student fathers are more likely to be married.

Student parents face huge financial obstacles

Among student parents who go to college but drop out, cost and conflicts with work are the most-stated reasons, various research shows. Seventy percenthave trouble affording food and housing, according to the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

Most financial aid is based on an estimated cost of attendance that includes tuition, fees, books, supplies, transportation and living expenses – but not expenses related to raising a child.

Hannah Allen, who attends Hudson County Community College, gets up at 5 a.m. to get her three kids ready for the day.
Yunuen Bonaparte / The Hechinger Report
The Hechinger Report
Hannah Allen, who attends Hudson County Community College, gets up at 5 a.m. to get her three kids ready for the day.

The out-of-pocket cost of attending a public college or university for a low-income parent can betwo to five times higher than for a low-income student without children, according to the advocacy group The Education Trust.

A student parent would have to work 52 hours a week, on average, to cover both child care and tuition at a public university or college, EdTrust says. A separate analysis by California Competes found that students in that state who have children pay$7,592 per child a year more for their education and related expenses than their classmates who don't have kids.

But "when they apply for financial aid, they get financial aid packages as if they don't have children," said Jez, at California Competes. "It's ludicrous."

Forty-five percent of student parents who dropped outcited their need to provide child care as a significant cause, a survey released in February found. Yet the number of colleges and universities with on-campus child care has been dropping steadily, from 1,115 in 2012 to 824 today, federal data shows.

Fewer than 4 in 10 public colleges and universities, and fewer than 1 in 10 private institutions have on-campus child care for students, an analysis by the think tank New America found. Other research shows long waiting lists for those centers, while other students don't bother because they can't afford the cost.

"Colleges and universities that enroll student parents should be committed to serving their needs," said Christopher Nellum, executive director at EdTrust-West. Nellum is himself the son of a student-mother, who ultimately dropped out and enlisted in the military, concluding that it was easier to be a parent there than at a community college. "It's almost willful neglect," he says, "to be accepting their tuition dollars and financial aid dollars and not helping them succeed."

Even where child care is available and spots are open, it's often too expensive for students to manage. More than two-thirds of student parents in Washington State saidthey couldn't afford child care, a state survey last year found. About half of student parents nationwiderely entirely on relatives for child care.

Hannah Allen, who attends Hudson County Community College, gets up at 5 a.m. to get her three kids ready for the day — first the 4-year-old, then the 6-year-old, then the 8-year-old. "I go down the line," she said. Her schedule is so tight, she has a calendar on her refrigerator and another on the wall.

She can't drop off her children at school or day care earlier than 8:30, or pick them up later than 5. "When my kids are in school is when I do as much as I can." She calls her school days "first shift," while her time at home at night is "second shift."

"First you put your kids. Then you put your jobs, then you put your school. And last, you put yourself," Allen explains. "You have to push yourself," she adds, starting to cry softly. "Sometimes you think, 'I can't do it.' "

Limited sources of assistance

There is a little-noticed federal grant program to help low-income student parents pay for child care: Child Care Access Means Parents in School, or CCAMPIS, which last year received $84 million in funding.

The Government Accountability Office found that student parents who got CCAMPIS's subsidieswere more likely to stay in school thanstudents generally. But there were more students on the waiting list for it than received aid. A Democratic proposal in the Senate to significantly expand the program has gone nowhere.

The Association of Community College Trustees, or ACCT, is pressing member colleges to make cheap or free space available forHead Start centers on their campuses in the next five years. Fewer than 100 of the nation's1,303 two-year colleges — where more than 40% of student parents go — have them now, the ACCT says.

These efforts are a start, but more is needed, said Chastity Lord, president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program, which provides students who are single mothers with coaching, child care and housing. "When your child is sick, what are you going to do with them? It becomes insurmountable. Imagine if we had emergency funding for backup child care."

Challenges on top of challenges

Just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Hudson County Community College, or HCCC, has steadily added programs to support the parents among its 20,000 students.

It has set aside "family-friendly" spaces in libraries and lounges and holds events for parents with kids, including movie nights, barbecues, trick-or-treating and a holiday tree-lighting ceremony. There's a food pantry with meals prepared by the students in the college's culinary program.

The food pantry on the campus at Hudson County Community College.
Yunuen Bonaparte / The Hechinger Report
The Hechinger Report
The food pantry on the campus at Hudson County Community College.

Student parents get to register first for courses. College staff help with applications to public benefit programs. Lactation rooms are planned. And there are longer-range conversations about putting a child care center in a new 11-story campus building scheduled to open in 2026.

The college's 20,000 students are largely poor and many are the first in their families to go to college, said Christopher Reber, HCCC's president. Many are not native English speakers, and 94% qualify for financial aid. Having children, Reber said, "adds insurmountable challenges to that list of insurmountable challenges."

Those challenges can make it extremely difficult for students to earn a degree. HCCC graduates only 17% of students, even within three years, which isamong the lowest proportions in the state.

"If a student doesn't know where their next meal is coming from, it doesn't matter how much academic support you offer — the student is not going to succeed," said Reber, in his office overlooking downtown Jersey City.

With a grant it got in January from the Aspen Institute's Ascend, HCCC is expanding its work with the housing authority in Jersey City to help student parents there enroll in, and complete, job-focused certificate programs in fields such as bookkeeping and data analytics. The grant allowed the college to hire a coordinator to work with student parents, and to appoint an advisory committee made up of those students.

Hudson Community College keeps a supply of clothing for students to wear to internships, job interviews, and in other professional situations.
Yunuen Bonaparte / The Hechinger Report
The Hechinger Report
Hudson Community College keeps a supply of clothing for students to wear to internships, job interviews, and in other professional situations.

A new program will reward student parents with financial stipends for doing things such as registering early, and researching child care options, said Lisa Dougherty, the college's senior vice president for student affairs and enrollment.

A few other colleges and universities have programs designed for student parents. Misericordia University in Dallas, Penn., providesfree housing for up to four years for as many as 18 single mothers, who also get academic support and tutoring, priority for on-campus jobs, and access to a children's library and sports facilities.

At Wilson College in Pennsylvania, up to 12 single parents annuallyare awarded grants for on-campus housing and for child care, and their children can eat in the campus dining hall for free.

St. Catherine University in Minnesotasubsidizes child care for eligible student parents, and has child-friendly study rooms.

And Howard Community College in Howard County, Md., whose president, Daria Willis,was once a student-parent, provides mentorship, peer support, career counseling, financial assistance and a family study room in the library.

"That may not seem like a big deal, but those are the messages that say, 'You belong here, too,' " said Chastity Lord of the Jeremiah Program.

Some of the obstacles for student parents are hard to measure, says Jessica Pelton, who finished community college after having a daughter at age 20. She ultimately graduated from the University of Michigan, where her husband also was enrolled.

"You're typically isolated and alone," Pelton said. "I just kind of stuck to myself."

She would often miss out on nighttime study groups with classmates who lived on campus. "Their priorities are not to go home, make dinner and put their kid to bed." Student parents, she added, "don't have the option to go party. We're not here on our parents' money. We're paying our own way."

Some faculty offered to let her bring her daughter to class, she said, which "really meant a lot to me, because it made me feel like a part of campus."

Finding fellow classmates who are parents helps, too, said Omonie Richardson, 22, who is going to college online to become a midwife, while raising her 1-year-old son and working as a chiropractic assistant 35 hours a week in Fargo, N.D.

"I felt very isolated before I found a group of other single moms," she said. "If we had the understanding and support in place, a lot more parents would be ready to pursue their educations and not feel like it's unattainable."

This story was produced byThe Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Copyright 2024 The Hechinger Report. To see more, visit The Hechinger Report.

Corrected: April 20, 2024 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the university affiliation of Teresa Eckrich Sommer. She is with Northwestern University, not Northeastern.
Jon Marcus