Gone are the days when the most looming decision college students faced was which party to attend on the weekend. Today, according to data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), more than a quarter of postsecondary students are juggling parenthood with study time, and colleges are rushing to figure out how to best support their needs.
According to a report by IWPR, nearly half of all student-parents attend two-year public colleges, while 23 percent are enrolled at four-year institutions — including both public and private colleges. They come from every demographic, but women are far more likely than men to be raising children while attending college. Findings from the IWPR report also reveal that almost a third of female undergraduates are mothers, and 60 percent of those are single mothers. Additionally, a disproportionate number of women of color are student-parents: 47 percent of African American female students are mothers, compared with 29.1 percent of white women.
Pursuing a college degree is not an easy task in itself, nor is parenthood, and students who are doing both simultaneously face a unique set of challenges. According to a report by the University of Michigan’s Center for the Education of Women (CEW), 69 percent of student-parents are living with incomes that are less than 200 percent of the poverty line, limiting their ability to afford necessities such as housing and child care. Students who are parents are also more likely than those without children to work full time, leaving them less time to develop the social and academic networks that are essential to educational success.
Despite the rapidly growing number of college students who are caring for children and the unique hurdles they face, federal funding for this group has remained fairly stagnant for two decades. However, this year marked a significant increase in funding for the Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPIS) program — from $15 million to $50 million. Last year, CCAMPIS grants were distributed to 86 colleges and universities. With the additional monies, that number is expected to grow dramatically, and universities will be looking for guidance on how to best implement these new funds.
CEW helps point colleges and universities in the right direction with its guide Helping Students with Children Graduate: Taking Your College Services to the Next Level. In it, authors identify five key components of successful student-parent support programs: academic and social supports, child care, financial support, housing, and health services. Many of these areas of assistance come into play after a student-parent has enrolled at an institution, but for some, even applying to universities can seem an unattainable goal.
That is why, for the last 30 years, the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse’s (UWL) Self Sufficiency Program (SSP) has focused its efforts on parents who are interested in pursuing higher education but need some assistance navigating the process and locating resources. The program consists of a free one-semester course that meets once or twice a week in the evenings and provides complimentary child care. Students learn about college application procedures and financial resources, practice college-level academic skills, and create a customized education plan.
Andrea Hansen, SSP’s director and a professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Department at UWL, says that the realities of single parenthood are infused into every part of the program. Financial discussions, for example, aren’t just about, “Is there money for college?” but also, “Can I be a student without harming my family’s well-being? Will my children suffer?” says Hansen.
As UWL students form their education plans, issues like child care and work requirements for government aid are taken into consideration. And Hansen says the program isn’t just a feeder into the University of Wisconsin system. She stresses that much of SSP’s success is due to its community focus. The program maintains a community advisory board with representatives from three higher education institutions, women’s organizations, and professional employer organizations as well as additional members of the community.
Other programs, like the Texas Woman’s University (TWU) Campus Alliance for Resource Education (CARE), concentrate on currently enrolled student-parents. CARE provides direct support for these individuals and also curates lists of community resources that address most of the key issues noted in the CEW guide — from on-campus family housing to subsidized after-school and full-time summer care.
An area that Amy O’Keefe, CARE’s executive director, cites as both a strength and a weakness is financial assistance. She says that even after financial aid, many of TWU’s student-parents still have to work to make ends meet. One way CARE is addressing this burden is through a holiday gift program, which O’Keefe says is one of CARE’s most popular initiatives. Through it, student-parents receive urgent-need items, such as coats and shoes, as well as toys.
“Parents report feeling genuine caring and support from their university,” she says. “An unanticipated benefit has been the gratification and meaningfulness reported by the staff and faculty sponsors.”
Community-building programs are also popular with CARE’s students. A family graduation celebration welcomes children and other family members, and O’Keefe says that simply knowing the CARE office is dedicated specifically to meeting their needs means a lot to the student-parents she works with.
This focus on community and emotional support is a common thread among many student-parent programs. The Ohio State University’s (OSU) ACCESS Collaborative — another program serving student-parents, with special attention given to single-parent students from diverse and underrepresented groups — purposefully schedules all of its programming for Tuesdays so that student-parents have a special day for their ACCESS community. These include group sessions for both students and their children, where complimentary dinner and babysitting are provided.
Additionally, many ACCESS participants and their children are able to live within a few miles of the campus in housing specifically designated for OSU and other area student-parents — made available through a unique partnership between OSU, Community Properties of Ohio, and Columbus State Community College. Seasonal events like a holiday feast and movie nights help build relationships among students as well.
With the goal of “breaking the cycle of poverty in single-parent families one degree at a time” — according to the program’s website.— ACCESS provides participants a variety of support, including life-skills workshops, leadership and professional development training, priority registration, tuition- and book-assistance opportunities, free child care, tutoring, and career services. The program also helps those graduating transition to the workplace by assisting with locating affordable housing, finding employment, and obtaining business attire.
ACCESS Director Traci Lewis says there is also a focus on getting student-parents — most of whom are women.— out into the community, and to do so, she encourages and facilitates activities such as neighborhood beautification projects. “One of the things that I always try to get the students to understand is that they are examples,” she says. “It’s not about only fostering a relationship and a community within [ACCESS], but that [program participants are] also having an effect [on] and a relationship with the community at large.”
One takeaway from all of these programs seems to be that having a support network, both within a program and among the outside community, is essential for student-parents struggling to reach graduation.
Rosanne St. Sauver, an SSP graduate who is studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at UWL and serves as the director of the LGBTQ center for the Seven Rivers region, says that while being a student-parent isn’t easy, she is glad she has stuck with it. And she acknowledges the integral role that SSP has played.
“Thank you for opening my eyes and mind to say, ‘Yes, I can,’” St. Sauver says, “because I promise in time, it will be, ‘Yes I did.’”●
Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our June 2018 issue.