Competing demands weigh heavily on student parents during pandemic

Layering college coursework on top of family responsibilities, virtual learning environments, and a pandemic, American student parents are struggling to stay afloat as they care for themselves and those at home. 

According to The Washington Post, 4.3 million—22 percent of—undergraduate college students are also parents. Over the course of the pandemic, these student parents have faced significant setbacks, including disrupted child care, difficulty taking time off of work, and food and housing insecurity. 

A precarious balance, even before the pandemic

A recent survey from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University revealed that in 2019, even before the pandemic, 53 percent of student parents experienced food insecurity, 68 percent faced unstable housing, and 17 percent experienced homelessness. The pandemic has only intensified these gaps—and student parents’ immense need for on- and off-campus resources to support them. 

Related: More than half of student-parents reported basic needs insecurity—before the pandemic >

Yet, few colleges and universities have developed comprehensive policies and resources for student parents, leaving many to choose between their degrees and their livelihoods. Generation Hope, a student-parent advocacy nonprofit group out of Washington, D.C., conducted a study and found that around half of student parents drop out of college within six years, compared to 32 percent of college students without children, in spite of having higher grade point averages than their childless peers. 

Related: Coronavirus crisis further complicating life for adult learners and student parents >

“Unfortunately, student parents have been one of the first groups to be forgotten in this crisis,” says Marni Roosevelt, director of the Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley College, which offers online counseling for student parents and connects them with community resources. 

Disparities compound struggles for student parents

In addition to balancing family and academic responsibilities, many student parents are contending with racial and socioeconomic disparities as they try to obtain their degrees. Inside Higher Ed reports that half of student parents are students of color, and student parents are disproportionately likely to come from low-income backgrounds. 

In addition, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Black parents have more student debt than parents and nonparents in every other racial and ethnic group. On average, Black college students with children borrow nearly $5,000 more than the average college student. 

“Solutions to the student debt crisis have to address the unique needs of student parents as well as the racial inequities that disproportionately burden Black parents,” Nicole Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, wrote for The Hechinger Report. Noting that almost 50 percent of Black female undergraduates are moms and more than one-third of Black college students are parents, Lewis urges colleges and universities to look at the racial wealth gap and address racist policies in higher education that burden Black student parents with crippling debt. 

Supporting student parents through college and crisis

Generation Hope also has created a toolkit to help colleges and universities improve their support for student parents throughout the pandemic and their college careers. Recommendations include establishing and increasing emergency aid, offering virtual counseling and advising support for student parents and their children, and encouraging faculty to implement family-friendly syllabi and asynchronous learning opportunities to help parents balance college coursework and care for their children. 

Several institutions already are working to bolster support for student parents as they pursue a college degree.

The City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy, which operates at three community colleges across New York City, is offering school supply packets and at-home learning activities for college students’ children. The academy also distributes food and household supplies for families struggling to stay afloat amid the pandemic. 

On the West Coast, The Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley College is providing emergency food and household deliveries to families in need. Roosevelt says she hopes every bit of aid helps but is still worried for student parents. “We’re just trying to keep our students in school now, and I don’t know how successful we’re going to be.”

Karen Gerlach, the vice president for student affairs at Washington, D.C.-based Trinity Washington University, shares that she has stepped in to advocate on several occasions for students with children, who may not feel comfortable exposing their vulnerabilities to faculty. 

“The pandemic is giving us this opportunity for a lot of faculty and staff to put themselves in the shoes of student parents who are juggling these things,” she told The Washington Post. Gerlach adds that often, student parents remain unmentioned in conversations across higher education. “As leaders, sometimes we base who our students are on who they’ve always been, and not really asking questions about what they’re balancing. You have to ask those questions to be responsive.”

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