Long-overdue spotlight on student-fathers, as men’s college enrollment decreases

Amid a decrease in college enrollment among men, higher education experts are encouraging a stronger focus on student-fathers, noting that they are often overlooked—and especially vulnerable to basic needs insecurity. Although enrollment rates have dropped nationally during the pandemic, they have decreased nearly twice as much for men as they have for women, with women now outnumbering men in higher education by 59 to 41 percent, according to data from The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that sixty-one percent of student-fathers drop out of college, compared to 48 percent of student mothers. The dropout rate rises to 70 percent among single, Black, and Latino fathers, The Hechinger Report notes.

Student-fathers ‘an invisible population’ facing steep barriers

Student parents comprise almost a quarter of the U.S. undergraduate population. Most struggle with food and housing insecurity and juggling competing academic, work, and caregiving responsibilities. About 70 percent of the nation’s 3.8 million student parents are women. However, there are also 1.1 million student-fathers, and they have become “an invisible population,” says Autumn Green, a researcher who studies student parents at the Wellesley Center for Women at Wellesley College. “Student dads are ghosts.”

“College is geared more toward the traditional student. Not for nontraditional students like myself,” Joshua Castillo, father and computer science major, tells The Hechinger Report. “Most professors that I’ve come across are really in the mind-set of, this is your full-time job, this is all you have to worry about right now.”

A new brief from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University finds that Black, Latinx, and Asian student parents suffer from “extremely high” basic needs insecurity, and Black student-fathers in particular have high rates of financial instability and homelessness, according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Related: New book: To help student-parents thrive, focus on belonging, basic needs >

More data is needed to fully understand the factors leading to high dropout rates among student-fathers. However, Adrian Huerta, assistant professor at University of Southern California, believes “familial pressures, that social pressure of being a provider” is one of the biggest challenges for student-fathers. “That’s where education becomes a second or third or fourth priority to everything else,” he says.

Student-fathers also might be reluctant to confide in others about their needs. Kevin Booker, dean of Morehouse College, the historically Black men’s institution in Atlanta, tells The Washington Post, “There are young men that won’t share that they are fathers because this is not what they intended to happen at this stage of life. Getting them to be open so we can help is a challenge.”

Providing multifaceted solutions

Nicole Lynn Lewis, the founder of Generation Hope, and Ali Caccavella, senior learning specialist for the Hope Center, suggest colleges and universities can support student-fathers by investing in peer outreach programs like Morehouse College’s Fathers to the Finish Line and the City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. Fathers to the Finish Line began in 2021 to help student-fathers by supplying funding for day care, groceries, transportation, and other emergency expenses, while also providing professional development and parenting courses. The program has helped five student-fathers since its founding, and Morehouse plans to promote the program to new students during orientation.

The City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy is a 16-week program that supports student-fathers in completing high school equivalency exams and college through tutoring, counseling, parenting seminars, and weekly stipends. Jesus Benitez recalls how mentors at the academy encouraged him to begin college and stay enrolled, even when he thought of leaving. “They went out and looked for me, to bring me back to school,” Benitez explains. “If it wasn’t for them constantly helping me out when they were able to, I don’t think I would have finished.”

Lewis and Caccavella also recommend institutions improve child care options on campus, put changing stations in men’s bathrooms, and revisit policies that determine whether students can bring children to offices and libraries. At the state level, officials could help by revising financial aid policies that exclude student parents who may not be able to attend school full time.

Understanding the complexities of student-fathers helps not only those students but also the next generation, Caccavella asserts. “A multifaceted problem–housing insecurity, food insecurity, economic insecurity–demands a multifaceted solution,” Caccavella says. “We’re talking about the future and success of not only these parents but also their children.”

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