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

College students with children have always been especially at risk for housing, food, and child care gaps, but the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated those concerns. More than 20 percent of currently enrolled college students are parenting alongside their studies. Their needs “have never been more acute” and “will likely extend many months beyond the current crisis,” Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at the American Council on Education, writes in an opinion piece for Education Dive.

New data from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s fifth annual #RealCollege survey shows the extent of this population’s challenges. In 2019, the center surveyed more than 23,000 student-parents from 171 two-year institutions and 56 four-year institutions and found:

  • Food insecurity among 53 percent of student-parents
  • Housing insecurity among 68 percent of student-parents
  • Homelessness among 17 percent of student-parents

Hope Center researchers say these concerns have only grown amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “If our survey was taken now, the results would likely be 100 times worse,” Carrie Welton, director of policy at the Hope Center, told The Hechinger Report. “The system was failing parenting students even prior to [COVID-19].”

Compound burdens

Student-parents face a number of obstacles to degree attainment, including extreme demands on their time and finances. Sixty-two percent of student-parents who use child care find it unaffordable, and most say they would benefit from on-campus child care. Just 28 percent of single mothers graduate from college with a degree or certificate within six years, and parents are 10 times less likely to finish a bachelor’s degree within five years than childless students, writes The Hechinger Report.

Additionally, many student-parents are low-income and/or people of color, Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, noted during a recent webinar. “The challenges disproportionately affect low-income students,” Smith said. “They are feeling it far worse than other groups.”

Basic needs insecurity derailing studies 

Shanna Jackson, president of Nashville State Community College, says her school’s enrollment numbers are declining as students toil to provide food, shelter, and water for their families. Nashville State’s student-parents “need resources for food and child care, and we are trying to reach out and say we are here,” Jackson said.

Similarly, Stephanie Sutton, vice president of enrollment management at Stark State College in Northeast Ohio, said she and her colleagues are “hearing stories about students who can’t pay bills, they have finals and they need someone to watch their kids, but child care is closed.” Furthermore, Stark State’s student-parents are facing job loss, eviction notices, food shortages, and difficulty managing their children in quarantine.

Proposed supports

Noting the social, economic, and health benefits of a college degree, advocates are calling for more child care options, federal support, and educational innovation. “Education is the strongest ladder for social and economic stability, but we first have to get them out of the situation they are in,” Jackson says. 

In his Education Dive column, Soares of the American Council on Education says higher education can help take the lead and “lay the foundation for a more adaptable and resilient set of services that can better serve student parents—and perhaps all postsecondary learners.” He proposes innovations such as:

  • Rolling admissions that incorporate easily accessible, modular instruction
  • Curricula that blend academic and occupational learning
  • Stackable credentialing
  • Advising that integrates financial, academic, and career considerations
  • Policies that facilitate work-life-education balance

Soares points to the Early Childhood Center at the City University of New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, the Student Parent Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the SOUL (Social Online Universal Learning) platform at Massachusetts-based Bay Path University as resources for student-parents that are in proof-of-concept stage. 

To further support the development of tools, programs, and initiatives that could help student-parents succeed, the American Council on Education is partnering with Imaginable Futures and Lumina Foundation to promote the Rise Prize, which funds projects aimed at improving student-parents’ economic mobility and well-being. Soares says that “addressing the needs of student-parents may be a key to innovations that unlock and enhance college and university performance, enable better student outcomes, and close equity gaps.”

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