Shining a light on student fathers

In the U.S., nearly 1.1 million student fathers are currently raising children while attending college; yet, they remain largely “invisible,” according to new research from the nonprofit organization Generation Hope. The report, titled EmpowerED Dads: Amplifying Voices, Advancing Higher Education for Student Fathers, highlights the unique challenges student fathers face and outlines several institutional, state, and federal-level changes that could help increase their chances of completing a college degree. 

Since 2010, Generation Hope has provided support directly to hundreds of teen parents—and their children—in colleges across the Washington, DC and New Orleans metro regions, in hopes of ultimately increasing degree attainment and economic mobility. They also partner with the policy community and dozens of colleges to drive systemic change grounded in data and best practices.

A window into the student-father experience

For its new report, Generation Hope focused on the needs of student fathers, who make up about 30% of parenting students in higher education. About 20% of college students overall are parents, and fathers and mothers alike face added financial, time, and emotional strain. Student fathers have especially low completion rates: 61% of student fathers stop out, compared with 48% of student mothers, according to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Those rates are even higher for Black and Latine student fathers at 72% and 66%, respectively.

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

Through focus groups and journal prompts, Generation Hope explored the experiences of 10 student fathers enrolled at or recently graduated from two- and four-year institutions. Participants highlighted several common challenges, including time management and the need to overcome “societal stigma and stereotypes associated with fatherhood, as well as challenging traditional gender roles.” According to Inside Higher Ed, one student father described the need to ensure his work commitments aligned with his child’s schedule before he could even consider his course schedule. Another recalled being mistaken for a babysitter.

How to better serve ‘the invisible of the invisible’

“Student parents often navigate higher education unnoticed,” the report authors write, adding that “within this often unseen demographic, student fathers face an even greater lack of recognition.” Over time, that has resulted in scant research on and resources for fathers in higher education; most are grounded in the mother’s experience. 

Student fathers benefit from having spaces where they can “overcome that stigma of being a father and being a student,” Brittani Williams, the report’s main author and Generation Hope’s director of advocacy policy and research, said. “The emotional aspects of being a parent manifest differently for fathers.”

Support for student parents’ basic needs is also crucial, the Generation Hope report points out. More than half of all student parents experience food insecurity, while 68% experience housing insecurity, and 17% experience houselessness. Other policy recommendations include expanding federal initiatives and grants that support student fathers, especially fathers of color; increasing federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS) funding; and collecting data on students’ parenting status and their needs. The authors urge institutions, meanwhile, to expand fatherhood-focused initiatives, clubs, and gatherings that build support among peers; broaden access to mental health services; and welcome student fathers’ insights and leadership. 

“When we remove barriers, we see young parents and student parents do incredible things,” Nicole Lynn Lewis, Generation Hope founder, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “We want to be proof point for advocates and scholars: when you do remove barriers, create intentional policies, believe in [parenting students], particularly in marginalized families, the sky is the limit.”

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

Lewis said Generation Hope has mapped out an “ambitious five-year plan” to expand its impact through partnerships and growth, hoping to reach three million parenting students by 2029. Those efforts will include policies focused directly on improving the completion rates of student fathers.

Fostering diversity by recruiting, retaining students parents

Recruiting and retaining student parents is “essential for safeguarding and advancing educational opportunities for people of color” at a time when the Supreme Court has banned race-based affirmative action, and state and local efforts are blocking diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, writes The Education Trust. About one-third of students of color are also parents. The Education Trust points out that “educational institutions have considerable freedom to prioritize support” for student-parents generally and to consider parental status in enrollment decisions.

Jessica Lee, co-director of the University of California College of the Law San Francisco’s Center for WorkLife Law, calls on institutions to feature student parents in their marketing materials, expand the availability of financial support, and to “recognize the many assets that parenting students bring to the institution.” Strengthening transfer pathways between community colleges and four-year institutions also will be crucial to ensuring student parents’ long-term success.

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