‘We deserve to be on campus just like anybody else’: Student-parents on overcoming barriers, stigmas in higher ed

In Teen Vogue’s three-part series “Cradle to College,” student-parents discuss how they navigate higher education’s hurdles and assumptions to carve out new spaces for themselves and the nation’s nearly four million other undergraduate student-parents. Making the case for stronger institutional support, they challenge how higher education has long-defined the “average” college student and the “typical” college experience.

‘It can get really hard sometimes’

While her peers are planning to go to college, Lynsie Kimple, an 18-year-old high school student and mother to a one-year old, hasn’t found a full-time college that will allow her to live off-campus with her son. She also worries about how she will afford both college and childcare costs. Although Kimple has excelled in high school—getting straight A’s while working several full-time jobs and recovering from postpartum depression—she has decided to delay college, knowing she would not have the support needed to simultaneously raise her son and explore her academic interests. “It can get really hard sometimes,” Kimple tells Teen Vogue.

Related: Survey finds 3 in 5 college students report basic needs insecurity >

Kimple’s struggles are felt by many teen parents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 50% of teen parents even complete a high school degree by age 22.

​​“The reality is that so many things are working against teen parents even before they step onto a college campus,” explains Nicole Lynn Lewis, author of Pregnant Girl and founder of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that provides support to teen parents in college, as well as their children.

Once they enroll, student-parents also have to navigate where they will live; how to juggle caregiving alongside inflexible academic schedules; and how they will pay for child care, food, and other basic needs.

According to a February report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, Asian, Black, and Latinx student-parents suffer extremely high rates of basic needs insecurity. The basic needs of Black fathers are especially overlooked, even when supportive services exist for other student-parents. “If you’re a student who has children or dependents, you have to piecemeal resources and information together … which takes a lot of time and energy that you honestly don’t have,” Lewis says.

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

Viewed as a ‘liability,’ student-parents overcome stigmas

Pervasive stereotypes and assumptions about student-parents are another source of stress and low self-esteem. According to a report from Ascend at the Aspen Institute and The Jed Foundation, more than two in five student-parents experience extreme stress that impacts their mental health and educational success. Painted as “unmotivated, irresponsible, and incompetent,” student-parents are often left doubting themselves in the absence of strong support from their colleges, Teen Vogue says.

Chelsea Callender, a 23-year-old mother, says she struggled academically when she first attended college due to low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Her school did not provide familial housing or financial support for on-campus child care services, and she says she hesitated to discuss her problems with administrators because, “It just almost felt taboo to bring up my daughter in any conversation.” That fear reflects a feeling of unbelonging many student-parents have at their institutions. However, Callender affirms, “We deserve to be on campus just like anybody else.”

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

Lewis says that many stakeholders in higher education approach student-parents as “a liability” and, in the process, miss out on the strengths those students bring to their campus communities. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, student-parents tend to have higher GPAs than their college peers without children. Student-parents also have unique lived experiences and perspectives.

To better meet student-parents’ needs and position them for success, Lewis recommends centering them as experts and problem solvers. “We have to listen to students…we have to ask them to help us shape and mold the policies that are going to really slash those barriers,” says Lewis.

Joseph Yusuf, a 26-year old father and college grad, says he was welcomed by some professors and students, but the institution he attended provided no direct outreach. “I would have loved to feel accepted,” Yusuf says. As an undergrad, he struggled to afford food, housing, and other basic needs while raising his son. He recommends that schools engage student-parents directly and provide care packages, along with scholarships and other grants.

Stephanie Riveros, a 19-year-old college student and mother, echoes the importance of reducing financial barriers for student-parents balancing work, parenting, and school. Riveros, like so many other student-parents, often doesn’t know how she will manage all her responsibilities, but she tells Teen Vogue, she has “faith and hope that I will be achieving my goals next to my family.”

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