Students with children face a variety of obstacles in college. Find out what can be done to help parents in the college classroom.

The Challenges of Being a Parent in College

Dr. Solomon is an instructor in the Department of First-Year Programs at Washington State University.


As recent headlines point out, today's college students are changing. According to the AAC&U, they no longer fit the traditional image of a college student aged 18-24, living in dorms on campus, and just entering into early adulthood and its various responsibilities. In reality, students today are older, more independent from their parents, and have far more responsibilities than they once would have.

Within the changing landscape of college student demographics, a consistently underrepresented population is students who are parents. According to a 2019 report, slightly more than 22% of undergraduate students today are parents. Though that is a sizable portion of the student population, half of them leave college without completing a degree.

This issue is further compounded by the fact that, according to the Government Accountability Office, 55% of college student parents are single parents, 56% have a child younger than five years old (and therefore, likely in need of daycare), and 44% are working full time in addition to going to college and raising children. Sixty-four percent of the polled population reported that they were enrolled in college part time, which also highlights low retention and persistence rates among this population.

Despite all of this, parents in college have consistently higher grades and GPAs than students who are not parents — a fact that the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) attributes to a parent's desire to perform well in college to improve their own life, and the lives of their children. It should be no surprise, then, that such poor degree completion rates among such high-performing students is a major concern for colleges across the country.

Government Initiatives to Support Student Parents

IWPR argues that a lot needs to be done to improve this situation, including giving parents access to emergency financial aid, affordable housing, mentorship and peer support, and improved mental and physical healthcare. More recently, one of the biggest hurdles for parents — access to affordable and dependable child care — has gained national attention.

According to NPR, House Democrats have been in talks about expanding the existing Child Care Access Means Parents In School (CCAMPIS) program, which provides low-income college students with access to affordable child care on campus. Colleges involved in CCAMPIS receive grants from the U.S. Department of Education to help supplement students' child care costs.

In 2018, Congress tripled federal funding for CCAMPIS, from $15 to $50 million dollars, a promising indication that the severity of this issue is starting to be recognized. However, this program aids only a limited number of campuses and a very small portion of students who need it. IWPR and NPR report that only about 11,000 students currently benefit from the program, less than 1% of the estimated 1.8 million college student parents who need it.

The current CCAMPIS expansion discussion proposes raising the funding amount to $200 million dollars, which would serve about four times as many student parents in need. While this would be a significant improvement, that would still leave about 95% of that population in need.

A recent graduate in her cap and gown smiles at her child

What Can Be Done to Help Parents in College?

Because major expansions to the CCAMPIS program will take time, and will likely not be sufficient to serve a majority of college student parents, the question remains: What can be done at the university level, or even at the classroom level, to increase the rates of success?

A recent social media trend shows professors helping student parents by allowing them to bring their children to class. In September, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College shared a picture of her biology professor holding her baby during a three-hour lecture when the baby was fussy. The student brought her child to class with permission, after she told her professor that her babysitter cancelled and she would have to miss class.

In March, a math professor at Morehouse College invited his student to bring his baby to class when he caught him using his cellphone in class, and learned it was because he was talking to his wife about their child care for the day falling through. The next time it happened, the student brought the baby to class, and a photo of the professor holding the baby so that the student could "take good notes" went viral.

CHARACTERISTICS OF UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT PARENTS
Single parent 55%
Working full time 44%
Enrolled part time 64%
Female 61%
African American 23%

In October, a professor at Texas Southern University held his graduate student's son, who had been born prematurely, during a lecture in his film class, so that she would not miss out on the course due to a lack of child care.

If you were to search Google for such stories, they come up in droves. It is becoming increasingly popular to highlight the stories of these outstanding acts of kindness and empathy on the parts of college professors or other college staff members who see their students struggling from a lack of access to the services they desperately need. And as heartwarming as they are, they also highlight the severe need that exists.

Both inside the classroom and in the broader campus community, student parents can benefit from a simple demonstration of understanding. Professors want to keep students on track with their education, and not accommodating the needs of parents could mean these students withdraw from class altogether.

All of these instructors also saw having a child in class as an opportunity to bring the realities and knowledge of the outside world into their classrooms and used the situation as a learning tool.

Changing Classroom Policies to Accommodate Student Parents

While it is, of course, not realistic to ask all instructors to perform the double-duty of teaching their students and helping them with their children, one potential aid to this problem is to implement a classroom policy that demonstrates understanding.

An example of this is Dr. Melissa Cheyney's "family-friendly" syllabus policy for her classes at Oregon State University. While it is her policy to invite children into her classroom when necessary, simply acknowledging the demands of parenthood on a syllabus — and the accommodations that can be made in such situations — could go a long way toward making student parents in your class feel recognized and hopeful.

If students feel that their situation is not a deal-breaker for classroom success, it might increase their chances of staying and graduating on time. It also gives the instructor the opportunity to direct them to other helpful resources available on campus. Sometimes simply reaching out and recognizing a student in need can be a huge intervention in what would otherwise be an overlooked barrier to that student's success.