4 Ways Colleges Can Support Student Parents

4 Ways Colleges Can Support Student Parents

January 6, 2021

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The Challenges of Being a Student Parent in College

Balancing childrearing and college coursework can be both challenging and frustrating. This is a common experience for many students today. Data shows that around 4.8 million college students are raising children.

Completing a college degree as a parent can be a tricky endeavor. According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, about half of all college students earn a degree or certificate within six years, while only 33% of student parents do the same. The graduation rate is even lower for single parents, who are more likely to be women of color.

Raising children as a college student creates financial, time, and psychological stressors that can lead to burnout and exhaustion and impede many students from graduating.

Social integration in the college culture is key to student success and persistence. Involvement in clubs, organizations, and co-curricular activities provides social support and impacts students' sense of belonging. Many student parents manage multiple competing demands and therefore lack the time to participate in traditional student engagement opportunities.

While childcare costs have risen, the proportion of colleges offering on-campus childcare has declined. The average cost of in-center care ranges from $9,100-$9,600 a year.

While childcare costs have risen, the proportion of colleges offering on-campus childcare has declined. The average cost of in-center care in the U.S. ranges from $9,100-$9,600 a year. For student parents who identify as low-income, not having access to free or subsidized childcare means they likely have no alternative means.

On-campus childcare centers are conveniently located and minimize the challenges associated with off-campus care, such as inflexible hours, a longer commute time between campus and the childcare center, and additional regulations associated with external care facilities.

When on-campus childcare is provided, student parents are more likely to stay in school and perform better academically. For nursing mothers, the lack of lactation stations on campus can create additional barriers and lead many to drop out or disengage.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the stressors and challenges for student parents. Currently, student parents are dealing with temporary shutdowns of colleges and on-campus childcare, remote instruction, and job losses. With many closures of K-12 schools, parents must manage the competing demands of homeschooling their children while also completing college coursework.

According to a recent survey by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, 25% of enrolled college students felt slightly anxious about COVID-19, 35% felt somewhat anxious, and 21% felt very anxious. For student parents, additional stressors and time demands are likely exacerbating their anxiety.

How Colleges Can Better Support Student Parents

Supporting student parents shows a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Here are four recommendations schools can follow to establish a supportive campus for student parents.

Create Family-Friendly Syllabi and Classroom Policies

Student parents often feel guilty when they have to prioritize school work over spending time with their children. This is where instructors come in. Because professors play a key role in providing the first orientation to college for many student parents, it's vital that they demonstrate flexibility and empathy to this unique group of learners.

Faculty can show empathy to students' emotional and psychological needs by creating flexible attendance policies and promoting a culture of open communication so that student parents feel comfortable approaching their professors about childcare and parenting emergencies.

Creating a family-friendly classroom environment during COVID-19 is even more important as parents balance homeschooling. Professors should give student parents multiple opportunities to engage with their classes. For example, an instructor could allow students to participate and earn attendance points through different modalities, such as discussion board posts, individual or group projects, and electronic surveys.

Professors should give student parents multiple opportunities to engage with their classes.

Faculty should also work diligently to normalize help-seeking behaviors and encourage students to ask questions, attend office hours, and request assistance when needed.

Given that many student parents are disconnected from the larger campus culture, it's important that professors include mental health resources, information on student clubs and activities, financial aid and scholarship details, and childcare resources in their syllabi. This sends the message that you understand the holistic needs of your students.

While some colleges and universities lack a specific club for student parents, faculty can play a crucial role in bridging the gap between student parents in the classroom. Providing opportunities for students to share their stories and experiences during class can help student parents form connections. You could even create a virtual space in which students can discuss their lives and cultural experiences.

Establish or Increase Support Services for Student Parents

When student parents have access to college support services, their stress levels decrease. In addition to on-campus childcare, many student parents desire more affordable housing. Having access to student and family housing can provide a stable living situation for parents experiencing financial instability.

Dedicated family housing not only sends the message that an institution is family-friendly, but it also helps build a student-parent community in which students can forge connections with other families on campus. Under Berea College's model for family-friendly housing, the school provides housing for single parents and married couples (with or without children), as well as social and educational programming for student parents.

With student parents' varied, nontraditional schedules, having access to on-campus services, spaces, and technology is a necessity. When student study spaces and computer labs are only available on a traditional 9-5 schedule, student parents who work full time and take evening classes can struggle to complete their assignments and perform well in school.

Student parents who work full time and take evening classes can struggle to perform well in school when study spaces and computer labs are only available on a traditional 9-5 schedule.

Giving student parents access to counseling, academic advising, health services, and campus engagement opportunities in the evening not only demonstrates a college's commitment to supporting nontraditional students, but also alleviates any barriers in accessing these services.

Peer support networks can have enormous benefits for college students as well. These networks promote peer learning and mentorship and help students form relationships that aid in their success. The University of Cincinnati, for example, is home to the Bearcats Support Network, which provides peer-based psychological and social support. Students meet weekly to address their mental and emotional well-being in a safe and confidential environment.

Creating a peer support network to engage student parents in campus life is a great way for student parents to meet one another in a safe, positive space. If colleges would like to expand their reach to student parents, hosting family-friendly events to which parents can bring their children, like bowling or game nights, is essential.

Additionally, a support network in which student parents act as academic coaches and mentors to incoming student parents can bolster the orientation experience for student parents while giving them the chance to learn about the campus culture from others like them.

Provide Flexible and Asynchronous Course Options

Colleges and universities often offer inflexible class times, which can pose challenges to parents trying to balance various commitments. This is why schools should offer courses at multiple times, including late evenings and weekends.

Onondaga Community College, for instance, offers a weekend college, allowing students to take classes on weekends and earn a degree on an accelerated schedule. Those who participate in the weekend college also get access to student success coaches and scholarships.

Asynchronous learning lets student parents review course content at a time that works for them.

Similarly, asynchronous learning options give nontraditional students more leeway for balancing work, family, and school. Many student parents are unable to complete schoolwork during the week, so being able to review course content at a time that works for them is particularly helpful.

Many student parents want time to connect with their faculty and peers. In this case, providing a mix of asynchronous course content with synchronous discussion or connection time is an excellent way to foster relationship-building while ensuring student parents get the flexibility they need.

Understand That Students Have Intersectional Identities

Student parents do not exist as a monolithic — in fact, many of them have multiple intersecting identities in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, and so on.

We've often used a very traditional definition of what constitutes parenting, but it's important to remember that parents include those who have nonbiological children or who have adopted children, those who are caring for an older parent or aging family member, and those who are pregnant or expecting a child.

We must adopt a more comprehensive definition of parenting to ensure these students continue to have access to flexible courses, peer support, and community networks.

Schools must recognize that student parents do not exist as a monolithic and in fact have multiple intersecting identities.

Supporting student parents requires partnerships and communication across departments. Students of color in particular should be aware of the cultural resources available through their institution's multicultural department. In order to promote student persistence and community-building, schools must give students of color the opportunity to engage with peers of the same race and/or cultural background.

For student parents who identify as LGBTQ+, building a close connection with LGBTQ+ support networks or student spaces is critical to their success.

Several colleges also provide students access to emergency funding in the event they experience hardship and need help paying for college. These emergency funds are crucial for single parents and families facing economic challenges due to the pandemic.

The Key to Supporting Student Parents

As millions of student parents continue to enroll in college, it's vital that institutions demonstrate their commitment to supporting this group's holistic needs. Student parents' success isn't just necessary for advancing diversity and equity initiatives on campuses, but it's also the key to our economy's health.

The first step to advocating for student parents is to understand the unique needs these learners face. Only then can we develop partnerships between academic and student affairs to create and implement tailored services to effectively support student parents.


Feature Image: filadendron / E+ / Getty Images

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