As colleges across the country start classes this fall, students who are on campus must follow a host of social distancing measures that drastically change the college experience, while those taking classes remotely must grapple with learning mainly from a screen. One subset of students has particularly tough adjustments to make: those who are parents.
More than one in five of today’s college students are parents, and they have been stretched thin during this crisis. Regular daytime child care arrangements have been massively disrupted, and whether schools will open full time in the fall is still uncertain in many places. A majority of student parents are low income, and many work in low-wage jobs from which they cannot afford to take time off. Few such jobs allow for telecommuting, either. As the fall semester begins, it is important to consider how new procedures will affect student parents, and what colleges might do to help with these challenges. Colleges should not abandon student parents to fend for themselves.
Nearly half of colleges are holding classes online or using a hybrid model this semester. Online learning is both a blessing and a curse for student parents. For some, increased access to online learning and student support options helps as they struggle to balance multiple roles. For those in jobs where it is possible to work from home, remote work combined with remote educational options can provide the scheduling flexibility necessary to juggle previously conflicting demands on their time.
But obstacles must be navigated. Many student parents do not have laptops or home internet service. Some internet service providers offer several months free to new low-income customers, but getting service set up requires time and effort. As colleges begin the semester, they cannot assume that all students have easy access to these technology resources.
In addition, online classes require greater levels of self-direction and offer less external accountability than in-person courses. For students who do better with interpersonal learning, the online learning environment can feel isolated and more difficult. And in places where schools and child care centers are closed, student parents must do their classwork with children in the background demanding attention and time. It can be difficult to focus, work and learn in this context.
Student parents will also continue to face challenges when it comes to food and housing. Families that rely on free and reduced-price school lunch programs, public assistance programs and food pantries are struggling to get by with less food and limited budgets. According to researchers at the Temple University Hope Center, 53% of student parents experience food insecurity during college. Many rely on campus- and community-based food pantries and diaper banks to help them support their families and stay in school. Even if classes are online, these needs do not change. In fact, with many campus offices closed, these resources may not be as accessible, and alternative resources in the community may also be closed or overburdened.
“Unfortunately, student parents have been one of the first groups to be forgotten in this crisis.”
Marni Roosevelt, director of the Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley College
Similar problems may arise if campus housing is unavailable. Student parents who live in campus family housing generally consider this their family’s home and their only permanent residence. Some do not have parents or family members they can turn to for a place to stay. Many of the young parents I have worked with in residential programs came from foster care, group homes or difficult family situations and have no place to live other than their campus apartment or residence hall. Temple researchers have also found that 66% of student parents experience housing insecurity and 16% experience homelessness during college. Campus housing is an excellent resource for help, but students who cannot access it may find themselves with nowhere else to go.
A handful of colleges have led by example to provide support during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, student parents have been one of the first groups to be forgotten in this crisis,” said Marni Roosevelt, director of the Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley College. The center offers remote meetings with its staff social workers and mental health professionals, providing online counseling to help student parents strategize support and connect them with community resources. It also has a drop-in digital chat room where student parents can log in remotely to connect with one another. For families in need, the center plans to continue making emergency deliveries of food and household supplies, as well.
In New York City, the CUNY Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia, Hostos and Kingsborough community colleges has been assembling packets of school supplies and at-home activities for children, and distributing food and household supplies to participant families. Jesus Benitez, mentor coordinator for the program at LaGuardia and a student parent himself, said the program will continue to check in with each family to make sure they have what they need to get through the pandemic.
Roosevelt said, “We’re just trying to keep our students in school now, and I don’t know how successful we’re going to be.”
In a state of crisis, it is easy to forget those who already struggle with the day-to-day problems they must handle in order to persist and thrive in college as student parents. In fact, student parents are so used to responding to problems that they may have some great ideas and suggestions for how best to address their needs. As the fall semester begins, colleges should consider student parents’ needs thoughtfully, to help them stay in college this term and beyond.
Autumn Green leads the Higher Education Access for Student Parents Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research and action institute at Wellesley College.
This story about student parents in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.