Across the U.S., colleges and universities have pledged to enhance diversity and to prioritize inclusiveness. In the wake of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, they talk about these values more than ever, ensuring that group photos on their websites always feature students of color. Those pictures rarely if ever show students with babies and toddlers, even though more than 1 in 5 college students are parents. More than 60% of the mothers in college are single parents—like me.
My daughter, Sophia, is the reason I get up in the morning, why I push as hard as I do. I want to do better for her, give her a home that isn’t falling apart, a big backyard so she can play and explore. College is the steppingstone to that vision—an investment in my future and hers—but along the way I’ve faced all kinds of challenges that most of my classmates probably can’t even imagine. Colleges can do more to live up to their word and to make sure students like me will not only enroll but also stay the course to graduation.
Here are 5 ways colleges can make good on their promises of inclusivity, and support educational and career pathways for students like me.
1. Online options. Businesses and schools learned to Zoom in 2020. We all know that remote learning can’t quite replace the experience of meeting and learning in person, especially when internet access is not guaranteed. But for a mom like me, sometimes the alternative to Zoom is no class at all. I can’t bring Sophia with me to a lecture, but I can tune in from home and even meet with teachers while keeping an eye on her. Many of the workplaces of the future will include online meetings and apps like Slack to connect colleagues in different cities. Colleges need to adapt, and do so equitably, if only to ensure their graduates can navigate this new reality.
2. Child Care. Because so much important brain development happens in the early years, my daughter’s education has to take precedence over mine on those days when only one of us can get to school. It shouldn’t be a choice I have to make. If my college offered free or subsidized on-site care—if I knew I could leave Sophia with qualified early learning professionals—then my postsecondary plans would have a much higher chance of success. Colleges expend vast amounts of money on things like athletic facilities and performing arts centers, and these amenities unmistakably enhance the lives of students with the leisure time to enjoy them. But if colleges truly want parents like me to take part in their communities, they would invest in child care. If on-site care is too much to hope for, then a list of nearby, accredited child care options would be a great way to start.
3. Non-Academic Counseling. Life is complicated enough when you’re a single parent of a young child. Add other complications like rising rents, unemployment, domestic partner abuse and police discrimination, and it’s a whole situation. Right now, I’m dealing with one issue at a time. Colleges offer counseling services to help students select courses and career services to help them land that all-important first job after graduation, but in many cases they fail to offer the kind of services I got from New Moms, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization. This support was invaluable, and it’s a big part of the reason I aspire to a career in social work, but college-specific support would advance the institution’s goals of retaining the students they’re so proud to recruit.
Strategies and Innovations That Support Student Parents
• Confirm Parenting Status and Assess Barriers to Completion
• Leverage State and Federal Policy Opportunities
• Provide Financial Support Responsive to Parents
• Identify Mental Health and Well-Being Interventions
• Create a Family Friendly Campus
• Add High-Quality Non-Degree Pathways for Parents
• Create Network for Parents to Eliminate Social Stigma
– David Croom, Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents (Read more.)
4. Peer Networks. Counselors and social workers can be great, but sometimes there’s nothing like a friend whose shoulder you can lean on—someone who has been through some of the same problems. Colleges could and should bring student parents together for socializing and comparing notes. Adding one voice to another can strengthen the way we advocate for ourselves. We’re all busy in our own lives, and without the college bringing us together, we probably won’t find each other. I am fortunate to belong to a cohort of 11 Parent Advisors to the Aspen Institute’s Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative. The other parent advisors and I have each other’s backs and raise awareness nationally about student parents.
5. Financial Support. The student debt crisis is all over the news, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that higher education in the United States is unaffordable. According to a CNBC survey, student loan holders are more likely to be women and people of color, and median debt among student parents is more than twice that of students without children. (Read more.) Through financial aid (which can be increased to account for child care costs) and scholarships, colleges can lessen the burden of debt for student parents with demonstrated commitment to build better lives for their families.
Colleges are engines of opportunity for people who want well-paid careers. Research shows that single mothers who attain an associate degree, like I am working toward, are nearly half as likely to live in poverty as single mothers with a high school diploma. Generation Hope reports that average annual earnings for teen parents more than doubled after earning a college degree and that nearly one-third of teen parent graduates continued on to advanced degrees. When we first enroll, we picture ourselves gaining skills, making new friends, graduating and, eventually, getting on a fulfilling professional track. Unless colleges do more, however, those visions will never come true for student parents and our children.