The crisis of student parents dropping out of college—or not applying in the first place—is a crisis we have created and one that we can no longer afford as a nation.
I was eight months pregnant, 18 years old, and living day-to-day in a Motel 6 in Norfolk, Va., when I found out I’d been accepted into a prestigious, public Ivy League college. Like too many teen mothers, each day was a painstaking routine of ensuring I had a place to sleep at night—even if it was in my boyfriend’s Cadillac in a K-mart parking lot—and enough food to keep hunger at bay for me and my unborn baby.
Now another difficult daily task was holding onto the hope that I could actually go to college. My grades weren’t the issue: I’d always been an honor roll student. Instead, the hurdles I faced were unstable housing, hunger, unemployment, unaffordable child care and the unshakable feeling that as a young mother I didn’t belong in college. These made just entering a classroom at the College of William & Mary seem like a far-fetched fantasy—and let’s not even talk about graduating.
This was more than 20 years ago—long before COVID-19 wreaked its worst havoc on the lives of people who are on the fringes and for whom college is typically out of grasp. And no category of college students has been harder hit than one that is often invisible: students who are also mothers (and fathers).
Despite being largely left out of the national higher ed conversation, student parents make up about one-quarter of all college students—and that does not include the millions who have dropped out because of the barriers to getting a degree that existed before COVID. Barriers that include soaring college costs, lack of affordable child care and housing, and racist policies, (such as segregated and underfunded schools and the school-to-prison pipeline) that keep a postsecondary credential and its benefits out of reach.
In normal times, student parents get better grades than their non-parenting peers—but more than half leave college without a degree within six years and less than 2 percent of teen mothers earn a college degree before age 30 (and as a result of COVID, these dismal numbers are likely to get worse). These mothers and fathers are highly motivated but having children and lacking support requires a grueling balancing act. It’s one that I know well. Though I ended up graduating from William & Mary four years later with honors, each day was about surviving through the next 24 hours.
Student parents are often the first in their families to go to college, are struggling financially, and are disproportionately students of color (in fact almost half of all Black female undergraduate students across the country are parenting). These layered experiences have made them extremely susceptible to the economic tsunami that the pandemic has created.
Before COVID-19, financial aid from the federal government, states, and the colleges and universities themselves was not enough to cover the true, full cost of being a parenting student, and few programs existed to provide the necessary “wraparound supports.” During the pandemic, the demands on student parents from their often low-wage jobs, college classes and their children’s schools have meant more mothers and fathers putting on hold or forgoing their dreams of a degree or credential. Despite the common refrain that it “must be nice” to go to classes remotely instead of having to travel to school, student parents are finding it harder than ever to devote time and attention to their learning and assignments.
Though I ended up graduating from William & Mary four years later with honors, each day was about surviving through the next 24 hours.
College presidents across the country felt COVID-19 hit like a tidal wave this past year, and many schools responded with innovative programs to help students stay enrolled and in school—some specifically investing in the needs of parents. At Generation Hope, the nonprofit organization that I founded in 2010, we provide holistic support to young parents in college and their children as well as national advocacy for all student parents. Every day our scholars show us what works best to help the nearly 4 million student parents nationwide stay the course. If more colleges and universities were to adopt these practices—and keep some of them long after the current crisis is over—we would see millions more student parents complete their degrees and make a better future for themselves and their children.
At any college, the tone is set by those at the top, and the administration can do so much good by simply gathering information. In September, the president of Trinity Washington University, Pat McGuire, conducted a first-ever survey of Trinity’s students to understand their parenting experiences. This was a significant step toward these students being seen in the campus community. The vast majority of institutions do not track the parenting status of their students, which means their needs aren’t part of the conversation.
Very few institutions collect substantial data on caregiving needs or regularly disaggregate data on the parental status of students: https://t.co/tzfyiIWYGA.@NicoleLynnLewis is spot on when she shares that most institutions are not currently tracking these data sufficiently. pic.twitter.com/pnzBVPx0VY— Christine Wolff-Eisenberg (@cwolffeisenberg) May 3, 2021
Behind the scenes, Dr. DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College in Maryland, and Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College in Texas, worked throughout last year to make sure their financial aid offices established or increased the pots of emergency aid—and removed barriers to accessing it—available to students who were suddenly out of work, on the brink of being homeless, or unable to afford food. Many college students who fit these descriptions, even in non-COVID times, are student parents, who are among the most financially vulnerable in a college population.
Many colleges and universities have also taken steps to increase other supports for student parents, which is critical because even before the pandemic, nearly half of all parenting students felt disconnected from their college community. By offering more mental health services and virtual activities like family game nights for students’ children—or simply reaching out to student parents to check in on their wellbeing—schools such as Los Angeles Valley College and their Family Resource Center help them feel valued in an uncertain world. As colleges and universities form their reopening plans for the fall, there is an opportunity to ensure the needs of parenting students are being prioritized. One key consideration is to include a student parent on a school’s reopening task force—they will have insights on the challenges and needs of their peers.
There is power in our collective voices to end the stigma around #TeenPregnancy and start a crucial conversation about how to better support young families’ success in #College and beyond! Share your story on the #PregnantGirlStoryQuilt: https://t.co/ojgDichtmN pic.twitter.com/xzok5wqo8E— Generation Hope (@SupportGenHope) April 13, 2021
For example, one initiative that seemed like a good idea back in the spring of 2020—offering wifi in campus parking lots to tackle the digital divide—did not take into consideration how hard it would be for a parent to try to do their coursework in a car for hours with toddlers sitting in the backseat. This type of insight can only come from those who know and understand the challenges of being a student parent. And as students begin returning to campus, schools should take steps to include the parenting population in activities and events that help build a sense of a community in both hard times and in better ones.
Institutions should continue to be as flexible as they have been in the past year with their students, especially student parents, for the long term. In July, Everett Community College in Washington announced that it is investing in a Weekend College model to increase the likelihood that student parents, particularly those from historically underserved races and ethnicities, have the resources to be successful in earning a degree or certificate. Campus-wide efforts like this are important as well as the everyday practices of student-facing staff.
Professors play a vital role in making sure student parents have what they need to succeed now and after the pandemic. For example, the option of asynchronous learning can make a big difference for parenting students: Instead of having to attend their own classes while their son also needs the family’s one laptop for school during the day, a student parent can “attend” a lecture or class after hours. If professors create family-friendly syllabi that express a desire to accommodate students’ parenting responsibilities, this can make a big difference for a student who might not otherwise disclose that their newborn baby isn’t yet sleeping through the night.
Even now, with the COVID-19 vaccination available to all American adults who want one, all of us are understandably nervous about what the future holds, but we have the power to do something about it. The crisis of student parents dropping out of college—or not applying in the first place—is a crisis we have created and one that we can no longer afford as a nation. Our ability to recover from this pandemic will require a good, hard look at how we have left millions of young mothers behind, and how we can clear their path to graduating, energizing their local economies, and creating legacies of education within their families. We can choose whether or not they remain invisible, and we have the power to create a future in which they thrive.
Hear more from author Nicole Lynn Lewis on this week’s special Mother’s Day episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Messages to Mom: We Have Your Back (with Rep. Katie Porter, Nicole Lynn Lewis, Dr. Aisha Nyandoro and Tamara Ware).
Tune in below:
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