The Invisible Students on Campus

How colleges and universities are neglecting students with children.

The day I walked across the graduation stage at the College of William & Mary, I felt like so many of my peers: both proud and incredibly exhausted. But my exhaustion wasn’t from the standard late nights in the library, nor was it the result of too many cold ones after a raucous graduation party. It came from the unique condition that most of my college peers wouldn’t experience until later in life: parenthood.

I started my freshman year as a teen mom with a daughter who was just three months old. Despite periods of homelessness, some cold winters without heat, and having to make tough decisions between textbooks and diapers, I ultimately finished in four years, with high honors, at age 23.

But I wasn’t supposed to graduate. It’s not that the faculty and staff at William & Mary weren’t supportive, they were, but the American higher education system wasn’t then—and largely still isn’t now—designed for parenting students like me.

The barriers to college completion for student parents are formidable. Fewer than two percent of teen mothers earn their college degrees before the age of 30. Studies have shown that student parents are 10 times less likely to complete their bachelor’s degree in five years, despite this cohort having higher GPAs, on average, than their non-parenting peers.

That’s because, on college campuses, student parents are a largely invisible population. Most schools don’t even know how many parents they have enrolled—a consequence of a hole in how they collect data. And when something doesn’t get measured, it largely goes unnoticed and deprioritized. Yet there are nearly four million parenting students at colleges across the country, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, making up 22 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States. And they go to all kinds of schools: roughly 42 percent attend public two-year institutions; 18 percent attend private for-profit colleges; 17 percent attend public four-year colleges; and 13 percent attend private non-profit four-year colleges.

After getting my bachelor’s degree, I took just one semester off before starting graduate school at George Mason University as a single mother working full time. During the day, I worked in communications and public relations for GEICO, then for nonprofit groups dedicated to youth and anti-poverty work at night. I juggled going to class and making sure my daughter had what she needed.

In 2006, I earned my master’s degree in public policy and, after a few years working with teen parents and the programs that served them, I realized there were virtually no organizations in the D.C area working with young student parents and their families in the ways I knew were critical to ensuring they succeeded. Therefore, in March 2010, I created my own nonprofit, Generation Hope, whose mission was to help student parents graduate from college. We started out small, with a first class of just seven Scholars, but now we work with up to 100 Scholars each year who attend two and four-year colleges in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.

Although student parents are all too often unseen, they are rich additions to any college campus. My biggest motivation throughout college was my daughter. My degree was so much more important because it was the key to her future success. I see the same unwavering determination in our students, who are often the lead for group projects—they have excellent time-management skills—and are resilient problem-solvers.

But they need environments that address their unique needs. As Generation Hope has discovered, there are a number of ways colleges can make their schools more conducive to student parents’ success. But first, they have to simply recognize that these are students whose needs can no longer be ignored.

From my own experience as a teen parent in college, and through nearly ten years of working with young, student parents at Generation Hope, I know that particular interventions and supports can have a powerful impact on college completion.

There are simple things, like giving priority class registration to student parents and holding more classes on nights and weekends, that can go a long way. In a recent semester, Cherise (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) wanted to register for a full-time course load but was unable to because she worked full time, and she was only available in the evenings, when her school had few open classes. By the time she registered, there simply weren’t enough open seats to accommodate her schedule, slowing down her path to graduation. (Student parents are under serious pressure to earn their degree as quickly as they can so they can find higher-paying employment to provide for their families.)

Other things are less simple. Childcare is one of the most important factors in whether a young parent earns his or her degree—and yet childcare costs more than college tuition in 28 states. A new GAO report found that “student parents may be eligible for bigger loans to cover child care, but about two-thirds of the college websites we reviewed did not mention this.” This mirrors the frustrations we hear frequently from our students in figuring out how to find and apply for affordable childcare while they work and pursue their degrees. For example, Josi (whose name has also been changed) had to drop all of her classes after her mother, who had been caring for her daughter, got a job and was no longer able to provide childcare. With no resources readily available to help her daughter enroll in daycare, she couldn’t take classes for the entire semester.

Despite the growing need for campus child-care centers, colleges have been closing these facilities. In fact, fewer than half of four-year public colleges and community colleges provide on-campus child care. But having high-quality childcare on campus is an opportunity for colleges to support two generations at once—the parents and the children—and is an investment in the overall completion rate for their students.

Every college, however, won’t be able to provide on-campus childcare. For some, it is too expensive and they can’t manage the insurance liability. Others simply don’t have the space or resources. But there are other ways that schools can support students who need childcare to attend classes. One of the most effective ways is to provide those students with child care stipends, which is ultimately less expensive than managing childcare services on campus.

But childcare isn’t the only financial burden that can derail student parents. Unforeseen expenses can throw a student’s entire life upside down. That’s why, in recent years, there has been an explosion in higher ed institutions creating emergency aid programs to help bridge small funding gaps for students. Amelia Parnell, vice president for Research and Policy at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), reports that most schools now maintain some emergency funding available for students. She estimated that half of her organization’s 15,000 member colleges in all 50 states have formal emergency aid programs. At Georgia State University, for example, their Panther Retention Grants helps keep nearly 2,000 students in the classroom each year.

Emergency aid has shown tremendous promise in helping all students persist in college, but it is particularly needed for student parents. Establishing an emergency fund to help parenting students with crisis situations should be a key consideration for colleges looking to support student parents. Stretched between childcare, tuition payments, the cost of textbooks and other living expenses, student parents become adept at budgeting. But there is no room for error. A child’s medical bill or an unexpected car repair could upend their tight budget. A late tuition payment could result in a hold on their account, preventing them from registering for classes or even causing them to drop out of school altogether, leaving them saddled with student loan debt and no degree.

Both philanthropy and institutional financial support can help student parents overcome potential roadblocks with emergency funds, which can take the form of a microloan, or simply a small grant to cover unexpected costs, and keep students moving toward graduation.

The importance of emergency funding was reinforced when we recently funded a $600 request from a student whose car battery died as she was trying to register for the semester, buy her books, and get off to a strong start. Through our own emergency fund, we helped her pay her rent that month, which enabled her to repair her car, purchase her books, keep a roof over her family’s head, and stay in school.

Generation Hope recently released the results of our Family Friendly Campus survey, which asked our students representing 19 two- and four-year colleges in the Washington, D.C. area about campus climate and school policies relating to student parents. One of the top takeaways was that the majority of respondents (66 percent) had not seen any family-friendly characteristics on their campuses, such as changing tables, lactation rooms, or even banners around campus featuring parenting students or families. This sends a message to student parents. The way colleges design their physical spaces communicates whether they are welcomed and supported.

Furthermore, the majority of respondents (59 percent) said that they weren’t sure whether there was a policy at their school on bringing children to class. A quarter said they knew of a policy on campus that says children are never allowed in the classroom. If a student is unsure of the policy, or if their child is explicitly not welcome, they won’t bring their child to class when they’re facing a childcare emergency—and a missed day could negatively impact their academic standing. Each school is different, but a lack of information is just as damaging as lack of support when it comes to ensuring that parenting students succeed. (One good resource for student parents choosing a college is the Washington Monthly’s Best Colleges for Adult Learners ranking, which factors in whether colleges offer evening and weekend classes and have on-campus daycare.)

The U.S. higher education system wasn’t designed for student parents. But I have watched Generation Hope’s graduates go on to become scientists, teachers, computer engineers, and more. There is incredible potential in student parents, and we can redesign our institutions to tap that great potential by inviting them to be a part of the decision-making processes, showing them that they are valued members of campus communities, and changing policies in some key areas—from improving data collection to ensure student parents are a more visible population and enacting childcare support programs, to designing campuses that reflect a welcoming space.

In 2003, I walked across that William & Mary graduation stage holding my then-three-year-old daughter’s hand. Today, she is a junior in college herself. Statistics said that I would not get a degree before the age of 30—if ever—and that she would similarly not graduate from college. But I have seen in my own life, in hers, and the lives of Generation Hope’s students that we can change those expectations.

It will require increased investments in a population that has been ignored for too long, but if we make them, it would be a powerful and tangible way to transform the future for millions of American families.

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Nicole Lynn Lewis

Nicole Lynn Lewis is Founder & CEO of Generation Hope.