Over two million community college students in the United States are parents of children (student parents) under the age of 18. Being a student parent can come with a unique set of obstacles that non-parent students do not face. The extent to which these obstacles create barriers for student parents in completing their degree vary depending on a set of factors: household income, household size, the age of the child, and more. There are some programs and policies put in place to support student parents in earning their degrees, however, continuously evaluating their impact on students is critical. Completing an associate’s degree is especially beneficial for those in low-income families. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500. Having an associate’s degree also helps pave the way for a bachelor’s degree, which opens up even more opportunities for income and career advancement. Another important element to educational advancement and economic mobility for parents is that such growth directly impacts children long-term. LIFT’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty by empowering parent-led change through a two-generation model. Student parents completing their degrees is one way to achieve this goal.
Who are student parents at community college campuses and what are their needs? Naomy, a member at LIFT, is currently a full-time student at Bronx Community College (BCC). Majoring in sociology, she aspires to pursue a degree in social work in the near future. She is also a single mother to a five-year-old boy. Although Naomy feels she is not as involved in extracurricular activities as much as she wishes to be, she recently secured an internship at BCC. As a student parent, Naomy feels she struggles to get a good night’s rest because she can only complete her schoolwork once her son is asleep. Being a student parent also consists of early mornings. As Naomy wakes up early, she oftentimes does not get a chance to eat breakfast to ensure that her son gets breakfast and arrives to school in a timely manner. According to Naomy, BCC does offer a daycare program to support student parents on campus. However, because Naomy’s son is of school age, she finds it challenging to pick up her son from school and then bring him to the day-care program at BCC.
Melissa, another member at LIFT, is a second-year student at Hostos Community College. She is also the mother of a six-year-old boy. Melissa originally enrolled at Hostos to complete a degree in nursing but had to switch majors because it took too much time. Melissa then decided to study community health because she would be able to do what she is passionate about – working with people. Like Naomy, most days consist of late nights and early mornings: “I pick him up by 4pm. We go home and I help him with his homework. Then I get him dinner. He’s in bed by 8:30pm. Then I stay up doing my homework. I get up at 5am the next day. My son gets up at 6:30am. After dropping him off from school, I head to my school.” Melissa is also aware of day care services her school provides. However, there are also limitations on services. Although she is not currently involved in clubs on campus, she is doing work-study on campus. Melissa states while she feels schools try to support student parents the best they can, childcare is only available to children of a certain age. She expresses how challenging childcare is for her especially on days when her child is not in school. She notes that professors typically do not allow children in the classroom, so she often finds herself needing to improvise. Melissa is aware of a program called Empowering Student Parents (ESP), which provides support to student parents up to the age of 30. Melissa has utilized its services, which she has found to be helpful. However, because she is 30 years old, she is curious to learn more about any other programs that support student parents after 30 years old.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only multiplied the challenges that community college student parents face. As the start of the school year approaches, student parents must now contend with two major issues – completing their own degree while managing the uncertainty around their children’s school reopening and virtual learning. These two issues involve complicated challenges and student parents are grappling with the following questions:
- Can I complete my coursework while simultaneously managing my child’s virtual learning experience?
- Will my children be safe?
- Will my children perform poorly and fall behind?
- Do I have the technological capabilities and financial resources to maintain virtual learning for both my child and I?
- Can I manage my time effectively?
- What are my job prospects during and after the COVID pandemic?
- What will I have to sacrifice?
No one has all the answers. One of our members at LIFT, Melissa, is currently grappling with many of these questions. Virtual learning was difficult for her and her son in the spring and she anticipates it will be difficult again. Her main challenge was keeping her son engaged with virtual learning, which is a full-time job and can be very stressful. Another lift member, Naomy, is concerned about her ability to balance her full-time college schedule and her son’s remote learning experience. She will need the support of her own mother for childcare so that she can devote time to her own coursework. Naomy also believes that financial assistance will continue to be a critical need for purchasing books and printer ink. She also hopes that her son’s school will focus more on self-directed assignments and teacher-led instruction, which will allow her to manage her time more effectively. Separately, some successful CUNY programs directed at low-income students are in danger of budget cuts, such as the successful Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which puts additional pressure on student parents who rely on these services. In July, at a virtual town hall meeting with the Bronx Borough President’s office, school officials, non-profits, and parents, many parents echoed the same questions. Officials acknowledged many of the uncertainties. Ultimately, it comes down to connecting parents to resources, empowering them to advocate effectively for their families and keeping the pressure on decision-makers to act responsibly.
At LIFT, it has become even more important to maintain existing and develop new strategic partnerships on behalf of our student parents. Community colleges remain a crucial institution in the lives of student parents during this difficult time, but we are also connecting student parents to other resources such as COVID relief funding, basic needs referrals, well-being supports, and financial counseling. Our mission is not just to help student parents survive, but also thrive in the face of so many challenges. As a result, we are also looking to expand our current partnerships with Bronx and Hostos Community Colleges through technical assistance. We seek to amplify LIFT’s impact by supporting community college staff in developing stronger student supports and applying for additional funding opportunities related to COVID relief and workforce development. We are also working with our partners to ensure that student parents have the tools they need to make virtual learning successful for both themselves and their children. For example, our annual Back to School Drive, with the support of our sponsors, will provide direct financial assistance to our members for educational supports, including technology, school supplies, and other virtual learning needs. While student parents may be facing a lot of uncertainty during this time, LIFT and our community college partners want them to know one thing – we got your back!
This blog was written by Sophie Jennis and Natalia Lantigua, edited by Pedro Suarez
Karp, Rachel & Cruse, L.R. (2020). Promising Community College Practices for Student Parents Success. ACCT Now.
Kurtzleben, Danielle (Feb. 11, 2014). Study: Income Gap Between Young College and High School Grads Widens. U.S. News & World Report.
St. Amour, Madeline (March 31, 2020). A Double Whammy for Student Parents. Inside Higher Ed.
St. Amour, Madeline (June 30, 2020). Looming Budget Cuts Threaten Proven Program. Inside Higher Ed.