The Student Equity Problem of Parent-Students

From UC Berkeley’s slideshow, showcasing their commitment to parent students.

In a 2013 report for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Nelson, Froehner, and Gault (2013) reported the following about college students in the United States: approximately 25% have at least one dependent child; for both low-income and first-generation students, that percentage jumps up to nearly 33%; of those with children, 49% are first-generation students. Despite all this, federal programs like the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program has issued less grants for programs that target parent students every year since 2012. Moreover, neither the Department of Education nor California — the state from which other state and even foreign national educational master plans are emulated (Douglass, 2000) — recognize parent students as a group essential to student equity and social justice.

Addressing the unique needs of parent students is a professional issue, but parent students are rarely identified as an equity group requiring analysis and intervention planning. Parent students are an under-represented population that ought to be accounted for in student equity planning and research because lack of access and opportunity for would-be students who happen to have children is a social justice problem. An analysis of issues unique to parent students is presented herein, along with current research and findings on programs that integrate this under-represented population into the fold of college planning and effectiveness. Since parent students are not formally acknowledged as a student equity group for the purposes of social justice, however, the lack of literature on this topic is closely coupled with reasons and recommendations for a concerted focus on parent students in college research and planning.

It’s Difficult to Know What Works

Being a parent comes with challenges and obstacles that are wholly unique for college students. Trying to schedule classes around childcare and K-12 school schedules, multiple jobs, and extended family dynamics are just some of the stressors that college students with dependent children must balance in addition to their often multiple college lectures per course per week (Rankin, Katsinas, & Hardy, 2016). Even students who take courses online because they are the primary caregiver in their household struggle with completion rates; in studying almost 10,000 students across 18 colleges in New York, Wladis, Conway, and Hachey (2016) found that having at least one dependent child under six years old was a primary predictor of college dropout and low completion rates. Additionally, nearly 80% of Chief Academic Officers surveyed for Rankin’s (2008) dissertation indicated that access to low-cost childcare was a significant barrier to their students. Given the challenges to student success that a lack of access to affordable childcare presents, a concerted effort in addressing the needs of parent students is warranted.

Unfortunately, the group of minority students that have been identified as significant does not include pregnant and parent students, despite making up over a fourth of all college students in America (Nelson, Froehner, Gault, 2013). Public policies that requires college leaders to account for and track completion rates for minority groups do not yet include stipulations for pregnant and parent students — due in large part to the lack of research on the topic within the academic community (Brown & Nichols, 2012). All this in despite efforts like California’s Student Success Act of 2012, which may serve to perpetuate imbalances of opportunity and access that these legislative efforts originally intend to address (Grigorieff, 2016). Moreover, the only way to programmatically track outcomes of pregnant and parent students is to commit to a rigorous self-disclosure process, since whether a student is pregnant or has dependent children is rarely data that is collected at the time of matriculation (Strang, 2016; Boerner, 2015).

The lack of research on and indeed recognition for parent-students makes it difficult for colleges to develop evidence-based support programs. In this way, it’s difficult to know what works in terms of providing support to parent-students. It may be that the problem could be reframed as an issue of social justice or equality in order to frame it in such a way that student affairs professionals can analyze and support it.

Why Supporting Parent-Students is a Professional Issue

After the 2007 economic recession, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger along with a bipartisan State Legislature developed the Student Success Task Force to implement austerity measures that were formulated as community college efficacy and core values realignment (Grigorieff, 2016). The result was the Student Success Act of 2012 (SSA), a law that limits the total number of units a student can take and the total amount of time a student can spend toward a degree or certificate, and imputes the lack of structured education plans as part and parcel the issue with low completion and persistence rates for community college students. The acting California community college system Chancellor at the time said it will “put more students on the path to completing their educational goals” and “make California more competitive economically” (Dorr, 2012).

One of the key aspects of the Student Success Act is the mandate that colleges must track the completion rates of specific equity groups. College researchers and leaders are implored to be more conscious of student diversity, by tracking things like persistence and completion rates of students belonging to disenfranchised populations, and by generating solutions to the problems that arise when specific analysis of these populations is brought to the front of college planning efforts (Harris & Bensimon, 2007). Yet, even with this guidance on being more diversity-conscious, legislative efforts like the Student Success Act tend to exacerbate the still-unaddressed vulnerabilities to access restrictions for under-represented students from marginalized populations (Yamagata-Noji, 2014; Richetts, 2012).

Consciousness of equity group dynamics and diversity is just the start. Tackling social justice issues on campus requires the critical capacity for self-reflection and growth since both equity and justice are tightly coupled (Feldwisch & Whiston, 2015; Gale, 2011). In higher education, social justice can be defined as ensuring that every student has the means and opportunity to participate in and benefit from the higher education system by addressing inequalities in power and privilege at both the interpersonal and institutional level (Mathuews, 2016; Morales, Knowles, & Bourg, 2014). The U.S. Government’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), in a 2013 Dear Colleague Letter, broadly stroked the issues of pregnant and parenting students as important and laid a foundation from which colleges could build a support system for these students (Galanter, 2013).

To treat the unique challenges of pregnant and parenting students in college as a social justice and equity issue, an assessment of which programs and policies are supportive of pregnant and parent students is necessary. Unfortunately, this is difficult due to the sparsity of literature on the topic (Brown and Nichols, 2012), which tends to focus only on the self-reported attitudes of single mothers toward the college experience (Brown & Amakwaa, 2007; Duquaine-Watson, 2007; Yakaboski, 2010). Nevertheless, the programs that have been implemented may offer some guidance as to how institutional leaders might begin tackling this problem for the rest of this under-represented group.

Current Efforts to Address the Needs of Parent Students

The largest institutional limitations to completion rates for pregnant and parenting students are the flexibility of programs with respect to course sequencing and time commitments (Yakaboski, 2010), lack of available housing or affordable housing programs (McCormack, 2007), lack of lactation facilities (Springer, Parker, & Levitan-Reid, 2009), and lack of sufficient and available childcare (Miller, Gault, & Thorman, 2011). These challenges persist across academic levels, but are especially stringent for graduate and doctoral parent students (Springer, Parker, & Leviten-Reid, 2009). Though there have been efforts across the country to recognize and participate in fostering a sense of belongingness and a more inclusive environment for students balancing school, work, and family, many programs and policies are either poorly advertised or completely obfuscated by other, more general programs for the majority population (Feminists for Life of America, 2008).

One example of programs directed at parent students can be found on the Stanford University campus, where eight childcare facilities serve the dependents of staff, faculty, and students, from infant to early childhood — and students have enrollment priority over university staff (Cardinal at Work, 2016). Unfortunately, backup and emergency childcare services, programs that could be instrumental to student success since the availability of last-minute childcare arrangements could mean the difference between succeeding and failing a program (Nelson, Froehner, & Gault, 2013), are reserved for staff and faculty only (personal communication, 2016). For graduate students, Stanford offers a comprehensive dependent insurance program, as well as affordable housing options for married students and students with multiple dependents (personal communication, 2016). Both are key indicators of a supportive atmosphere toward the challenges of parent students (Brown & Nichols, 2012).

Other efforts across the nation that specifically target the unique needs of parent students have been the focus of several non-profit policy research institutes like MDRC. At Ascend at the Aspen Institute, several innovative programs have been identified and championed as strong ways institutions are meeting the needs of parent students. For example: Miami Dade College actively seeks out and assists students who qualify for the Women and Infant Children (WIC), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Los Angeles Valley College created the first and only Family Resource Center at a California community college, which specializes in providing childcare and parent development to students; Hostos Community College’s two-generation child development program for summers. Additional programs around the country include simple changes with measurably positive impact, like more inclusive language in admissions literature at the University of Michigan (Jenkins, 2014) and student campaigns on racially appropriate conversation and diversity representation (Bean, 2014).

Limitations in the Current Literature

The scarcity of available literature on pregnant and parenting students is a limitation in identifying factors that could be influenced to positively affect their outcomes. One limitation is that existing literature on pregnant and parenting students tends to focus on community college and graduate students, but according to a report by the American Association of Community Colleges (2011), undergraduate degree-seeking enrollments outweighed both community college and graduate school enrollments by almost two to one. This makes inferences about general populations more difficult, since the focus is on a minority subset of total enrollments. Future research on undergraduate students at two and four-year universities is needed.

Another limitation is that existing research focuses solely on the experience of the mother, omitting single fathers and the experiences and unique needs of fathers in higher education altogether. For example, studies in which mothers indicated that maternity leave and pay was a significant factor in them persisting through their program made no mention of institutional programs for paternity leave or pay — which, ironically, serve to support the persistence and completion rates of women because then both the mother and the father share the experiences and burdens of child-rearing together (Melamed, 2014; Sanchez-Salcedo, 2013).

Finally, reviews of programs and policies aimed at parents in several bodies of research found that university programs often make no salient distinction between the difference in needs of community college students (Arcand, 2015), undergraduate parent students (Brown & Nichols, 2012), and graduate parent students (Springer, Parker, Leviten-Reid, 2009). Miller, Dietch, and Hill’s (2010) report about programs that improve the success and completion rates of single parent students illustrated how parent students are often very different in terms of need, and each requires focused, targeted support based on their family’s requirements. Broadly stroked support programs are a good start in recognizing that there are students out there with children who need assistance, but reaching the most number of parent students requires dedicated support and long-term commitment from institutional leaders to account for the housing, course scheduling, childcare, and financial aid needs unique to each family (Duquaine-Watson, 2007).

Addressing the Professional Issue

Designing programs to support a whole population of students is difficult, especially when there does not yet exist a large body of evidence-based frameworks with which to tackle the unique challenges that parent students face. Colleges and universities already plan and budget for student services programs that benefit special populations, so if parent-students would become one then they would benefit from the existing structures employed by the institution. Some ways to address this issue, however, go beyond formally recognizing parent-students as a special population, and involve more in-depth ways of addressing challenges related to having and raising children while in college.

Parent students are a significant segment of the total college population, yet receive less research and programmatic support focus than any other acknowledged equity group (Feminists for Life, 2008). To improve access, persistence, and completion, college leaders must consider ways to assure that this social justice issue is addressed across a campus by fostering a culture of developing ideas to share with other departments and constituents. Three recommendations are presented herein. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for parent students (Miller, Dietch, & Hill, 2010); special care should be taken to ensure that the population for each college is studied, as geographic and socioeconomic differences between colleges and interfamilial differences are factors that will help prioritize how to best address the challenges of parent students.

One thing that could be done is to acknowledge Pregnant and Parenting Students as an Equity Group. If outcomes of any minority students are to be addressed, they must be measured and managed (Bensimon, 2004; Harris & Bensimon, 2007). State legislators should include parent students as a student equity group so that colleges are required to acknowledge this significant portion of their study body and take measures to address their specific needs. Legislation like the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act of 2007 — which did not make it out of committee — could be reintroduced to give states and local governments the means with which to encourage public universities to provide services to families with members seeking to return to higher education.

To focus on parent students as an equity group, McArthur (2016) presented a case for developing a social justice mindset through assessment. Recognizing that where students are placed and what classes and groups they are a part of will significantly impact a student’s first-year experience, careful consideration of assessment outcomes could help student affairs professionals target groups of parents with similar needs. Access to resources, consistently reaching out to students for support, and promoting programs aimed at addressing the parent student challenges of housing, childcare, and schedule flexibility might mean a total revamping of how student affairs offices are used to operating (Brown & Amakwaa, 2007).

Another thing that could be done is institutions could seek out and foster local and community partnerships. Local community businesses and organizations that work with children are one way to bridge the gap between the need for childcare and the college offering childcare services. Rankin, Katsinas, and Hardy (2010) recommend partnering with local YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other types of child development and activity organizations to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. Perhaps these organizations can setup shop in one of the college’s facilities in exchange for offering reliable and affordable child care services to students with dependent children.

From the other perspective, one way communities can become more involved in the success of college students with dependent children is to foster environments designed for learning communities. As an example, a community library could offer a two-hour child care program for members who are in school and need a few hours to focus on homework while they have their children. As I write this, I am sitting in the cafeteria at my local gym that offers two-hours of childcare each day for their members, so my wife (who is studying at Berkley via distance education) and I (studying at NCU for my PhD via distance education) sit under the soft hum of 90s music among an assortment of parents on their laptops all seemingly taking advantage of the reprieve from children to focus on our non-parental work. Without this program, my wife and I — and presumably everyone else around me doing homework — would have to burn the midnight oil to get our assignments done.

Institutions could also take steps toward improving the way they offer classes, specifically with how they offer key classes on a schedule. Parent students who are limited to early morning start times for certain classes are at a significant disadvantage. Many must get children to school or childcare around that time, and unless there is another course that starts soon after, they will be sacrificing work hours while they wait for the next class to start. Scheduling departments could work closely with institutional researchers to develop program sequences that would benefit anyone who is unable to get to school in the morning. Night and weekend classes, for example, could help address scheduling conflicts, as well as scheduling general education classes around childcare times offered on campus or in the community.

Finally, though not exhaustively, lawmakers and citizens could support Paternity Leave legislation, policies, and programs. When fathers can take time off to focus on and bond with their children, women get more time to keep their careers and educational goals in focus (Melamed, 2014). Support for paternity leave will have positive effects on all parents in college, since a family that shares the work of rearing children offers each member more time to focus on school. Additionally, legislation that provides additional funding for institutional programs targeted at student parents and families would help offset the resource burden often cited as the key factor in not being able to deploy robust solutions to parent student problems (Brown & Nichols, 2012).

The Path Forward

Supporting students with children and dependent care relationships is a professional issue for higher education student affairs professionals that affects nearly one-fourth of all college students in America. Parent students are an under-represented population that ought to be accounted for in student equity planning and research because lack of access and opportunity for would-be students who happen to have children is a social justice problem. However, since parent students are not formally acknowledged as a student equity group for the purposes of social justice, however, the lack of literature on this topic is closely coupled with reasons and recommendations for a concerted focus on parent students in college research and planning.

To treat the unique challenges of pregnant and parenting students in college as a social justice and equity issue, an assessment of which programs and policies are supportive of pregnant and parent students is necessary. Despite the small quantity, the programs that have been implemented may offer some guidance as to how institutional leaders might begin tackling this problem for the rest of this under-represented group.

This research report focused on the currently available literature on the subject. This includes evidence of large financial burdens that plague this special population of students, as well as higher propensities for dropout behavior. Additionally, parent-students are especially unique because of the child and dependent care strain that they feel in addition to the normal stresses of being a college student. It goes without saying, then, that supporting students who have children ought to be special population for equity purposes.

Another important consideration that emerges from the existing literature is that parent-students do not benefit from the same opportunities of access to resources as other students. Indeed, parent students are considered non-traditional students because of their unique requirements. For example, a parent student might need a more flexible math course to graduate since her or his children can only be at daycare for specific times. This brings up another issue that emerged from the literature: dependent care.

Parent students are less likely to persist than any other special population, and yet replicated, evidence-based, targeted programs that directly lead to supporting parent students are difficult to find in the literature. One thing that is often found, however, is the correlation between institutions providing dependent care services on campus and parent student performance (when performance is measured as success, retention, and persistence). Indeed, having services on campus or nearby that can ameliorate the burden of finding, providing, and paying for childcare for parent students on campus seems to be the de facto requirement for being a “parent-friendly” campus.

If colleges and universities are going to take steps to ensure that just because you have children or dependents does not mean you can cannot go to college, then the professional issue of supporting parent students must be an issue at the forefront of planning and effectiveness efforts. It starts with formally recognizing that students with children are a special population that needs to be tracked at the institutional research level in order to aggregate data and develop data-driven models for providing quality service and support to these students who deserve the same opportunity to learn and graduate college as anybody else. Then, colleges and universities need to start looking at ways to implement support systems for parent students, like opening up a childcare and child development center for on-campus student, or creating after school programs in the community so that parents can take classes. Finally, lawmakers and citizens must support legislative efforts to fund institutions to meet the needs of their students with children or dependents, and to enact laws that ease the financial burden on parent students who are trying to support themselves and their children. Supporting one-fourth of the entire student population in America is not only what we can do, it is also what we should do.

Jesse is the bestselling author of Data Science in Higher Education. He lives and writes science fiction in northern California. Follow him on Twitter.


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