Courtney Hale/Getty Images, courtesy of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation (SHSF)

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Balancing worlds of education and family

On a usual day, Christina Hasaan wakes up around 6:30 a.m. to give herself a little time to prepare for the split responsibilities of being a college student and a parent.

By 7 a.m. Hasaan makes sure her three kids have brushed their teeth, gotten dressed, and are ready for school. Her children are dropped off by 8 a.m.

Then the rest of her day starts. First, she’s often in a meeting, either with a professor or other parents as president of her children’s parent-teacher association. She arrives at Temple University by noon for classes. Her daily schedule isn’t over until 9:30 p.m. Sometimes, it’s as late as midnight.

“I’d have nights where I had to pull all nighters for papers and I really couldn’t pay as much attention to my children,” Hasaan says.

“I tried my best to keep things organized so my kids could feel like I still had time for them. But I would definitely say it wasn’t perfect. Life shows up when it shows up.”

Hunger and housing worries

About one in five college students are parents. And many of them, according to a new study, experience housing, food, and other basic needs’ insecurities.

“Parenting students remain an often-overlooked group and continue to receive inadequate support,” said the study, published last month by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple. “They experience basic needs insecurity at alarming rates, reducing their odds of completing valuable degrees.”

The Hope Center researchers surveyed 32,560 college students who were parents in fall 2020.

In general, 60% of students faced basic needs insecurity over the past six years but for student parents that number goes up 10 percentage points.

The report found that student parents of color faced higher basic need insecurities. For single Black and Latinx parents with young children, 85% or more faced those insecurities. More than 60% of single Asian, Black and Latinx students with young children said they were food insecure.

One of every four student parents of color specifically said they could not feed their children balanced meals due to money troubles, according to the report.

And yet, student parents are almost treated like an invisible population on college campuses, says Nicole Lynn Lewis, a former student parent and founder of a nonprofit called Generation Hope that provides resources and services to teen parents pursuing higher education.

“Most colleges and universities are not tracking the parenting status of their students, which means that at any given time, you have no idea how many of your students are parenting.”

Colleges also often neglect to take parenting schedules and needs into account when offering resources.

Student service offices were closed, for example, when Hasaan would take night classes. Before she was able to get a work study job, Hasaan worked at Whole Foods. Most appointments were set during the day, meaning Hasaan would have to figure out when to take off from work or pick up her kids.

Parents not only deal with the costs of raising a family but also face specific challenges in types of aid offered to college students. Many state financial aid policies require students to go to school full time or enroll immediately after high school. The policies don’t tend to take into account people who take time off to raise families before returning back to school, said Ali Caccavella, one of the authors of the study and a researcher at The Hope Center.

A generation of learners
RichVintage/Getty Images, courtesy of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation (SHSF)

For parents, a degree takes on meaning not just for them individually, but for how they can care for an entire family. Hasaan decided to go to college after she spent five years at a charter school in Philadelphia as a school support staff but she could not get promoted because she didn’t have a degree.

“I never wanted to feel like that again. I never wanted to be in a room where I knew I was worth more,” Hasaan says. “I also didn’t want to not have access to things that I knew my children deserve. I decided that this had to be a priority for me by any means necessary.”

For her, she hopes her education will mean better earnings and for her children to have access to quality education and safe playgrounds.

But the pandemic only made her situation more challenging. From May of 2020 to January 2021 Hassan was unemployed. Even with her partner’s income, finances only became harder but the bills kept coming, she said.

She struggled through, taking summer courses. And now, Hasaan is on track to graduate in May with a degree in sociology and a minor in psychology.

Higher education institutions are placed at the cornerstone of social and economic prosperity but are also the very same places racial and income disparities show up, Caccavella said.

“If we are truly endeavoring to make good on what was considered a racial reckoning — we have to acknowledge the racial trauma that is playing out across college campuses and across our country,” she says. “We’re all living right now in this ongoing pandemic that is disproportionately affecting people of color.”

The report specifically highlighted the inadequate support for Black fathers, finding that one in four Black fathers were homeless in the last 12 months when they were surveyed. Only 11% of them were able to find affordable housing.

“We have to connect it to a larger story about the deficiencies and the disparities in support for Black and brown students. We know that there have been racist policies that have been in place for a long time that have cut off opportunity and resources for communities of color,” says Lynn Lewis of Generation Hope.

“When you’re a parent in college, you are not only shouldering all of those deficiencies and disparities and a lack of resources that comes with being a student of color — but then you’re also dealing with all that comes with being a parent.”

Public-aid programs also can be out of reach for student parents. College enrollment itself, Caccavella says, makes people ineligible for many benefits.

For example, if a student is enrolled in college, they are no longer eligible for many housing assistance programs. Many, she says, are based on outdated perceptions of who goes to college.

Reimagining today’s college student

Organizations like Generation Hope are trying to shift the outdated thinking.

The group launched a technical assistance program last summer with George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, Trinity Washington University and Montgomery College to start collecting data about parents, with the goal of identifying the support systems they need.

“What we try to help institutions understand is that there are some things that can be put in place that are no cost or low cost to better serve this population,” Lynn Lewis says. “Sometimes it’s looking at your institutional policies, and seeing in what ways those policies either exclude or include student parents.”

For example, some universities require all freshmen to live on campus — a policy that does not take student parents into consideration.

In addition to collecting and reporting demographic information on student parents, The Hope Center also recommends changes like removing discriminatory practices like the time of high school graduation against student parents in financial aid policies, creating permanent emergency aid that offers funds to student parents to help with costs like childcare, and expanding affordable student housing.

Higher education leaders and policymakers should also understand that balancing courses and family for student parents can take a toll on their wellbeing.

“The mental health of parenting students is paramount,” Hasaan says. “You are handling two or three generations of people when you are caring for a student who is a parent.”

Read more about student parents

To shift the general perception of today’s college students, the Seldin-Haring Smith Foundation partnered with Getty Images to show what it is like for student parents to go to college.

“People or even policymakers will refer to college students as kids or assume that all college students are attending a four-year residential college and that they come from a middle class background. But the statistics of college today make it clear that’s not accurate,” Abigail Seldin, the co-founder of the foundation says.

The series, New College Majority, takes snapshots of student parents’ daily lives.

A pilot program in Chicago is trying to step up and help student parents, specifically young mothers and their children. Maria Carrasco at Inside Higher Ed reported that the program is offering a monthly stipend to help increase graduation rates of student parents.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel at The Washington Post dug deeper into the experience of Black fathers and the disparities in resources. Two in five Black fathers also faced economic troubles such as lost jobs, pay cuts or reduced hours, according to the story.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.