Deysi Parga Macias faced a dilemma last fall in the first week of classes at the University of Colorado Boulder.
She couldn’t find daycare for her son, Ramiro, and her grandparents, who were supposed to watch him, were sick.
Macias, then 19, began to panic. Her biochemistry lab only allowed four absences before she failed the class — but missing even one would make her feel like a failure. Desperate, she sent her professor an email before class and asked if she could bring her then-year-and-a-half-old son.
“I said, ‘I am so sorry, and I know that this is unprofessional,’” Macias said.
Students in the lab were scheduled to collect samples at Boulder Creek and analyze the results. Luckily, her professor agreed to let Ramiro come since it was a safer environment than in a classroom lab. While Macias worked, Ramiro played with rocks and threw them into the water.
“He thought it was just another day out,” she said.
Macias, now a 20-year-old junior at CU Boulder, tries her best to separate parenting and coursework on campus, even if she alerts professors on the first days of class that she has a kid.
She doesn’t usually see other young children at CU Boulder. Many students can’t relate to her life.
It’s an isolating experience.
“Every time I tell my professors that I’m a mom and I’m an undergrad, they say, ‘You’re my first,’” she said.
Student parents on campus
Many public Colorado colleges don’t know how many students are parents on their campuses.
Census data from the 2021 American Community Survey data analyzed by Colorado’s demographer suggests that parents make up a little less than a third of undergraduate students at all of the state’s colleges and universities.
That’s close to what national data collected by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research showed in 2016: about 22% of all college undergraduates were parents. The institute found 42% of all community college students and just 17% of students at public four-year universities were parents.
Colorado, like many states, does not require colleges and universities to keep these numbers. Some colleges, including Colorado State University Fort Collins, have used voluntary surveys to get a better sense. But it’s still an estimate.
“We don’t know if we have 50 student parents or 5,000,” said Lisa Chandler, CSU Fort Collins adult learner and veteran services assistant director.
Some administrators worry that asking whether students have children could violate federal rules intended to prevent discrimination. Advocates say the lack of concrete data can limit the services and outreach students receive to help them through college, especially because this is a group that doesn’t have a lot of time to track down help.
Student parents carry higher GPAs on average but are 10 times less likely to graduate, according to the women’s policy research institute. They are also more likely to be Black and low-income, take on more student loan debt, and struggle to find housing.
It matters to student parents that they succeed because they want higher wages to support their families. And, Colorado has a goal to get more residents — especially those from diverse communities — the postsecondary training they need to land good-paying jobs. Macias, for instance, studies biochemistry and wants to become a doctor.
In recent years, Colorado’s community colleges, with more student parents, have provided food resources, and connected students to housing, childcare, and financial support. Meanwhile, four-year universities offer fewer services.
Daycare is the priority for many student parents
Before Macias enrolled, she researched the schools that would offer her the most help while parenting. CU Boulder gave her scholarships, and she pieced together enough to pay for college. She also planned to use the university’s graduate and family housing so she could have more space for her and Ramiro, live on campus, meet friends, and be independent.
There was so much she didn’t anticipate as the first student in her family to go to college and as a new mother.
The rent in family housing proved to be more than she could afford. She struggled at times through her first year to pay for furniture and other household items – even things as small as a shower curtain and toiletries. Macias estimates a high school mentor spent about $1,000 to help her furnish her apartment. Her mom would cook for her and also bought her groceries and other daily items. Her sister helped babysit Ramiro when Macias had classes.
Macias is now living with her son’s paternal grandmother. It puts her minutes away from family members who can provide child care because she said she can’t afford CU Boulder’s childcare facility. It also makes it easier when she and Ramiro’s dad co-parent.
In Colorado, child care on average can cost about $1,360 a month at a center and about $960 at a home-based business for a toddler, according to Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2023 Kids Count data book.
CU Boulder students pay based on the age of their child and how often they attend daycare. A student can pay up to about $1,900 a month for five-day-a-week care for an infant. The daytime hours don’t cover evening classes or study sessions.
The school surveyed undergraduates in 2021 to better understand how to help all students. Only a third of all students took the survey, and about 3% of respondents said they are responsible for the care of children or other adults, according to the university.
Other campus services for parents include a health and wellness center and mental health support, nap pods for tired students, and dedicated lactation rooms.
Macias said she no longer uses most of what CU Boulder offers. Child care continues to be her biggest struggle. In a perfect world, she said the school would provide free care, because college students don’t have a lot of money.
Built-in support at community colleges
Schools that serve more older students tend to think more about the needs of parents. Aurora Community College has sent out voluntary surveys to students and learned about 35% have parental responsibilities, said Reyna Anaya, senior student affairs officer and dean of student success.
The surveys helped the school create more help. The school has snack stations for kids, a free market for parents to get food, and play stations with toys. Advisors are available for support.
Colorado Mountain College’s Rifle campus hosts Family Fridays where students and community members can bring kids on campus to learn while their parents take classes, said Tinker Duclo, vice president and campus dean at CMC Rifle.
But four-year institutions are also doing more to offer parent services on campus. For example, Colorado State University Fort Collins has drop-in child care at its library that is paid by student fees. And like many other schools, CSU offers federal grants to subsidize child care.
Moving from community college to university
Zeke Dominguez, 41, is nervous about transferring from Front Range Community College to Colorado State University next fall. As a single parent of an autistic 11-year-old child, his second try at college has provided him a lot of what he’s needed as a parent, but he’s not sure what to expect at the bigger college.
Dominguez studied cybersecurity in 2012 at for-profit University of Phoenix. His daughter was born at about the same time. She spent months in the hospital, and he took family leave for a semester but felt overwhelmed when he returned. He needed to drop out.
“I didn’t have any support systems, either,” he said. “It wasn’t anything like what I have now.”
Community colleges have increased services in recent years for student parents.
Front Range brings student parents together to support each other. Dominguez also connected to the school’s TRIO program, a federal program to guide disadvantaged students through college that’s used at many college and university campuses. While not only for student parents, the program has connected him to tutors and helped him learn to advocate for his needs as a parent, such as how to reach out to instructors or deans so he doesn’t have to drop classes when he gets behind.
The school also has federal grants for child care, he said, and if Dominguez has a problem, Front Range officials try to help connect him to community resources.
It’s important for Dominguez to finish his degree. He wants to get a bachelor’s in fine arts to allow him flexibility to work and take care of his daughter. The demands of his previous job as a chef didn’t mix well with parenting.
He plans to expand his work in photography — he used to shoot food photos while a chef. He also wants to explore his career options, such as selling his paintings.
As he gets ready for CSU Fort Collins, he worries that he will get lost at such a large school.
“We really are a ghost,” he said. “We’re not seen.”
Higher ed’s growing focus on student parents
Elsewhere, some states have figured out how to track student parents. Oregon and Illinois require colleges and universities to collect data on student parents to help them get what they need, according to Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope. The nonprofit advocates for policies that support student parents and supports schools in their efforts.
Schools also want to increase support. Norfolk State University, a historically Black university in Virginia, has worked with Generation Hope in the last year to increase services, such as lactation rooms and parent groups. The school offers evening child care. School officials are also drafting guidelines around the presence of children on campus and how faculty and staff can help student parents.
Student parents want to feel more a part of the campus and be considered, said Andrea Neal, Office of Academic Engagement associate vice provost at Norfolk State. Small things like specific parking spaces or easy access to diapers on campus would make them feel included, she said.
Larger universities like The Ohio State University also are trying to find ways to serve parents.
Traci Lewis, director of the university’s Comprehensive College Experience for Student-Parent Success Program, said Ohio State makes parents and their kids a part of campus life. The school has a student-parent welcome week with bounce houses for their kids, offers child care during club meetings, and will allow students to walk with their kids this year in the homecoming parade.
Ohio State student parents receive a comprehensive resource support guide, but the school also provides advisors to offer more personal guidance. The school also offers emergency financial assistance.
Advocating for themselves
Macias feels burnt out, but she rarely lets that stop her positive attitude.
She has found ways to feel like she’s a greater part of the campus. She wants to be a role model for other first-generation and Latina students in the sciences. She’s found supportive friends. She’s joined clubs like the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights.
She takes the tough days in stride because she’s determined to finish school.
“Life doesn’t wait for you to be OK,” Macias said.
Macias works within CU Boulder’s Office of Precollege Outreach and Engagement and gives campus tours to high school students. The program also hosts overnight trips.
She’s met hundreds of students, she said. But over the summer, a young woman approached her to read the college essay she prepared.
The teen, a rising high school junior, wrote that she was pregnant. She wanted to major in the sciences just like Macias. She documented her fears of telling her family about the pregnancy and never getting to college.
Tears streamed down Macias’ cheeks as she sat across from the student. The young girl’s struggle was her own. She finally didn’t feel so out of place.
“I told her to stay focused and keep going. To finish strong, as strong as you can because there’s going to be a lot of help,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’re not going to come and find you as a parent. You have to find the help yourself.”
Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org.