A new documentary highlights the challenges student parents face. And, we’re accepting pitches for our next round of local story partnerships.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

Zooming in on student parents

We spent several months this spring working with The Montana Free Press on a story about the childcare crisis in Montana, which is keeping thousands of parents out of the workforce. The problem will require major policy reform and perspective shifts to solve. (If you’re a local newsroom with a story idea like this, pitch us!) 

Editing the story made me think more student parents. In addition to dealing with jobs and inaccessible childcare, they’ve also got to get to class. A new five-part documentary, presented by Ascend at the Aspen Institute, explored the barriers student parents are facing in their quest to graduate college. Here are a few of my takeaways:

One in five

When you picture a “college student,” what comes to mind? If you’re picturing an 18-year-old going to college full-time, living in a dorm, and partying on weekends, you’re missing the bigger picture. One in five college students is a student parent. 

Even colleges and universities aren’t that good at keeping track of which students are also parents. Haley Myers-Dillon, a program director at Sacramento State University, acknowledged this in the documentary. There are 9,430 student parents at Sacramento State — 1 in 3 students — and it took “seven or eight” years to figure out that number, she said..

Administrators “need to reckon with who our population truly is,” she said.

Jason Gonzales, our reporter at Chalkbeat Coloradoexplored this counting issue in a story last yearWhen universities fail to track the number of student parents they have on campus, they fail to fully support them. A student parent Jason spoke to put it this way: “We really are a ghost. We’re not seen.”

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Hurdles to overcome

Student parents are more likely to be students of color, under-resourced, and the first in their families to go to college. They are far less likely to graduate than their non-parenting peers because of these “systemic hurdles,” Nicole Lynn Lewis, Generation Hope founder and CEO, said in the documentary.

Generation Hope is a nonprofit that supports teen parents. Fewer than 2% of teen mothers earn a college degree before age 30, its website says. 

Abby, a student parent and recent graduate from Howard Community College, and her son. (Courtesy image)

A lack of childcare, housing or food insecurity, and “time poverty” are common obstacles. Still, student parents are highly motivated — and it’s often their dreams for their children that help them push through. Abby, one of the students featured in the documentary, attended Howard Community College in the hopes of providing a better life for her son. 

Her college experience is complicated by the fact that Howard Community College doesn’t have an on-campus childcare center. At one point she dropped an in-person class because she didn’t have anyone to care for her son. 

The community college is working to reopen its childcare center, after receiving federal funding to do so. Its president, Daria J. Willis, is a former student parent who is featured in the documentary calling on college leaders to prioritize investments in childcare. (One of our former HBCU reporting fellows spotlighted Willis in this story about student parents.)

Community is key

Student parents often feel isolated. Because of stigma, they may not be comfortable telling peers they’re a parent — which keeps them from meeting others like them. Fathers may feel particularly isolated.  About 70% of student parents are mothers, according to the documentary.

“If our student parents in general feel isolated, I bet our dads feel even more isolated,” Myers-Dillon, the program director, said in the documentary. 

Student parents gather at Sacramento State’s Parents and Families Program Focus Group. (Courtesy image)

The documentary spends time with Matt, an Army veteran with two children who is attending Sacramento State. He participated in a student parents focus group Myers-Dillon facilitated, and met with a student-parent peer ambassador who is also a father. Getting to know other parents on campus would help him feel connected, he said. 

“Literally seeing other parents, other fathers,” would be helpful, Matt said in the documentary. 

Support can bring generational change 

Student parents who successfully get a degree are better able to support their families. Parents and experts in the documentary emphasized the importance of this generational change. 

“If we invest in student parents, we are investing in their children,” Tina Cheuk, an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University, said in the documentary.  

One such example: Angela, who went back to school and earned a nursing degree from San Antonio College after deciding the wages she made as a medical assistant were insufficient to support her and her son. 

“Medical assistants don’t get paid that much.” she said. “I wanted him to have more.”

We’re a nonprofit newsroom that relies on your support. If this type of reporting matters to you, donate to Open Campus today.

Calling all local newsrooms 📣 

We are accepting pitches now to Aug. 1 for the next round of our local story partnerships! We’re focusing on three topic areas this time around:

  1. The role of college in rural America
  2. Workforce training and pathways after high school
  3. Shifting perceptions of college and the value of a degree

Newsrooms whose stories we accept will receive $10,000 from us as well as editing/coaching from our team. Learn more and apply here.

Our local story partnerships are already having an impact:

  • We worked with The Assembly to detail the struggles of an online-education initiative in North Carolina. Shortly after that story, the initiative’s CEO stepped down.
  • We also partnered with The Montana Free Press on a story that explored how universities can play a role in fixing the state’s childcare crisis. The 19th republished that piece, a first for us.

“The funding helped ensure a high-caliber visual element to the project and covered multiple reporting trips into the field, and the partnership itself gave us the benefit of national-level reporting and editing resources we would not otherwise have had.”

Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press education reporter

Other opportunities to work with us

  • We’re hiring a higher ed reporter in Houston, in partnership with The Houston Landing! This reporter will join our growing Local Network of higher-ed reporters around the country, and will write about how higher education is shaping Houston. Minimum salary is $70,000, and a multilingual reporter is preferred, with fluency in Spanish, Mandarin or Vietnamese. Read the job ad and apply here.
    • Learn more about our work in Texas — we’re hosting a virtual conversation July 16 at 10 a.m. central featuring our higher-ed reporters across the state. Register here.
  • Applications are open for our HBCU Student Journalism Network fellowship. This is a paid, part-time, and virtual opportunity for students at historically Black colleges and universities. Applications are due July 31. Read our FAQs and apply here.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Nikka Ewing saw a commercial for the for-profit DeVry University offering the chance to get a bachelor’s in three years and a job within six months after that. Five years and $60,000 in student loans later, she still doesn’t have the degree or a job.Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

From Chicago: A WBEZ analysis of federal data and a survey of more than 250 current and former students found that for-profit education programs in Illinois too often leave students worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college at all, our reporter Lisa Kurian Philip found.

“Experts and advocates say the ways in which these schools are designed to meet students where they are — with aggressive recruiting and marketing, locations in communities of color and schedules that accommodate work and childcare — point to holes in Illinois’ public and non-profit higher education ecosystem and the students it is failing to serve,” Lisa writes.

From Pittsburgh: We talk a lot about the value of a college degree — but what do recent college graduates think about it? Emma Folts at our partner PublicSource surveyed Pittsburgh’s newest degree holders to find out:

  • “My Pitt education was a great return on investment, and as an out-of-state student, I paid a premium,” said Benjamin Commodore, who has a bachelor’s and a master’s from the University of Pittsburgh.
  • “I worry about the threat of climate change and how that will impact my future,” says Joshua Schneider, who got an emergency medicine degree in 2020. “But in terms of my own ability to get a job and contribute to a solution to those problems, I feel confident with all the experiences I have from my education.”
  • Read the rest here.

Keep in touch

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