According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 26 percent of undergraduate students in the United States have dependents under the age of 18, and students of color are even more likely to be parents (30 percent). As many as 70 percent of student parents are women, and the data indicates that their population is steadily growing. Many student parents are single.
Parents who did not have the opportunity to attend college before, who served in the military immediately after high school or who have discovered that a college degree is necessary to improve their quality of life are entering community colleges and four-year undergraduate institutions in search of diplomas and opportunities. But many campuses fail to recognize student parents in their institutional narratives and outreach and retention efforts. While much of the language of college students emphasizes getting prospective students “college ready,” we should prepare institutions, particularly their faculty, to be student-parent ready.
Universities are slowly improving to acknowledge and better serve this significant student population. But while policy researchers have provided general statistics on student parents, individual institutions rarely formally collect data on those students. That’s partly because of the hegemonic narrative about “the” path to a degree. This traditional narrative perpetuates the stigmas of pregnancy and parenthood, making the struggles of pregnant and parenting students invisible.
In a 2016 survey that I administered to student parents on my campus, students said that they felt “judged” by their peers and were “made to feel incompetent,” particularly when revealing pregnancies to professors. Students I speak to -- in addition to my own personal experience as a three-time student parent -- reveal contradictory feelings of shame and pride, powerlessness and empowerment, as they navigate the terrain of the university and their own family lives.
In my survey, feelings of empowerment correlated with knowledge of pregnancy rights under Title IX. Those who were not knowledgeable about Title IX were more likely to receive lower grades if they were absent due to pregnancy and delivery, which are excused under Title IX. That suggests several things: 1) students who are knowledgeable about their rights are better advocates for themselves, and 2) faculty members who are not knowledgeable about pregnancy rights are more likely to violate them.
The problem with Title IX also lies in its limitations: while pregnancy is a protected status, parenting is not. Parents -- many of whom enter the university with children or who become pregnant or assume custody of children during school -- are largely not excused from class when their child is sick, their babysitter falls through or they experience any other childcare-related crisis. Many student parents of all genders struggle with lack of regular (and affordable) childcare, housing security and transportation, all of which can affect their attendance. Neither Title IX nor most campus resources are prepared for the ways in which student parents experience some of these struggles. For example, while my university provides emergency housing for students who experience sudden homelessness, the campus housing facilities cannot accommodate minors. While universities claim that their resources and services are for all students, not all students can fully benefit from them.
So what can faculty members do to better support their student parents as well as students who are caregivers in other ways?
First, it’s important that these students are visible. Faculty members can urge their institutions to collect data on students with dependents. Beginning this coming spring, students at my campus will be able to voluntarily submit their dependent information through their student portal. Data fields include birth dates, relationship to the dependents, the percentage of care provided and the percentage of financial responsibility. This information will help our institution understand the time and financial constraints that student parents experience, and the dependents’ ages will inform the support programs we create in response to our students' perceived needs.
Within the classroom, and without singling anyone out, faculty members can acknowledge that parenting students exist as part of the campus community. They can help dispel myths that student parents are not serious and not reliable, which would encourage understanding and community building. While these students experience challenges that might hinder their academic progress and performance, many feel strongly connected to their education. In fact, my survey revealed that over 80 percent of student parents believed that being a parent made them a better student.
Visibility can also be achieved in the syllabus. Depending on the institution’s policies, faculty members can welcome children into the classroom. My syllabus allows for students to bring their child(ren) to class if their childcare falls through or if they are exclusively nursing, and I trust that students will use their best judgment when making this decision. Students rarely take up the offer, as the stress related to bringing a child to class weighs far more heavily on the student than on the professor or classmates. If faculty members are concerned that the presence of a child somehow makes the space less “scholarly,” as I have heard they are, then they need to reassess how they determine who gets to be a scholar.
A no-questions-asked three-absence policy also gives student parents opportunities to stay home with their children without consequences. Just as I work with nonparenting students whose absences go beyond the three in emergency situations, I work with student parents whose child-related emergencies demand more time.
Additionally, faculty members can include Title IX statements on their syllabi that are inclusive of pregnancy rights. Prior to 2018, there was no language explicitly about pregnancy on my campus’s Title IX webpage, which focused almost exclusively on sexual assault. Including the information can help students feel seen and can empower them to be proactive about their education if they are pregnant or become pregnant.
Finally, faculty members can advocate for their university to be more considerate of student parent needs in campus efforts to promote “student success.” Reframing the language around pregnancy and parenthood -- much of which is couched in the language of “liability” and framed as something that needs to be “avoided” or “prevented” -- is vital for creating a climate for student parents that is welcoming and promotes an understanding of how their identities and experiences enrich campus life and learning. Faculty members can ask for family student rooms, an institutional commitment to creating a family-friendly campus, visibility of student parents in marketing materials and campus tours specifically for student parents.
Recognizing the implications of diaper needs and continued eligibility for federal welfare benefits, a colleague on my campus recently established a diaper bank that provides free diapers to our parents of very young children. Whether faculty are creating new resources or simply including information about existing resources in their syllabi, there many, many ways in which we can support student parent achievement.
It is painful to hear story after story of students who have lost entire semesters of credit because their Title IX rights were violated, they received fewer points because of unresponsive or unreasonably rigid professors, or they lacked knowledge about existing resources. Student parents who need help are not undisciplined or bad at making choices; in fact, the research shows that while student parents have less discretionary time, they use that time more productively and efficiently than their nonparenting peers. Other studies indicate they most likely started at a community college and make up one-third of first-generation students. Indeed, those who persist at four-year institutions are among the most dedicated, determined and disciplined.
If we truly want to make the claim that we support all our students, we need to think more critically about who our students are. Not only would our efforts directly benefit the student, but they would vastly improve opportunity and outcomes for generations to come. Supporting student parents is one of the best ways that we can help shape more prosperous and liberatory futures.