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Student parents are key to our post-pandemic recovery

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As students quickly shifted to remote learning with the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Ashley de Jesus shifted to another reality — parenthood.

In addition to adjusting to a new learning landscape, Ashley, a single mother, found herself navigating a social welfare system whose offices were being shuttered. She recalls feeling unmotivated to study as she continued to work (virtually) and adjust to a newborn. She even considered taking a semester off. But the promise she made to herself, and the inspiration from her newborn, kept her going.

Student parents — students raising children while enrolled in a two- or four-year college — are typically 22 percent of the undergraduate student population. They are fathers, mothers, and nonbinary parents, though they are largely women of color, single, and low income. Some, like me, became first-time parents in college.

COVID created a caretaking crisis that not only pushed hundreds of thousands of parents, women in particular, out of the workforce, but also led to women putting a pause on their education to care for children and other dependents. The total number remains unknown, largely because campuses rarely collect data on student parents. As a result, student parents are often unrecognized as a significant student population, feeding the stigma against these skilled and ambitious students. Amidst an ongoing emphasis on “diversity and inclusion,” parenthood as a life experience should be, but is rarely, included within our diversity frameworks. Without it, student parents are left out of targeted student success efforts and how we tell the story about who our students are, and who they can and should be.

So what does the disappearance of student parents — women, in particular — mean for our economy and higher education?

A 2020 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows some of the greatest impact and return on investment happens when we invest in higher education for single mothers, 88 percent of whom live below the poverty line despite at least 60 percent of them working 20 or more hours a week. Meanwhile, just 8 percent of single mothers earn a degree within six years, compared with slightly over half of women in college who are not mothers. The odds are, indeed, against them. But when they obtain degrees, it is transformational — for them, their families, and our economy.

Single mothers with bachelor’s degrees earn over $600,000 more than those with high school diplomas over the course of their lives and contribute more than $200,000 more in taxes. A $14 billion investment in providing childcare for single mothers in college would result in an $89 billion economic return due to tax contributions and decreased dependence on social welfare.

Investing also creates a second generation effect, as children gain better access to housing and health insurance and are also more likely to attend and graduate from college. How can we act now to ensure we see these benefits in the future?

Subsidized child care is the greatest investment that campuses can make in student parents. Students with small children, like Ashley, who wanted to return to campus but stayed online, struggle with either no campus child care options or campus child care centers with waiting lists with an average of 82 children per center. In fact, the IWPR found that campus child care centers meet just 5 percent of student parent need. Priority registration, food pantries with baby food and diapers, and parking for students with children can also provide significant support.

Further, institutions can revisit their academic policies to be more inclusive of caregivers. Ashley recalls being penalized for not having her camera on during Zoom classes while she tended to her baby. Policies like Title IX tend to emphasize sexual assault protections, obscuring pregnant students’ rights to make up coursework or submit alternative assignments if they have pregnancy-related excuses.

But sometimes the law isn’t enough. Despite knowing about Title IX, Ashley submitted course assignments while she was in labor because she was unsure of how the challenges of becoming a new parent — an identity that Title IX does not protect — would complicate her ability to persist. Institutional messaging and policies that recognize caregivers as part of their population are essential for creating student parent- and family-friendly climates. Further, student parents should have representation in recruitment and marketing materials, and a presence on websites and in diversity mission statements.

But the work should not be only about the economic rationale for supporting these students. It’s simply the right thing to do. Student parents enrich the classroom by connecting theory and data with lived experience in tangible ways. In fact, according to my survey of student parents at Fresno State, over 80 percent of respondents reported that being a parent made them a better student. Supporting student parents improves racial equity and promotes educational justice.

When Ashley looks to the future she sees herself working on a college campus where she can advocate for student parents, like herself. Though Ashley’s support system helped her to continue her educational journey, despite the hardships, others may not be as fortunate. Student parents are already twice as likely to leave college before graduating than students who are not parents; what higher education and its legislative and philanthropic partners do in this moment to reach and support these students will have implications for generations to come.

Indeed, our recovery as a nation as we emerge from this pandemic depends on how we support student parents and empower them toward degree completion — and the personal, societal, and generational benefits that come along with their hard-earned education.

Larissa M. Mercado-López is a Full Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at California State University, Fresno.

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