Life was already challenging for student parents; COVID-19 made it much more difficult
The pandemic halted many resources that student parents need to succeed: on-campus child care centers, in-person study groups, internet access and in-person K-12 education for their kids
SALT LAKE CITY — Kelsie Rose Kealoha doesn’t like to cry in front of her kids.
When she does melt down, it’s usually in the shower, the warm water mingling with her tears.
There’s just so much on her plate.
Before COVID-19, the 33-year-old would drop off her sixth grader and second grader at their schools, then head to the palm tree-lined University of Hawaii at Hilo where she used the computer labs, asked math questions in person and worked in the student learning center.
But by May, it was all gone.
The entire family came home, relying on Kealoha’s cellphone as a mobile hot spot for Zoom work meetings, sociology classes and grade school homework.
When the connection dropped or was too slow, the family drove 10 minutes down the road to The Coffee Bean, borrowing the wireless signal from the local cafe while they worked in the car.
“It was not the most convenient,” said Kealoha, a first-generation college student, “but we do what we gotta do.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the unofficial motto of student parents — 1 out of every 5 college students, a majority of them women — who pursue an education while also working, managing households and raising children.
The global COVID-19 pandemic, along with its physical, psychological and emotional toll, has also been a jarring educational shove, pushing some women back to college in hopes of securing a better economic future, while also threatening to push other women off the academic path they’ve been on, often for a long time — although experts say the full scope of the impact won’t be seen in the data for months.
As an added hurdle, the pandemic halted many resources that student parents rely on to be successful: on-campus child care centers, in-person study groups, internet access, and in-person K-12 education for their kids.
Which is why experts are pleading that colleges and communities do more to see this “invisible population” and support them on their path to graduation — especially amid the current crisis.
“It’s really creating a permanent pathway from poverty to prosperity,” said Autumn Green, an applied sociologist and research scientist at Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts. “They’re on much stronger footing than they otherwise would be because of their college degree. We are just trying to keep our students in school ... trying to make it through this and get to the other side without losing them.”
Recessions and education
Recessions often renew interest in education. With a shortage of jobs and greater competition, it makes sense to get additional skills or sharpen existing ones.
From 2008 to 2012 following the Great Recession, nearly 1 million student parents went back to school, Green said. Now, amid another recession, she’s watching to see if it happens again, although she doesn’t expect solid data for many months.
For Andrea Newmarker, 45, going back to school seemed like a natural option after she lost her job in April as a limousine driver in Las Vegas.
She stopped going to college in 1996, but with the support of her husband and promised math class tutoring from her four children, ages 17 to 22, she began an online class through the College of Southern Nevada to become a dialysis technician.
After her classes — comprising 12 female students, eight of them single mothers — she’ll complete her clinicals and take a licensing test.
By January 2021, she hopes to be making around $18 an hour, roughly 25% more than she made as a limo driver.
“I’m looking forward to this,” Newmarker said of her five-days-a-week, four-hours a day online class. “I’m looking forward to this being a stepping stone.”
Nationally, a single mother with a bachelor’s degree will earn more than $1 million over her lifetime — $625,134 more than a woman with only a high school diploma, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Even an associate degree boosts lifetime earnings $256,059 over no higher education.
Benefits also extend beyond the individual.
Nationwide, the cohort of single mother students enrolled in 2015-2016 who earn degrees or some college credit “is expected to save society $19.9 billion in public assistance spending,” according the institute’s analysis of roughly 1.7 million single-mother students.
If the country invested $14 billion to provide child care services to that same cohort of single mothers, it could boost degree attainment rate by an estimated 21%.
That would lead to higher-paying jobs, bigger tax contributions and less public assistance, for an estimated societal gain of $89 billion dollars — a 430% return-on-investment rate, according to the analysis.
A degree is also about self-fulfillment and empowerment, said Sheila Katz, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Houston who studies women’s experiences in poverty. She notes that communities with more degree-holding residents have greater civic engagement and voting levels and increased participation in kids’ schools.
Women with degrees also set a good example for their children, or as Katz likes to phrase it, “When the household has an orientation to education, that leads to an education orientation.”
“I really like thinking about it (as) we’re investing in people,” she said.
Seeing the invisible students
But before colleges can invest in student parents — they have to know who they are.
And that’s where it gets a bit complicated.
Of the more than 19.5 million college students nationally — around 22% (4.3 million) are also parents. Within that group, 55% are single parents, and 71% are women, according to a United States Government Accountability Office report from August 2019.
Yet these numbers are still just estimates — drawn from several national educational surveys and applications for federal student aid — not states or colleges themselves, said Susana Contreras-Mendez, a research associate at Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s Student Parent Success Initiative.
In Utah, an estimated 27% of students are parents, according to the institute’s numbers — yet only 5 of the 11 colleges contacted by the Deseret News had a sense of the number of student parents currently enrolled.
- Dixie, Southern Utah University and Weber State University regularly glean numbers from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which asks about students’ dependents (though not every student fills this out). Ensign College provided FAFSA-based numbers.
- Utah Valley University has numbers from a student survey administered each fall semester. Weber State also conducts a student survey every few years, and Salt Lake Community College conducted one small, optional one once.
- Utah State University and the University of Utah only ask graduating seniors if they have children, while BYU, Snow College and Westminster said they didn’t collect data on current student parents, some citing privacy concerns.
Yet in Rochester, New York, Monroe Community College has been gathering data on student parents since 2003 — not initially realizing their required seven-question survey prior to student registration was such a novel concept, said Mary Ann Matta DeMario, specialist in Institutional Research at one of New York’s community colleges.
But thanks to two questions about marital status and dependents — gathered in a way that protects student privacy — Monroe Community College officials know at least 18% of their student body are parents.
In fact, two-thirds of the college’s 2,600 student parents surveyed said they had never told faculty or staff they were parents — fearing judgement or shaming.
“It’s really raised our awareness that there needs to be a culture change at MCC,” DeMario said. “(We need) to communicate to them how much we value them, how much we recognize that they have a lot going on in their lives and MCC is just one of the many responsibilities they’re juggling.”
Yet while some colleges are actively gathering data, Green believes a majority are engaging in “willful ignorance.” Student supports like child care and family housing can be expensive, and it’s cheaper not to know, she said.
“Student parents are being rendered invisible by our lack of data,” Green said. “It’s an incredible form of injustice in higher education.”
Support and connection
Once universities know who their student parents are, they can focus on what they need.
For Brianna Bixby, 24 — and most other student parents — it’s child care.
When COVID-19 shut down the University of Minnesota, it also shut down her 3-year-old son’s day care center.
Within days, she was on the phone with her adviser — preparing to “stop out” of her spring and summer classes, unable to juggle both full-time online school and full-time caregiving. (Advocates prefer the term “stop out” rather than “drop out” as most student parents come back as soon as they can.)
Bixby also lost the weekly Parents As Students Support group, where she gathered for free lunch and conversation with other parents. It was therapeutic, she said, and reminded her that she’s not the only one juggling school and “taking care of another human being.”
The support group is just one offering from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities’ Student Parent HELP Center, which connects students to resources for academic and family needs, offers child care grants, family-friendly events, support groups, an open lounge and computer lab.
A recent study of the HELP center found that student mothers who interacted with staff repeatedly were significantly more likely to graduate than those who only met with the staff once to fill out an intake form — 72% compared to 43%.
Bixby has been meeting with the program director for the HELP Center weekly for six months to stay on track to graduate, hopefully in spring 2022.
“(School) is kind of part of my identity at this point,” said Bixby, who started fall semester after her son’s care center opened again. “It’s really important to me to keep it going. And I’ve been working so hard. I need to see the fruits of my labor, to get that degree.”
Support — whether financial, emotional or academic or a mix — is crucial to keeping student parents on a path to graduation — and it’s even more crucial now amid a pandemic and recession that’s hitting women particularly hard.
In Orem, Utah Valley University’s Women’s Success Center offers success coaching, financial advising, as well as on-site, low-priced child care that exclusively serves student parents, said Tara Ivie, senior director of the center.
The university also offers a free seven-week “Managing Life Transitions” course to support community members going through a divorce, death, layoff, etc., and is often the first step for women coming back to school, said Ivie.
At Los Angeles Valley College’s Family Resource Center, current support looks like parenting workshops over Zoom, phone call checkups, and deliveries of diapers, wipes and even laptops. Seventy percent of the college’s student parents lost their jobs after the pandemic hit, yet wanted to stay in school, said Amber Angel, the center’ program coordinator and parent adviser for Ascend at the Aspen Institute
Angel, who was once a student parent herself, emphasizes that these student parents don’t need to be empowered. They know what an education means for their families.
They just need to be seen, heard and supported.
“Student parents are so motivated,” Angel said, “and yet they just sometimes need a bit of a helping hand.”