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College Students With Kids Could Face New Challenges As Campuses Reopen

A woman dressed in a short-sleeved striped top and black pants stands smiling with her arms folded on a tree-lined walkway during the day, at Pasadena City College.
Pasadena City College student and mother of two Johanna Cabrera is one of thousands of parenting students in California.
(Brian Feinzimer
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Pasadena City College student Johanna Cabrera took a deep breath as she sat down in the lobby of the campus day care center after dropping off her son.

The Pandemic Has Tested College Students Who Have Kids. Will Returning To Campus Be Any Easier?

“It's been chaos. I can't find another word,” she said.

Cabrera’s personal chaos during the pandemic looked like this: Her mother and stepfather were laid off from their blue collar jobs soon after the initial quarantine began in the spring of 2020. Both of them, along with Cabrera’s 13-year-old brother, moved into her one-bedroom apartment in South Los Angeles.

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College student drops off her four year old son at the campus day care, they hug.
PCC day care is important for college student Johanna Cabrera.
(Brian Feinzimer

Six people living together in a small apartment led to tension and conflict. It was difficult for Cabrera to study.

Then earlier this year, after her parents and brother moved out, her partner moved in, she said, and caused her an injury in a domestic violence incident that led her to have surgery on her right hand. At that point, she dropped her classes.

Throughout, Cabrera said, her priority was the well-being of her 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.

As college classrooms have shifted to home this past year, college faculty and staff have become more aware of the strengths demonstrated by college students who are parents, and the challenges these students have faced.

A young boy is shown in a doorway between a caregiver and his mother as she drops him off. The boy wears yellow shorts and a white t-shirt and holds the hand of the caregiver. His back is to the camera.
Pasadena City College student Johanna Cabrera drops off her four-year-old son at the campus day care center.
(Brian Feinzimer

Higher education advocates say the approaching return to campus in the fall presents an opportunity for colleges to make changes that could help this vulnerable student population. However, campus re-openings could also erase some of the benefits that students who are parents found worked to their advantage when learning moved online.

College students who are parents, or “parenting students,” a term preferred by some college staff, make up about 20% of the college student population nationwide, says a 2019 federal General Accounting Office report. More than half are single parents, and nearly two-thirds attend college part-time.

The challenges of taking care of dependents, whether it be their kids, stepchildren, grandchildren or others, can lead these students to drop out and suspend their classes.

37% of all parenting students complete a degree or certificate within six years, compared to 60% of college students who are not parents.
— UC Davis: "A Portrait of Student Parents in the California Community Colleges"
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According to a UC Davis study on parenting students released earlier this year, research “suggests that family responsibilities contribute to low college persistence and completion, especially for historically underrepresented minority students. A recent report estimated that only 37% of all parenting students complete a degree or certificate within six years, compared to 60% of college students who are not parents.”

The Pandemic Led Her To Drop Her Classes, But She’s Back

PCC student Cabrera has taken classes part-time in each of the last four years she’s been enrolled. But with the chaos of the pandemic subsiding, at least in her life, she’s signed up for three classes for the fall semester in order to earn an associates’ degree in sociology and move toward her goal of working as a college counselor.

She doesn’t know if it’s going to work out.

“(My daughter’s) scheduling is definitely a question,” she said.

That’s because as of the second week of July, Cabrera didn’t know if instruction at her daughter’s Los Angeles Unified elementary school would be online, in-person, or a hybrid, or how many hours a day it would last. She learned a week later that her daughter would be in class full-time, five days a week.

Parenting students are resilient, and resourceful, and just really amazing.
— Cindy Phu

But she still didn’t know who would pick her up three days out of the week.

Cabrera lives in South Los Angeles, an hour’s commute from Pasadena City College.

The setting, rearranging, and adapting of schedules is a parenting student superpower.

“Parenting students are resilient, and resourceful, and just really amazing,” said PCC communications professor Cindy Phu, the co-faculty advisor for Lancer Parents United, the campus student parent club. “Oftentimes their children are seen as a deficit. But in reality, their children are their motivation as to why they return to school, why they're in school.”

Phu’s doctoral dissertation is about the experience of community college students who are mothers. She advocates for campuses to listen to the experiences of parenting students, and to recognize those experiences in ways as simple as a paragraph in a syllabus that acknowledges parenting students and points them to resources on campus, such as affordable daycare.

Higher education advocates, like Phu, say that by supporting this student population, colleges would help a significant number of parenting students who struggle to finish their college work, and also lay the groundwork for these students’ children to someday go to college themselves.

Los Angeles Valley College is one of nine campuses in the L.A. Community College District.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Creating A Two Generation-Friendly College Campus

The pandemic made evident to some college professors and staff — often for the first time — that a significant portion of students juggle school while taking care of dependents. Often, this awakening came through video conference cameras, as classes moved to platforms like Zoom.

“It's like this kind of realization (by professors), 'Oh, my god, they're doing what I'm doing, my kids are at home while I'm teaching this class, their kids are at home while they're taking this class',” said Marni Roosevelt, founder and director of the Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center.

But the students took multiple classes, held down jobs, and often had significantly fewer resources than the college professors, Roosevelt said

“I think a lot of colleges are thinking about this now,” she added.

Her Valley College center is seen as the gold standard in parenting student support by many higher education advocates in California. The center’s building also houses the campus day care center.

Academic and mental health counselors meet with parenting students in the center. Study spaces and printers are open for students to use while staffers watch their kids. And then there are the free diapers, a children’s book library, gift cards for those who need them, and fruit and vegetable boxes that are made available to the students. The center serves 500 student parents each year.

PCC day care director stands in children's play area with little tables and children climbing playground toys.
Brenda Trejo is director of PCC's child development center. She's part of a group of half a dozen college staffers who meet regularly to help parenting students.
(Brian Feinzimer

When it became evident last year that the pandemic would derail many college students’ lives, Roosevelt talked with the campus foundation to fund targeted help for 40 parenting students. Those students received $50-$100 gift cards to take care of basic needs, and one on one counseling that connected them to campus and social service help. In one case, the center paid for a student’s driving lessons to make use of a newly acquired car.

The center is the only one of its kind in California’s 115-campus community college system.

Here’s What Would Help Parenting Students Even More

Some recent studies have revealed just how large the student parent population is in California colleges, and that it’s made up of many Black and Latino students and low-income students. These studies, in turn, have led college administrators and policymakers to begin increasing support and funding for helpful programs. In 2019, California lawmakers approved a $6,000 supplemental state financial aid grant for college students who are parents.

But there’s a long way to go.

“Ultimately, we would love to see a campus where it's a two-gen situation,” said Los Angeles Community College District Board Member Andra Hoffman, “where families feel comfortable coming to campus when we're able to come back in a safe manner, where students won't feel like they have to drop a class because they either gave birth or had a situation with a child.”

Like other higher education advocates, Hoffman believes a headcount of parenting students statewide is essential. She’s vice president of the board of trustees of the Community College League, a Sacramento group that advocates for community college leaders.

We would love to see a campus where it's a two-gen situation, where families feel comfortable coming to campus when we're able to come back in a safe manner.
— Andra Hoffman

In that capacity, she’s pushing state education leaders for changes, like adding a question to community college applications to better count student parents, designating them as an equity group (like student veterans), and to align college breaks with school district breaks.

Hoffman said she would also like to see assistance provided to pregnant and parenting students though the federal Title IX amendment, the federal law that ensures students are not deprived of educational services based on their sex.

She’d like to see campuses provide support through Title IX advocacy to students who give birth, have a miscarriage, or an abortion so they can get through their college classes.

“A student may have to leave school because of an abortion or a miscarriage,” Hoffman said. “They should not have to contact each of their professors individually to explain their story over and over again.” Ideally, she said, a staff member could act as intermediary to take care of that.

Even simple acknowledgement that their college sees them and backs them up helps, said Jennifer Stacy, an associate professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

“There was this trend that the students really appreciated any kind of signifier of caring, or understanding or flexibility, from their professors or from the institution in general,” said Stacy, who teaches in the Liberal Studies department that trains undergraduate teaching students.

Something as simple as mentioning parenting students in a class syllabus goes a lot way, she said. Stacy cited one class syllabus she’s used:

A Silver Lining For Some Parenting Students

Stacy has done surveys of the parenting students in her department — and found that in spite of everything, some of them thrived during the pandemic.

Elizabeth Valdivia, a mother of four, was one of them.

California State University Dominguez Hills graduating student Elizabeth Valdivia with her four kids in front of campus sign.
Elizabeth Valdivia, with her four kids, graduated with a bachelors' degree from California State University Dominguez Hills.
(Courtesy of Elizabeth Valdivia)

“The fact that I was able to take six classes, for me, was great,” said Valdivia, who graduated from CSU Dominguez Hills in December with a bachelors’ degree, magna cum laude. “The fact that I was able to maybe spend a little bit more time with the kids because they were at home, we were all at home together, that was another big plus for us.”

Valdivia, one of Stacy’s students, is still enrolled to complete requirements for a teaching credential.

Stacy said the return to campus in the fall will force parenting students to face whatever support or lack of support their campuses have shown in the past.

Until now, students have found ways to earn their college degrees with little visibility, and little recognition of the family responsibilities that affect their education.

The hope going forward, Stacy said, is that institutions take what they’ve learned about parenting students during the pandemic, and cultivate relationships with them that cast their skills as parents and caregivers as an asset.

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.

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