Invisible on Campus: Student Parents and the Difficulty of Returning to College

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“According to the Department of Education, approximately 25% of all undergraduate students in the U.S. are raising children under the age of 18, and over half of those students are single parents,” says Dr. A. Fiona Pearson, Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair of the Committee on the Concerns of Women at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). While a college education is becoming a minimum requirement for many jobs beyond the service sector, it is becoming increasingly problematic for working parents and low-income individuals to pursue a higher education.

Since 2007, Dr. Pearson has focused her research on Connecticut’s student parents and the obstacles they face on college campuses, but her current projects stem from her work examining changes to welfare and welfare reform back in 1996. “At that time, I was interviewing student parents who were receiving welfare benefits and pursuing their college education in Georgia.” In the wake of welfare reform in that period (specifically, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996), “anyone who was receiving welfare was then subject to a time limit and so couldn’t receive benefits beyond the maximum of 5 years, and they couldn’t use their time spent pursuing a college education to fulfill the new work requirements mandated as part of welfare reform,” says Dr. Pearson.

student parents work life conference

Delores Bell, Director of Women in Transitions Program at Charter Oak College; Fiona Pearson, Associate Professor of Sociology at CCSU; Leah Glaser, Associate Professor of History at CCSU

In her interviews, she discovered that case managers were actively counseling recipients to abandon their degree programs in search of a low-wage service sector job in order to satisfy the welfare work requirements. “In interviewing case managers,” says Dr. Pearson, “I found there were mixed feelings. Most case managers felt trapped within the rules of the system. Many of them didn’t feel that having to counsel students out of their programs was necessarily helping them move forward and out of poverty.” Nonetheless, students were left with the option of pursuing a degree or receiving the benefits that helped them to care for their children.

When Dr. Pearson moved to Connecticut to continue her work, she found the rules around welfare at that time to be more restrictive, which made finding students who were receiving welfare while attending school even more difficult. By broadening her research sample to interview student parents in general, she was able to reach students that had ‘opted out’ of welfare programs—choosing to continue with their degree studies while relying on family supports to allow them to continue in school and care for their children.

Even since 2007, “some of these parents are navigating social service systems and they are being counseled to leave school if they want to continue receiving benefits—in particular, childcare benefits,” she says. “That’s what’s key.” Dr. Pearson cites the increased attention to childcare programs such as CT Care 4 Kids as one of the positive benefits of welfare reform. However, “the welfare system on a whole now serves many fewer people,” she says. Connecticut Voices for Children reports that state support for programs such as CT Care 4 Kids has been cut by over 50% since 2002. “If we look at national poverty levels, we see that poverty has not decreased, yet the funding for and the number of people being served by many of these programs has significantly decreased.”

So, why focus on student parents specifically? “I felt that student parents were an invisible population on many college campuses,” says Dr. Pearson. “We tend to focus on traditional-age students.” Dr. Pearson became a parent when she was a graduate student and then experienced firsthand some of the struggles that faced her own students who were also parents. Many of the student parents in her classes were navigating the issues of having to miss class because of a sick child or because of childcare falling through on a particular day. “I became curious about how they were managing, and I wanted to tell their story,” she says.

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CCSU 2015 alumus and current SCSU graduate student Sterling White with his daughter Lotus.

According to Dr. Pearson, “The biggest hurdle for parents returning to college is childcare, and in particular, emergency childcare. So, when a child is ill or a childcare provider backs out, suddenly a student is left at the mercy of an individual professor. Many of the professors, according to the students I interviewed, are sympathetic to parents’ needs, but some aren’t, and there are very limited institutional supports. Most of the calls we’re getting currently at CCSU’s Early Learning Program are for toddler and infant care because such care is hard to come by, and there’s a shortage in New Britain.”

Because of the difficulty of remaining eligible for welfare and finding the supports necessary for childcare, finding interview subjects has been difficult. “Student parents are a difficult population to identify and statistics are hard to come by, because even if we look at FAFSA data, the number of student parents are underrepresented. Younger student parents are often still listed as dependents of their parents on tax returns, so the fact that they’re parents themselves doesn’t really show up in the data,” says Dr. Pearson. “They’re notoriously difficult to identify.”

“Once I did find them,” she says, “they were excited to talk, and many described the interview experience as cathartic because they did feel invisible on many college campuses. On the community college campuses, the student parents felt that the culture seemed more accepting, but as they moved to the four-year colleges, they felt much more invisible.” The interviews Dr. Pearson conducts probe around the ideas of campus life for student parents, the value of education, and the perception of parenting in our culture at large.

An obvious theme in her research is that of the job or occupation students are hoping to achieve by pursuing a degree, “but many also talked about the respect they were seeking from possessing this college education,” she says. “Many of these students were the first in their families to pursue and attain a college education, so they talked about social respect, community respect, and self-respect. Some of them talked about their desire for what we refer to in sociology as ‘cultural capital.’Things like being excited to learn about and read and understand Shakespeare.”

For the most part, students’ expectations for their education fell into three particular categories, says Dr. Pearson. “There were Credential Seekers, who were predominantly interested in getting their degrees. When they talked about the value of an education, everything they said was couched in the language of job and occupation. The vast majority of the students I would call Practical Explorers, who certainly see a job as an outcome and as one of the primary reasons they were in college, but they also talked about wanting to be role models for their children and wanting their children to value education because of the knowledge, security and respect education can provide. There were then the Self-Reflective Learners, who never really talked about skills or jobs and were more interested in thinking creatively and learning more about themselves and their worlds—when we think of a classic, liberal arts education, that is what these students wanted out of their college experience.

student parents article kaitlin

CCSU 2015 alumnae Kaitlin Steinen with her daughter Cassidy and son Daniel.

One of the problems is that under welfare reform, the only educational programs that are supported are short-term vocational training or certifications for programs like childhood education, which isn’t necessarily what all students want. “While of course there are students who are looking for short-term credential programs, many of the low-income parents I interviewed were interested in a variety of programs, and I believe they should be provided with the same range of choices as any other student,” says Dr. Pearson.

“Universities need to provide for a diversity of educational expectations, and we’re seeing that the state comprehensive universities, in particular, are serving a very diverse student population. I believe that the regional comprehensive universities should provide for the full spectrum of students, offering programs for those who are looking for applied, job-specific degrees, while allowing other students to explore their interests and stretch their creative imaginations before committing to a major. If we are to provide real opportunity to our students, we need to provide a wide range of offerings to address students’ varied expectations and needs.”

Connecticut Voices for Children

Institute for Women’s Policy Research: Student Parent Success Initiative

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