Caring for Student Parents

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research [IWPR], “nearly four million U.S. undergraduate college students are parents or guardians of children under the age of 18.” To break this down a bit further, more than 2 million community college students are parents and approximately 71% are mothers. We already know the pressure students are under in regular, everyday life [work, class, caring for children, juggling finances, etc.], but COVID puts a different spin on this aspect. While colleges are deciding the best way to serve students for this fall, it’s important to not forget about the student parent population.

More and more K-12 schools are returning in the fall using a virtual option. A few are fully opening, but most (if not going virtual) are implementing rotating schedules. Trying to balance work commitments and a different schooling model for children is difficult enough; once a class schedule is thrown into the equation, many student parents end up facing a difficult choice: 1) try to juggle it all on their own or 2) stop-out of school. *If you’re unfamiliar with stopping out, it means not re-enrolling in college for a certain amount of time. For those of us who have worked with nontraditional students (especially student parents), we know what the final decision is going to be: stop-out of school. While it’s a decision that makes my heart sink, it does make sense. Most of us are already having trouble juggling life in the midst of COVID, and we wouldn’t dream of adding the role of “student” to everything else.

However, there are many student parents who will continue in that role, and that’s where colleges can show their full support.  COVID-19 is providing a great opportunity to make sure students of various demographics are properly served. The pandemic has disrupted everything, so now we get to start with a semi-clean slate and think about the needs of all of our students, not just the majority.  So, what can we do to make life better for our student parents?

  1. Reassess attendance policies: I was a faculty member for 12 years, so I know a) the purpose of an attendance policy and b) the reality of enforcing the attendance policy. While this should lead to a larger conversation in the future, consider suspending it (or at least RELAXING it). There’s no way that these polices won’t be amended throughout the semester anyway because there are too many scenarios in which a student will have to miss class: child is sick, student is sick, student’s co-worker gets COVID and now everyone needs to get tested, along with the usual reasons for missing class. *Some programs can’t allow for this, so consider options that allow a student to complete schoolwork from home (especially for those lacking internet and computer options).
  2. Offer asynchronous class options, along with synchronous classes: This is huge. I’m already trying to figure out how get my child on an 11am teacher meeting, while I’m being called in for a virtual 11am meeting (plus the fact that we don’t have enough computers for everyone to work/attend school) at home. For student parents (especially the ones who cannot work from home), a problem like this is enough to invoke a full on panic attack. However, colleges can make it easier by allowing for asynchronous class options. Some students will be able to attend school, but it may have to be at 10 pm at night or 6 am in the morning (for profit online schools figured this out a while ago). Rethinking online learning will be key for helping student parents succeed.
  3. Make sure communication is air-tight: Does your campus work with local agencies on areas such as food insecurity, housing, childcare, etc?  If so, get this communication out to all of your students in multiple ways. Now’s not the time for the attitude of “if they’re really in need, they’ll seek us out.” No, no, and no. Make sure that your students know that help is available, where it is, when it’s offered, and how to get it. This is truly caring for your student body.

COVID-19 has spun all institutions of higher education for a loop, but this can also be a great opportunity to change some of our policies and processes for the better. While you’re focusing on the general student body, don’t forget to consider certain populations that often get overlooked, such as college parents.

Keep moving forward,

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