We’re still missing something: shining a light on student parents

A few months back, I heard a story that I can’t get out of my head. Kevin, a young man working on his bachelor’s degree, was juggling a lot – work, school, and parenting – and excelling. Yet his experience with one exam became a telling marker of just how far our colleges and universities have to go to truly support student parents. Kevin’s childcare fell through the morning of a quiz that would have a significant impact on his grade, yet despite sharing this with his professor, the instructor was adamant that there would be no make-up exams. So Kevin packed up his bag, and his two-year-old daughter, and headed to class. 

Like so many student parents, Kevin wasn’t looking for the easy way out. In fact, as Kevin’s story shows, pregnant and parenting students are very motivated, earning higher GPAs on average than non-parenting students. A few years ago, we spoke with women of color across the California State University system who were parenting and we uplifted their brilliance, insights, and recommendations in a report called Hear My Voice II: Supporting Success for Parenting and Unhoused Women of Color. As that research and that of others highlights, student parents must often face and conquer myriad additional and preventable systemic barriers and challenges on their paths to and through higher education. These successes are often in spite of, and not because of, the support offered by their institutions.

“Common among nearly all the student parents we spoke with was a desire for greater visibility. Participants did not see their needs and circumstances reflected in course policies and accommodations.” Hear My Voice II: Supporting Success for Parenting and Unhoused Women of Color

According to researchers at UC Davis, there are hundreds of thousands of student parents on college campuses across California, a population that has increased over the past decade. And yet, despite the sheer size of this population, recent research shows that the majority of student parents report feeling unsupported by their colleges. From vastly different schedules to childcare costs leading them to accrue more debt, issues facing parenting students can often create barriers that colleges are failing to adequately address. 

The recent passage of California Assembly Bill 2881 (Berman), a law providing supports for student parents including priority registration, is hopefully a signal of a shift in higher education practices that the nearly 4 million parenting students across the country rightly deserve. And as the Executive Director of an advocacy organization in California and the son of a former student parent myself, I am excited that Ed Trust–West is co-launching with California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, a broad-based, statewide coalition to coordinate efforts and accelerate better supports student parents in the state. 

But while these efforts, and the emergence in recent years of pregnant and parenting student-focused research, are important steps, I sometimes worry that we have yet to address one of the biggest underlying issues facing these students. The fact remains that within the education equity space, parenting students are far too often viewed as a special population. This is a misnomer that separates out policy and practice conversations about parenting students despite the fact that on the one hand, more than 1 out of every 10 college students in California is a student parent, and on the other student parents are more likely to be students of color, in particular Black students. Student parents are and always have been present in postsecondary education and they are often students of color. As a field – and by that I mean everyone from those in philanthropy to lawmakers in Sacramento – we need to view supporting student parents not as an option, but as an “equity imperative”, as Jhenai Chandler of The Institute for College Access and Success put it. Supporting student parents is crucial for student success efforts generally and for advancing racial equity in education.

One of the much-needed steps toward better integrating student parent needs into the powerful education equity advocacy sphere involves even being able to tell who these students are, where they attend college, and what their needs are. At this point we all know the adage – you can’t fix what you can’t see. Yet the numbers we do have on student parents in California come not from a coordinated, well-implemented data collection effort by our state’s higher education systems, but instead from individual campus efforts or often from researchers pouring through disjointed state data. As the state works to craft the long-needed Cradle-to-Career data system, that will help to better identify and address inequities in opportunity, student parent data collection and reporting is imperative. 

And as we work to ensure these data are well documented, accessible, and actionable, there are other steps we as a field should take to include parenting students in all of our higher education advocacy work, not just targeted webinars and events. In fact, the needs reported by many student parents align with big topics in education equity – including financial aid to address non-tuition costs, such as childcare, and access to safe, affordable housing options. Student parent concerns are student concerns –  and clearly, given the demographics, student parent concerns are a racial justice issue in education. Leaving student parents on the periphery doesn’t just do them a disservice, it robs the field of educational advocacy of voices and perspectives that could better shape the education field as a whole.

My late mother started her journey at a community college soon after having her first child (me). I know she would have completed her degree had her college been more oriented to support her and students like her who come to higher education with dreams and a desire to achieve their goals for themselves and for their children. Nearly a decade ago, I published a blog much like this one because I was dissatisfied with how little the ‘back to school’ news cycle included stories of solo parents or parents at all. My hope now is that student parents, advocates, college leaders, and community-based organizations come together and make sure pregnant and parenting students are seen as central to the racial equity in education movement in California and that we truly move the needle and realize better practices, policies, and supports for pregnant and parenting students. I do not want to write this same blog another decade from now. 

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Karla Fernandez

Communications Manager

Karla Fernandez (she/her/hers) joins Ed Trust–West as a Communications Manager with over 11 years of experience advancing social impact initiatives.

Karla started her career as a teacher at Chicago Public Schools and UIC College Prep. After teaching, Karla joined United Friends of the Children to support LA County’s youth in foster care as a college counselor. Through Leadership for Educational Equity, Karla also served as a Policy Advisor Fellow for the office of a Los Angeles Unified School Board Member. She solidified her interests in policy analysis and quantitative research during her time with the Price Center for Social Innovation, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, and the USC Presidential Working Group on Sustainability. Before joining The Education Trust–West, Karla was the Associate Director for the Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) Collaborative, a network of nonprofits advocating for communities in SELA.

Karla holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, a Master of Public Policy from the USC Price School of Public Policy, and a Graduate Certificate in Policy Advocacy from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Karla is based out of southern California and is passionate about using data analysis, communications, and digital strategies for policy advocacy and social justice efforts.