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'It is hard as hell': For 1 in 5 students, the college experience includes raising a child

Scripps News met with several students who shared their struggles and triumphs while navigating school and parenthood.
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Posted at 9:40 AM, May 28, 2024

Every year, roughly 19 million Americans attend college — and more than 4 million of them do so while also raising a child.

That’s the journey of student parents. Across the country, from community colleges to nationally renowned universities, student parents are balancing it all: class, jobs, housework and child care.

Four of these students opened their doors to Scripps News so we could witness their struggles and triumphs.

“For the amount of wherewithal it takes every day to do this, I always say it’s not for the faint of heart,” Shakur Burden told us.

When we met him, he was in his final week at LaGuardia Community College. He’s an aspiring social worker who’s also raising a 6-year-old son, Syann. Burden lives in Staten Island, and after watching his son get on the bus for school, he takes three subway trains and a ferry to get to class in Queens.

“It is hard as hell,” he said.

It’s little surprise that student parents typically juggle more than college students who don't have children, but it’s eye-opening to see the extent to which this is the case. Nearly half of student parents work full-time while enrolled in school, and arranging child care for work and classes is a challenge. According to one national survey, 3 in 5 parents reported missing days the previous semester due to a lack of child care.

At the same time, Scripps News found there’s a shrinking number of campuses offering day care programs for students’ children. In 2003, a Department of Education survey revealed that about 19% of colleges reported offering such programs. That number is now closer to 14%.

And for student parents who do secure child care, those costs combined with tuition can stretch their finances.

Anna Kovaleva in Montgomery, Maryland, is familiar with the financial pinch.

“I always had to work multiple jobs because it is very pricey to live around here,” she said.

Now she works eight-hour shifts at a local car dealership before her virtual classes at Montgomery College, where she studies criminal justice. Often her daughter Maya looks on or plays in another room during classes.

Competing demands mean Kovaleva can’t take a traditional course load, which is part of the reason she’s been in school for six years.

“It used to get me really upset at one point,” she said. “I would see people that I graduated high school with, and they would have their bachelor’s degree already, or their master’s. But they’re also at a different point in their lives. They don’t have a child to take care of.”

All told, one study found that student parents with young children spent 57 hours per week on child care and other child-related tasks. They spent an additional 18 hours more than non-parents on housework and paid work.

Taken together, these challenges might be why more than half of student parents leave school without a degree. That’s compared to less than a third of students without children. For those who finish, the payoff is big: Compared to people with a high school diploma, those who have an associate degree earn a median income that’s about 18% higher. And for those who complete a bachelor’s degree, that number goes up to 66% higher than a high school diploma alone.

But for these student parents, getting their degree is also about empowerment.

“This is a choice I made for myself so that I can stand on my own two feet,” said Avanti Moore, a mother of two. She’s a student at Georgia Gwinnett College and hopes to become a nurse. “I can offer myself, my family and this world so much more — but I have to go back to school to do it,” she said.

And, of course, it’s about the children.

“I want my son to learn how to be fearless in this world,” said Maria Isabel Ramos Martinez, mother of 6-year-old Eduardo. She’s working on her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “I never want him to grow up feeling, ‘Because of me, my mom left school.’ I want him to say it in a positive manner: ‘Because of me, my mom was motivated to stay in school. Because of me, my mom got her Ph.D.’

“I want him to say it like that: proud, not sad.”

Resources for student parents

Generation Hope advocates for student parents and offers tuition help, mentorship and a resource list for teen parents. Kovaleva is a current Generation Hope scholar.

Ascend at the Aspen Institute spearheads the Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative, which raises awareness about student parents and conducts studies about them. Ramos Martinez currently serves as an Ascend parent adviser.