Most weeknights, after her 3-year-old daughter, A’nyah, falls asleep, Molly Clark cracks open her textbooks and studies until her eyes “feel like sandpaper.”
“As soon as I feel like it’s not any use anymore, I’ll backtrack a few pages, put my bookmark in, and I’ll go to bed, which is usually around 12 to 2:30,” said Clark, a 21-year-old student at Red Rocks Community College pursuing an associate’s degree in fire and emergency services.
Clark and A’nyah live with Clark’s parents, grandfather and two siblings in Thornton. A’nyah’s father is not involved with raising her. Clark can’t study when A’nyah is awake since her child has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and requires constant attention. So Clark saves her schoolwork for the quiet hours of the night, when she finally has space to focus.
“It takes a lot of meticulous planning to go to school and have a child at the same time,” said Clark, who finished her GED in 2021 after dropping out of high school in 2017, before she got pregnant.
Clark’s struggles as a single parent and college student are not unique. In the U.S., more than one in five college students are parents, according to data from the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. In the Rocky Mountain region specifically — which includes Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming — 2012 data revealed there were 205,214 student-parents, representing 27.9% of the overall student population. (More recent data aren’t available; more on that below.)
At a time when the number of undergraduate students is decreasing overall, the drop is more significant among student-parents. From 2011-12 to 2015-16, student-parent enrollment at U.S. colleges declined 20% while the overall rate of enrollment fell roughly 6%.
This decline is due to “significant barriers that have just been increasing over the years, between costs, accessibility and then a general feeling that college is just not a place for you if you’re a parent,” said Nicole Lynn Lewis, a former student-parent and founder of the national nonprofit Generation Hope, which helps teen parents pursue college degrees.
Poverty rates improve for single moms with a college degree
The repercussions of decreased student-parent enrollment at colleges are real, as education attainment is strongly correlated with poverty rates. A 2016 analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) found 13% of single mothers with a bachelor’s degree live in poverty compared with 41% of single mothers who have only a high school degree.
Student-parents are more likely to be women and also more likely to be people of color than their non-student peers. In the Rocky Mountain region, 50% of Black women, 37.7% of Hispanic women and 30.2% of white women in college are parents, per the 2012 data.
Even though student-parents have higher GPAs than students without kids, according to an IWPR analysis of the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, their odds of graduating college are slimmer. An estimated 52% of undergraduate student-parents left school without a degree within 6 years, compared to 32% of students without kids, per 2009 government data, the most recent data available.
Even with such a significant proportion of U.S. college students also being parents, there is little, if any, recent research data on this population. A 2020 IWPR briefing paper underscores this knowledge gap: “Despite the large numbers of college students with children and their unique needs, most campuses, state data systems, and national higher education datasets do not count students with children or document their progress toward completion,” the paper authors wrote.
One reason college is so challenging for student parents: they have fewer resources to pay for their education than students without kids, according to a 2019 United States Government Accountability Office report. They also hold nearly two times as much student loan debt compared to college students overall, per the 2015-16 data.
“It’s much more expensive for student-parents to attend college than it is for non-parenting students,” said Lewis. As Lewis explains it, student-parents have child care costs, increased living expenses and increased transportation costs; since many cannot live on campus with their children, they must commute to class instead—sometimes from long distances. This is all before the price of tuition, books and other fees.
Clark, for example, didn’t qualify for federal student aid last semester and was struggling to pay her tuition in the timeframe the school required. Hope House Colorado, a faith-based nonprofit that supports teen moms, stepped in to cover the cost of classes.
“I owe a lot to Hope House,” said Clark, who previously worked as an EMT but had to quit her job last semester to take care of sick family members, diminishing her income.
Finding reliable, affordable child care is another challenge for student-parents.
Clark can’t afford child care herself, and even though Red Rocks Community College is among the 29% of two-year public institutions in Colorado that offer campus child care services, A’nyah didn’t qualify because she isn’t potty-trained. So for the 16 hours a week that Clark has in-person classes, she relies on her mom to watch A’nyah. Clark says she feels guilty about that, since her mom struggles with chronic pain and other medical issues.
On-campus child care helps
Even when student-parents find quality child care, coordinating pickups and dropoffs around class schedules can present yet another hurdle. Leslie Martinez, a 21-year-old Denver resident who graduated from Red Rocks in May with an associate’s degree in cosmetology, was lucky enough to get her 3-year-old daughter, Leyza, into the school’s child care program. But for two of the three years Martinez was in school, she was late to class every day, since the day care center didn’t open until 7:30 a.m.—the same time Martinez’s first class started.
Fortunately, Martinez’s teacher was “really understanding” of her chronic tardiness, she said. That’s not always the norm.
“Some teachers are real unforgiving,” said Jamie Barnes, a program manager at Hope House. Through her work at Hope House, Barnes knows several moms who failed college classes because they were absent too many times due to their kids getting sick.
Beyond strict attendance requirements, “there are so many institutional policies and practices that really marginalized” student parents in college, said Lewis. She gives the example that many colleges have a “no kids on campus” rule. Indeed, in a Generation Hope national survey involving 259 student-parents at nearly 150 institutions, just 3% of respondents said their campus allowed kids in class; another 60% said they didn’t know whether their school had such a policy.
A “no kids on campus” policy, said Lewis, “communicates to parents and students that they don’t belong, that this is not an environment that sees them and validates them.”
Jada Galissini knows what it’s like to feel unwelcome. A 25-year-old Denver resident and mother of 7-year-old daughter, Gabby, Galissini recalled an incident several years ago where she went to the financial aid office of one area community college with Gabby in a stroller. Galissini asked the employee how she could sign up for college and apply for financial aid. The employee, Galissini recalled, asked her how she planned to come to college if she had a baby and couldn’t pay for it.
“That was pretty terrible,” remembered Galissini, who attended three different local colleges and this past spring earned the education she needed to become a medical technician.
Some institutions are making efforts to better support student-parents. For example, Colorado Community College System (CCCS), a network of 13 schools with 35 locations across the state, is currently piloting a program on its Community College of Aurora campus that includes a day care center for student-parents as well as data collection to understand which of the school’s policies are harmful to student-parents. From there, the college system will determine what changes can be made to mitigate that harm, said Ryan Ross, CCCS vice chancellor for student affairs, equity and inclusion. CCCS is also forming a statewide committee of parents and educators who will discuss the realities of being a student-parent and make policy recommendations, added Ross.
Compared to 20 years ago, there is more awareness today of student-parents in college, said Lewis. And in the past seven years, Barnes said she has seen colleges’ supportive services for parents as well as other disadvantaged students “grow tremendously.”
That said, there’s still much progress to be made, said Lewis. She points to an increased need for funding and policies that would alleviate the challenges student-parents face and help increase graduation rates. Change needs to occur within colleges, too.
“We call this population ‘an invisible population’ because for the most part, they really continue to fall under the radar of many people working in higher education each and every day,” said Lewis.
There were benefits to remote instruction
The pandemic forced many institutions to offer remote classes and more flexibility surrounding when and how students learn — a boon for parents juggling the demands of work, child care and education. Clark, for example, said remote schooling helped her better manage her time and gave her more hours to study, but trying to learn at home also made it more challenging to find a balance between the roles of mom and student.
In general, the past two years have hit student-parents disproportionately hard, says Lewis, exacerbating the challenges the population already faces, including food and housing insecurity, mental health concerns, and a lack of child care options.
Galissini said the hardest part of being a student-parent was coordinating child care, especially amidst shifting school schedules and on days when her daughter was sick, which was often. Gabby’s father assists with child care when he can, but not on a reliable schedule.
“It’s so hard to figure out who she’s going to go with while she’s sick because nobody wants to take care of her,” said Galissini. “Especially now with COVID, you get a cold and it’s like quarantine for a week, no matter what.”
On the mental health front, although “mental health challenges are an issue for all college students,” said Lewis, student-parents often have more stressors in their lives than their non-parent peers and these stressors can contribute to mental health challenges. “Just the emotional weight of being a parenting student is really difficult to carry,” Lewis said.
Clark said the hardest part of being a parent in college “revolves around guilt of not being there” for her child. She laments the milestone moments she’s missed with her daughter, like not being able to take her to the zoo for the first time because she was in class or studying.
The guilt, said Clark, “really never goes away and it really can’t be dealt with. It’s like grieving. You are grieving those missed moments and you are beating yourself up over missing stuff like that.”
Clark maintains perspective by reminding herself that what’s most important is her daughter’s health and happiness. She draws inspiration from her mom, who was also a teen mom and had five kids by the time she was 23.
“My mom is very adamant that I do things the right way. She didn’t do it and it caused us to have a rough start to all of our childhoods,” said Clark.
Clark’s ultimate goal is to be a firefighter paramedic. She’s taking a break from classes this summer and then has three more semesters of classes at Red Rocks. From there, she will need to complete two semesters of a paramedic program elsewhere to earn the certification and licensure required to get a job in the field.
“I want to help people,” said Clark, who’s dreamed of being a firefighter since kindergarten, and in high school was preparing to take the Candidate Physical Ability Test, which measures a person’s readiness for the physical aspects of firefighting: “Then I got pregnant and everything changed.”
On her late nights studying, Clark thinks of A’nyah. Despite the challenges of being a student-parent, she will keep forging ahead to give her daughter the best possible future.
Freelance writer Jenny McCoy wrote this story for The Colorado Trust, a philanthropic foundation that works on health equity issues statewide and that funds a reporting position at The Colorado Sun. It appeared at coloradotrust.org on Aug. 11, 2022. It can be read in Spanish at coloradotrust.org/es .