Biden administration may help keep student parents in college

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This week’s newsletter comes to you from Liz Willen, The Hechinger Report’s editor in chief, who has reported on the struggles and triumphs of college students who are also parents. 

By Liz Willen

For student parents, the road to a college degree has always been fraught with obstacles, from hunger and homelessness to lack of child care. Many student parents are also working while attending community colleges. Unsurprisingly, they are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than students who are not parents.

But as the new Biden administration takes hold, policymakers and advocates – for the first time in a long while – are optimistic that policy changes favorable to student parents are on the way. It’s a potential bright spot at a time when community colleges in particular have seen first-time enrollment dips of 21 percent, while fall 2020 enrollment went down 10 percent compared with a year earlier.

“I have been very hopeful since Jan. 20,” Nicole Lynn Lewis, a mother of four and the founder of the nonprofit Generation Hope, told me. Lewis had a chance to advocate for student parents and their needs – including reforming federal financial aid policies, expanding Pell grants and improving child care access – in a call with officials of the new Biden-Harris administration earlier this year before the new president and vice-president took office.

Lewis is also among the advocates who are excited by having Jill Biden, a community college professor, as First Lady in the White House, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, who is inspiring pride in HBCUs.  

“They represent more than the Ivy League, and they know that student parents are more likely to be Black and attend community colleges,” Lewis said.
Biden’s proposal for $40 billion to directly support child care providers and systems is also being seen as a hopeful sign.

The struggling, but ultimately successful, student parents I’ve spoken with in recent months credited their own persistence to support from within the colleges they attended. I’m thinking of Annisha Thomas, a single mother of two who works at a Waffle House while attending Nashville State Community College in Tennessee, and against all odds managed to stay in school after the pandemic hit.

“If it wasn’t for the goodness of my teachers, I would be failing right now,” Thomas told me.
I was also heartened by the help given to Marleny Hernandez, a mother of four who is on her way to becoming a nurse, but almost dropped out of Borough of Manhattan Community College several times along the way. In addition to on-campus child care, Hernandez credits a call from the school’s vice-president urging her to stick with the program, even after being told by professors that she might not make it. (She did.)
“You just have to keep going, no matter what others say about you,” Hernandez told me.  “Just keeping pushing and never give up.”

It takes a lot more than supportive professors and family members to make it, though. “I think the pandemic has really made it clear that there are certain populations and groups really hit hard, and the pandemic exacerbated these challenges,” Lewis told me. Generation Hope now offers a tool kit aimed at helping student parents.

I also spoke with Carrie Welton, director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, which focuses on students with lower incomes, students of color, immigrants and first-generation students, along with parents who have long struggled to finish their college educations. Some of the challenges Welton hopes the new administration will address include high college costs, state and federal disinvestment in higher education and the need for child care subsidies like TANF and food stamps.
“We are handicapping our economy by leaving these barriers in place,” Welton told me. “The time is right for change. These are really bipartisan issues.”
Hope for more parent-friendly policies comes amid calls for better and more structured supports for student parents. Recent research from Child Trends found higher education institutions too often are not meeting the needs of student parents. Only 15 percent offer on-campus child care, while just 47 percent offer weekend and weeknight classes that make it easier for working parents to attend.

The Hunt Institute held a webinar discussion last week on the need to support adult learners, with much agreement that it is time to do more. Ben Cannon, the executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said colleges can do a better job of reaching out to student parents in advance, as well as providing more accessible, affordable day care.
The stresses that are causing students to delay their college educations are expected to grow: Some 20 percent of community college students are likely to or will delay their graduation because of the pandemic; some 64 percent cited stress and anxiety while 51 percent cited cost concerns, according to new findings from a Strada-Gallup Education Consumer poll and national survey of community college students released last week.
Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the nonprofit Complete College America, said the discussion on students being ready for college needs to shift so that colleges are ready for students – particularly older ones.  “We can’t meet the goals we have for college completion without adult learners,” she noted.
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