March 13, 2023

Student Parents: Rethinking Assumptions about College Students

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

All too often, administrators at my university informally refer to students as “kids” during meetings. Not only are the vast majority college students legal adults, but some are older than traditionally aged college students (18-24). And some of our students are parents themselves.

The Education Trust recently reported that approximately one in five college students in the United States are parents, and that student parents are more likely to be students of color. This percentage is even higher at  for-profit colleges; an Aspen Institute report based on U.S. Department of Education data found that 45 percent of students attending private for-profit schools were also parents. Of all student parents, 42 percent attend community colleges. Most are mothers, and student mothers are less likely to be married than student fathers. Most have children under 6. According to the report, student parents are also more likely to take on student debt—and more perhaps surprisingly—more likely to have GPAs over 3.5.

This reality conflicts with popular stereotypes about partying college students with “helicopter parents” hovering close by, allegedly ready to take care of their student/child’s smallest challenges. The student-as-child is presumed to have no additional responsibilities, other than perhaps a part-time job to help support their education costs. They go on vacation for spring break, or to their parents’ home to relax during breaks. They are economically dependent, although we recognize there is great variation in family resources.

But what happens when the student is a parent themselves?

In their book, Getting Me Cheap, sociologists Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson interviewed single mothers, many of whom were also attending college. Often motivated to earn a degree to better support their families, these students are often invisible to university administration. Informants mentioned that financial aid forms presume that students are supported by parents, asking many questions about parental assets but asking very few about costs associated with raising a child (p. 168).

Freeman and Dodson point out throughout their book that childcare is one of the biggest obstacles for single mothers, especially for student parents. They describe an Oregon state-funded childcare program that includes many qualifications that make it all but impossible for student parents to obtain:

To qualify for this subsidy program, parents must work at least twenty hours per week but keep their income under a set level, be attending college at least half time, maintain a good grade point average, avoid interruptions or withdrawals, and graduate within a set period…. As it turns out, less than 1 percent of all families receiving [subsidized] childcare in 2018 were student parent families (p. 169).

For many students without children, working twenty hours a week and keeping up with classes is a challenge, but for student parents the minimum work requirement likely makes this benefit next to impossible to obtain.

I have had several students with young children in my classes. They might fall behind if a child is sick; one student from a previous semester had a child hospitalized with a respiratory infection, leaving her unable to concentrate in class, anxious about being separated from her daughter. Another had childcare issues mid semester that made it difficult for her to attend class. Both of these students expressed that they were reluctant to share this information with their professors due to the stigma of being a teen mother.

The situation was magnified during the stay-at-home COVID period, when childcare was largely unavailable and students had to balance parenting with remote classes. Assuming students would have nothing to do other than classwork, I occasionally heard stories of professors assigning more work than was previously on the syllabus. Once in-person classes resumed, a student who was father to a newborn felt unsafe coming to class. Some students seemed to take mask mandates more casually than he was comfortable with, since his infant could not yet be vaccinated.

While private, nonprofit institutions like mine have among the lowest proportion of student parents, they are still an important group of students to recognize and support. At the very least, we should acknowledge that college students are not a homogenous, one-size-fits-all group. And it is condescending to think of them as “kids,” especially when nearly 4 million college students in the U.S. are raising kids themselves.


I love reading self-care books

The landscape of higher education is evolving, and with it, the demographics of college students are undergoing significant changes. Among the diverse student body, a growing and often overlooked segment is that of student parents.

The Education Trust's report, as cited by Sternheimer, reveals that approximately one in five college students in the United States are parents, with a significant percentage attending community colleges. This demographic is more likely to be students of color and faces obstacles such as childcare and financial aid systems that often fail to accommodate their needs.

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