GUEST BLOGGER: Parent Learners Deserve Support
Throughout the theatrical run of Unlikely, we will be featuring guest bloggers sharing their #UnlikelyStory. First in this series is our current resident Go College! author, Cate Fitzpatrick.
I am a first generation college student – but I am a first generation college student because my mother couldn’t get the support that she needed to be a parent learner.
I remember when my mom went to school. Though I was very young at the time, I can recall when my mom suddenly had textbooks in addition to the usual fiction novels that never seemed to leave her hands. The thought of my mom going to school puzzled me. After all, she was my mom. She was the smartest person I knew. The one who knew why the sky was blue, what every word meant. Why would she need to go to school like me?
The complexities of the situation were, admittedly, lost on me. I didn’t realize that my mom couldn’t go to school during the day, and that was why she was gone late some nights. I didn’t realize that, when she was working on homework, she really did need the peace and quiet and that it wasn’t personal. I didn’t realize the stress my sisters and I were likely placing on her by asking her where she was going and if she could stay home.
The truth is parents in college have a whole separate, additional set of stressors that can make it more difficult for them to get through college than the fresh-out-of-high-school set. And, despite 22% of undergraduates in 2019 being parents according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), there aren’t always enough support systems in place to help parent learners tackle the additional challenges that they face so that they can really succeed.
My mom went back to school because she, like many other parents who did not initially go to college, found herself in a field that was increasingly degree–driven. She was working in early childhood education at a Catholic school and found that more and more of the jobs she was looking at required a degree. Having three kids and two working-class parents, she knew she’d have to get a scholarship in order to afford school. She applied for scholarships, and, in the end, received a full-ride scholarship from the Kauffman Foundation for Park University, a private college that had an off-campus location not too far from our house. My mom was a dedicated student. She’s always loved learning, and before long she was three years into a four-year degree and had a 4.0 GPA.
But other things stood in her way. As a child with OCD, my struggles with school frequently found her pulled away from her studies to try to help. She also felt that she was missing moments of our lives and wanted to be there to parent any time that she wasn’t at work. Additionally, despite her full-ride scholarship, there was no added funding for things like computers that could have helped her complete her schoolwork. Though it was the early 2000’s and online course options were limited, an up-to-date computer would have helped her immensely to do schoolwork at home. She was also tired constantly from working full-time, attending classes at night, and parenting three girls. Between her frustrations with the limitations of her program and the additional stressors from life, she couldn’t go back for the fourth year.
She completed 93 credit hours. It takes 120 to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Frequently, the focus on parent learners is placed on the financial strain, and understandably so, as both college and children are expensive endeavors. Children – especially young children – can cost $14,000 annually according to CBS News, and the IWPR reported that the majority of parent learners had children under the age of four. Add to this the potential cost of childcare while the parent is in class and the cost of supplies, and the financial burden of college soon becomes insurmountable.
But the cost is not the only stressful aspect associated with going to college as a parent. Additional factors such as time management, wanting to be with their families, or not having the right tools can also take successful students out of school. Parents with children who have mental or physical illnesses, are cognitively or physically disabled, or are visually or aurally impaired may need even more time with their children to tend to their needs and make sure that they have everything they need to be successful. If my mother had to miss class to attend a meeting at my school about my Individual Education Plan, there was no way to make up what she missed. It was just an hour of education that she had to give up for the sake of her child, sometimes missing out on points due to strict attendance policies. Parents lead complex and complicated lives – ones that colleges have not always done their best to assist with.
It is absolutely possible for higher education to do more to accommodate the needs of parent learners. Putting support systems in place to assist this important group of the collegiate sector is a step that every institution should take in order to equip parents with the degrees they want and enable them to create a college-going future for their family. To start, providing computers to rent or at a reduced cost and online course options would help students like my mother who need more flexibility in their schedules, want more time at home with their kids, or need to complete assignments at their own pace due to work hours. Relieving other stressors by way of providing free or affordable child care and allowing parents to make up missed classes or assignments can also serve as significant pathways to success for parents in college.
It is imperative that universities also place an emphasis upon checking in with students who are parents to make sure that they are not struggling, as grades do not always show the full picture. Advisors should make a note of which of their students are parents in order to make sure that they are helping them succeed as best as they can. Advisor check-ins can help advisors facilitate communication between students and professors about their needs, direct towards mental or physical health resources if needed, and encourage the parent-student in meaningful ways that may make the difference between dropping out and finishing. Good relationships with advisors have the potential to drastically impact success rates – especially if the student is a single parent, as is the case with 41% of enrolled parents according to the IWPR.
Making the educational journeys of student-parents easier is a worthwhile endeavor. Not only does it equip an important sector of the working population with degrees, it also means that, when it comes time for their children to go to school, these parents will be able to assist them, thus creating more qualified adults with more opportunities. Despite my mom going through three years of college, we had to figure out financial aid together and learn at the same time.
My mom knocked down doors for me to learn how to help me get through college. She called the financial aid department at my university and had them explain FAFSA, step by step, and took notes. Parent learners deserve this level of vigorous support. Parent learners are worthy of time and attention from higher education institutions to get to graduation day.
Have an #UnlikelyStory? Share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cate Fitzpatrick is an executive assistant with Three Frame Media and a recent alumna of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. When she’s not working or writing, she’s baking over at https://film-baker.com/.