Student Parents in Higher Education
Disclaimer: This article is for parents and friends of student parents alike. While you may not be in such a situation, you should be aware of the struggles and ways you can help your friends.
Every now and then, a young mum or dad walks into the lecture hall with a baby or toddler in tow. Sometimes the baby sleeps; other times, it makes its presence known. Some professors are better equipped to deal with such situations than others. There are student parents who always have their child with them and others barely give a hint of having one. Circumstances differ.
What doesn’t differ is the fact that studying with a child is a laudable venture. Let’s be honest: raising a child is more than a full-time job – you’re taking care of a whole human! But that human needs your attention at all times – there are sleepless nights, difficult breakfasts, and troublesome shopping trips. How the heck do you fit university studies into all that?
Student Parents in College – Statistics
You know how we all LOVE maths and statistics? Well, we don’t actually – most of us ran away from anything to do with numbers😉! But there are some figures worth knowing. To borrow from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research:
‘Over a quarter (26 percent) of all undergraduate students, or 4.8 million students, are raising dependent children. Women are disproportionately likely to be balancing college and parenthood, many without the support of a spouse or partner. Women make up 71 percent of all student parents, and roughly 2 million students, or 43 percent of the total student parent population, are single mothers. Single student fathers make up 11 percent of the student parent population.’
There are two crucial pieces of information here:
- Students with children are not uncommon
- Women are still the primary caregivers who juggle numerous obligations.
With the first one in mind, it is no surprise that many universities have taken steps to help student parents finish their education. Harsh though it is, nowadays, even a university degree doesn’t guarantee a good job, and having children often puts a stop to any higher education plans. Therefore, it is extremely important to provide help to student parents as they pursue their career plans.
On the other hand, it is shameful that women are still the default primary caregivers – welcome to the twenty-first century where people are supposed to share the load! But more on this in a moment.
Unique Challenges Student Parents Face
As if it wasn’t enough to brave through student life with all its challenges, raising a child poses a specific set of unfavourable circumstances for student parents. For instance, student parents are more likely to take remedial courses than non-parent students. They also often show lower results in their exams and SAT scores and take longer to complete their education. There is a notable discrepancy in students’ literacy levels and a correlation between socioeconomic background and the likelihood of having a child during one’s studies.
Socioeconomic, you say? Yes, quite so. According to stats, student parents are more likely to come from families of lower economic standings and have trouble advancing their situation. How so? Well, children are expensive and a full-time commitment. The attempt to improve one’s financial situation is a double-edged sword:
- On the one hand, paying for your child’s needs will likely set you back monthly.
- On the other hand, because children need so much time and attention, parents often drop out and are forced to do low-paying jobs to survive, prolonging the cycle of poverty. That’s what you get when the world spins on the growth-based economy spiel.
Therefore, when you see a student parent, help them out – they already have more than enough on their plate. Lend them your notes, offer to help them with challenging courses, or spend time with them when they need it.
And if you are a student parent, ask for help! You cannot and should not do this alone, and you’d be surprised at how forthcoming people can be.
A Few Well-Intentioned Tips for Student Parents
If you’re grappling with keeping too many plates spinning, you’re not alone. Depending on your circumstances, you may have different sources of help around you, and you should try to make the most of them.
Here are a few tips on managing parenthood and studying:
- Check your expectations. Sadly, most student parents take longer to complete their education, and you should not feel bad about it. However, you shouldn’t try to keep up with childless students as you’ll likely burn out faster.
- Ask for help. Inform relevant authorities about your situation. Lots of universities have specific guidelines and helplines for student parents. Also, tell your lecturers in advance that you have a child so they can make arrangements if you need to hand in your assignments later or retake your tests.
- Take care of your emotional and mental well-being. You know what I hate? Mommy cults on Facebook and similar social media. Now they make everything a bloody competition, and you’re automatically a monster if you don’t feed your child organic fruit mashes blessed by Demeter and Aphrodite and delivered by Freya herself. I spit on that attitude! Don’t fall into the trap of fake social media expectations – find the time to relax and do things for yourself. Your child will not die if you leave them alone for an hour now and then to recharge. Cliché though it is, you cannot pour from an empty cup.
Whatever you do, remember that your degree is the end goal, but your child should take priority. So what if the road there is bumpy? What does it matter if you must take some time off to nurse yourself and your child to health?
And A Few Harsh Notes
I know parenthood is difficult, but there are a few harsh realities each student parent must face.
- If you’re not pulling your weight, pull yourself together. As the statistics have shown, women do the lion’s share of childrearing. If you’re the father, seriously ask yourself whether you’re contributing enough. Don’t ask your partner to explain everything; google it yourself and help without being asked to.
- Don’t expect free babysitting. If you have a strong support system and grandparents doting on your child, you’ll likely have someone to look after them while you study. However, no one owes babysitting to anyone, so don’t take it as a given. Show appreciation to those who help you.
- Make time for friends. A baby is an absolute life-changer and the first few months (and years, to be honest) are all about adjustment. Still, don’t completely forget your friends; text them to see how they’re doing, make time for meetings, and show interest in their lives. Even as little as one coffee date a month can make a world of difference.
- Do not give up! Whatever you do, keep going. That degree is obtainable and it’s waiting for you!
And speaking of making time…
Time Management for Student Parents
Without repeating ourselves too much, we know it’s a struggle to keep tabs on everything as a student. Still, there are a few specific tips for student parents:
- Measure your course load. Ideally, you’ll talk to a student counsellor about how much work is realistic for student parents. Conversely, you can ask around and see how many courses non-parent students are taking and drop that number a bit. Spare yourself the worry of failing because of circumstances you cannot control or not meeting your own high expectations.
- Keep your university paraphernalia in check. What does a toddler know about your essay? It may as well look like a great toy to them. Keep your notes, materials, and equipment out of reach and well-organised.
- Have a routine. Routines are great because they force you into work mode even if you don’t feel so motivated. Organise your day around your child’s needs, but make sure to include several hours of university work in there. For example, do as much as you can while they sleep.
- Consider university childcare. Many universities have organised childcare for their students and employees – seriously, use that.
- Make studying a game. Kids love games – you can play university with them and have them do their own stuff (doodling, playing, developing motor skills) for ‘a grade’ while you’re doing your assignments.
- Have some time away from your child. A part of a child’s development is a fixation on one parent, but this can be draining. Arrange a babysitter and take some time off – you’ll appreciate your child more.
- Factor in your social life. You need help and you need friends. Sometimes these two go hand in hand, but even so, you should have some alone adult time with people. Don’t try to keep tons of superficial acquaintances rolling – pick a few good friends and keep in touch with them.
And always, always take breaks when you need them, even at the cost of other plans.
Is There Any Help for Student Parents?
To close off on a positive note, there are many sources of help for student parents. From various counselling options to financial grants, they all aim to increase degree attainment for students with children.
Check out some of the following organisations for help:
- Government funds (this is for those living in the UK).
- This rundown on MoneyHelper.
- Advice, ideas, and suggestions from older students.
- This excellent website for students with children.
Whatever you do and whatever help you need, there is no shame in asking for it.
Good luck on your journey with your little one!