When Students Are the Parents

Lexi Country brushing daughters hair

If you think it’s stressful trying to fit all your clothes into the closet of a shared triple, imagine trying to attend classes with a two year old.

Nearly 5 million students in the U.S. are parents. Undergraduate students.

In addition to school demands, student-parents face childcare costs and the stress of working one or more jobs. Ultimately, a little more than half of student-parents in the U.S. will finish their degrees within six years.

But Tsedaye Makkonen is determined to beat the odds.

Makkonen is 32. She was born and raised in Maryland, but her family comes from Ethiopia.

She sought an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Maryland 14 years ago. But she says she was unhappy with her choice of subject and did not finish her degree.

Then, after her son was born in 2010, Makkonen decided to take classes at Montgomery College, a public, open-access, community college in suburban Washington, D.C. She said she plans to begin an undergraduate degree program in fine arts soon.

She says starting school again later in life and as a parent has made her a better student.

“You don’t waste time. I’m a single mom … so I know my time is really limited,” she said. “There’s so many places that my energy has to go in a day.”

She said she sees younger students who are driven and organized, while others do not appreciate the luxury of time they have.

“You also see kind of a lot of students … take things for granted.”

But no matter how Makkonen says that balancing work, school and parenting is never easy.

The more she studies, the less she can work, which means she makes less money. Also, between work and school, the time she can spend with her son is limited.

Recent reports from the U.S. non-profit Institute for Women’s Policy Research, or IWPR, find that Makkonen’s experience is like other student-parents.

A 2014 IWPR report said that 4.8 million undergraduate students are raising children. And a 2013 IWPR study showed that more than half of student-parents leave school after 6 years without finishing their degrees.

Makkonen says the main problem is student-parents do not receive the type of support they need. For example, parents often need someone to watch their children when they cannot bring the children to school or work. Makkonen’s family and friends support her however they can. But she says there is a lack of affordable childcare available to everyone in the U.S.

A recent report from Childcare Aware of America said the average cost of sending an infant to a childcare center in the U.S. is more than a family would spend on average on food for an entire year.

Makkonen said she admires countries like France and Denmark. The governments of these countries pay large portions of childcare costs for their citizens. But she thinks the U.S. should go further.

“If we’re trying to raise whole human beings and make the world or … this country … a better place for the following generations, I think childcare should be free. And not only free, it should be high quality.”

Makkonen’s wish has come true once: In 1940, the U.S. Congress passed the Lanham Act that made childcare almost completely free during World War II. But that action ended in 1946.

But last year, Congress approved almost $1 billion in new spending for early childhood care and education.

Programs for non-traditional students

Some schools offer support programs for student-parents. Many universities have programs for non-traditional students. These are students who do not seek degrees right after high school.

Bonnie Anderson from Massachusetts took advantage of one of those programs. She first started a degree program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1980. But she withdrew from school after losing financial aid.

Anderson moved to Sweden and had three children. After returning to the U.S., she said she decided that she really wanted her degree.

But her parents did not support the idea of her returning to school. They felt Anderson should not take time away from her children just to study. Her parents also felt she should not spend what little money she had on her own education.

So Anderson looked for a university that could marry her need for a strong academic program and support for her family. She found it at Wellesley College, an mostly female school in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Anderson enrolled in Wellesley’s Davis Degree Program in 1995 when she was 34 years old. The Davis Degree Program is designed for students over 24 years old. It lets students choose a class schedule that does not conflict with their work or parenting duties.

But Anderson still struggled with the stress of working several jobs while studying and raising her children. At one point, she came into the office of her academic advisor crying and saying she wanted to quit.

However, her advisor would not let her quit, Anderson says.

“She was kind of like … ‘Whatever you do, don’t drop out. I’m just telling you, whatever you do, you belong here. Don’t drop out.’ And those words were like magic to me. I belong here. I belong here. No one’s ever said that to me in my life.”

Anderson finished her degree in 1999. She achieved her goal by turning to her friends for help, asking them to watch her children when she was unavailable.

She also made use of other services at Wellesley, such as the Wellesley Students Aid Society. The society helps lower-income students by giving them donations.

Many schools across the U.S. offer similar programs and services for non-traditional students. Some schools offer special housing to students with children or other special needs.

But a 2016 IWPR report shows that the number of schools offering childcare services to students on their campuses has decreased. The number of public universities offering services decreased from 54 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2015.

Diana Courson is the Associate Director for Childhood Services at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

The university has been providing support to parents for over 40 years. Also, BestColleges.com put the school 9th on its 2015 list of “50 Best Colleges for Students with Children.”

Courson says the school offers training programs for parents and fun events for children, as well as medical services through the nursing program. The school also built a childcare center on campus with room for 236 children in 2007.

Courson says universities must do all they can to support both parents and children.

“Stress and fatigue in the parents influences what happens with the child. … When the school and the parents have a strong, positive relationship, that pays off in benefits for children and their learning.”

Anderson believes student-parents should not be treated too much better than regular students. She says people with children must understand that going to school and raising a family at the same time requires sacrifices.

In today’s market, those sacrifices may be necessary. A 2014 report from Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute said that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require more than a high school education.

This story first appeared in VOA’s Learning English. 

Pete Musto