Rethinking assumptions about college students

Rethinking assumptions about college students
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Karen Sternheimer

Very often, administrators at my university informally refer to students as “kids” during meetings. In addition to being legal adults, the vast majority of college students are older than the traditional age of 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 U.S. are parents, and that parents of students are more likely to be students of color. This percentage is even higher at for-profit colleges; An Aspen Institute report based on data from the US Department of Education found that 45 percent of students attending private for-profit schools were also parents. 42 percent of all students’ parents attend community colleges. Most of them are mothers, and student mothers are less likely to be married than student fathers. Most of them have children under 6 years old. According to the report, parents of students are also more likely to take on student debt and, perhaps more surprisingly, have a GPA higher than 3.5.

This reality runs counter to the popular stereotypes of fun-loving college students with “helicopter parents” hovering nearby, supposedly ready to take care of their student/child’s smallest challenges. As a child, a student is considered to have no additional responsibilities, except perhaps a part-time job to help cover the cost of education. They go on vacation for spring break or to their parents’ house to rest during breaks. They are economically dependent, although we recognize that family resources vary greatly.

But what happens when the student is a parent themselves?

In his book How cheapsociologists Amanda Freeman and Lisa Dodson interviewed single mothers, many of whom also attended college. Often motivated to earn a degree to better support their families, these students are often invisible to university administration. Informants mentioned that forms of financial support assume that students are supported by parents, ask a lot about the parents’ assets, but ask very little about the costs associated with raising a child (p. 168).

In their book, Freeman and Dodson point out that childcare is one of the biggest obstacles for single mothers, especially student parents. They describe Oregon’s state-funded child care program, which includes a number of qualifications that make student parents eligible but not possible:

To qualify for this subsidy program, parents must work at least twenty hours a week but keep their income below a certain level, attend college at least half-time, maintain a good grade point average, avoid taking breaks or withdrawals, and graduate within a certain time frame. period…. It turns out that less than 1 percent of all recipient families [subsidized] child care in 2018 was the families of students’ parents (169 bl).

Working twenty hours a week and keeping up with classes is a challenge for many without children, but the minimum work requirement makes this benefit almost impossible for student parents.

I have several students with young children in my classes. They can fall behind if the child is sick; one student’s child from the previous semester was hospitalized with a respiratory infection, leaving her unable to concentrate in class, worried about being separated from her daughter. Another had childcare issues mid-semester that made it difficult for her to attend classes. Both of these students expressed reluctance to share this information with their professors because of the stigma of being a teenage mother.

The situation was exacerbated during the stay-at-home COVID period, when childcare was largely unavailable and students had to juggle parenting with distance learning. Assuming that students would have nothing to do but class work, I occasionally heard stories of professors assigning more work than originally scheduled. After classes resumed, the student, who was the father of a newborn, felt unsafe coming to class. Some students seemed to take the mask mandate more laxly than he liked because his baby could not yet be vaccinated.

Although private, not-for-profit institutions such as mine have one of the smallest student parent populations, they are still an important student body that needs to be recognized and supported. At the very least, we should recognize that college students are not a homogenous, one-size-fits-all group. And it’s condescending to consider them “kids,” especially when nearly 4 million U.S. college students are raising kids of their own.

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