For parents, a degree takes on meaning not just for them individually, but for how they can care for an entire family. Hasaan decided to go to college after she spent five years at a charter school in Philadelphia as a school support staff but she could not get promoted because she didn’t have a degree.
“I never wanted to feel like that again. I never wanted to be in a room where I knew I was worth more,” Hasaan says. “I also didn’t want to not have access to things that I knew my children deserve. I decided that this had to be a priority for me by any means necessary.”
For her, she hopes her education will mean better earnings and for her children to have access to quality education and safe playgrounds.
But the pandemic only made her situation more challenging. From May of 2020 to January 2021 Hassan was unemployed. Even with her partner’s income, finances only became harder but the bills kept coming, she said.
She struggled through, taking summer courses. And now, Hasaan is on track to graduate in May with a degree in sociology and a minor in psychology.
Higher education institutions are placed at the cornerstone of social and economic prosperity but are also the very same places racial and income disparities show up, Caccavella said.
“If we are truly endeavoring to make good on what was considered a racial reckoning – we have to acknowledge the racial trauma that is playing out across college campuses and across our country,” she says. “We’re all living right now in this ongoing pandemic that is disproportionately affecting people of color.”
The report specifically highlighted the inadequate support for Black fathers, finding that one in four Black fathers were homeless in the last 12 months when they were surveyed. Only 11% of them were able to find affordable housing.
“We have to connect it to a larger story about the deficiencies and the disparities in support for Black and brown students. We know that there have been racist policies that have been in place for a long time that have cut off opportunity and resources for communities of color,” says Lynn Lewis of Generation Hope.
“When you’re a parent in college, you are not only shouldering all of those deficiencies and disparities and a lack of resources that comes with being a student of color – but then you’re also dealing with all that comes with being a parent.”
Public-aid programs also can be out of reach for student parents. College enrollment itself, Caccavella says, makes people eligible for many benefits.
For example, if a student is enrolled in college, they are no longer eligible for many housing assistance programs. Many, she says, are based on outdated perceptions of who goes to college.
Reimagining today’s college student
Organizations like Generation Hope are trying to shift the outdated thinking.
The group launched a technical assistance program last summer with George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, Trinity Washington University and Montgomery College to start collecting data about parents, with the goal of identifying the support systems they need.
“What we try to help institutions understand is that there are some things that can be put in place that are no cost or low cost to better serve this population,” Lynn Lewis says. “Sometimes it’s looking at your institutional policies, and seeing in what ways those policies either exclude or include student parents.”
For example, some universities require all freshmen to live on campus – a policy that does not take student parents into consideration.
In addition to collecting and reporting demographic information on student parents, The Hope Center also recommends changes like removing discriminatory practices like the time of high school graduation against student parents in financial aid policies, creating permanent emergency aid that offers funds to student parents to help with costs like childcare, and expanding affordable student housing.
Higher education leaders and policymakers should also understand that balancing courses and family for student parents can take a toll on their wellbeing.
“The mental health of parenting students is paramount,” Hasaan says. “You are handling two or three generations of people when you are caring for a student who is a parent.”