Drayton Jackson couldn’t go to class one day because his son was sick. He and his wife had been swapping childcare duties as Jackson finished a two-year degree at Olympic College over four years. But when the father of eight woke up to an unwell child, no backup childcare, and a spouse who couldn’t miss work, he stayed home as caregiver. Jackson broke the news to his professor. Again, he saw how higher education was not built for students like him.
“No matter what the situation, that absence was on me,” said Jackson, who today advocates for fellow student parents as a Parent Advisor with Ascend at the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit research organization.
But to Jackson, attendance policies geared to non-parenting students are only the start of the barriers people like him face to get a degree.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, about one in five college students, or 22% of all undergraduates, are parents. Of the nearly 3.8 million students who are raising children in college, about 70% are mothers and 30% are fathers. Women of color are the vast majority.
With the Centers for Disease Control reinstating an eviction ban recently, there has been more outcry on the country’s housing crisis. Student parents continue to be more vulnerable to putting a roof over their own and their dependents’ heads compared to non-parent student peers.
A report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that about 68% of student parents in 2019 reported facing housing insecurity. That was before the pandemic hit. A more recent Hope Center report in March 2021 discovered that parenting students were 15 percentage points more likely than non-parenting students to experience housing instability.
“What I found on campus was shocking,” said Jackson of his time while in school. Before college, Jackson was homeless for more than a decade, and the housing needs of student parents are a particular concern for him.
“We had a lot of homeless students. Not only that, we had a lot of homeless parents living in their cars with their children," he said. "It blew my mind. And if you talked to them, a lot of those people were excellent students. Because they wanted to get out of that situation.”
Jackson began noticing fellow student parents stop attending college as rents went up around campus in the state of Washington.
“If you’re working two or three jobs at McDonald’s and paying for childcare, which is almost as much as rent, all of that plays into saying, 'No, I’m dropping out,'” he said.
Experts are paying attention to the problem as well.
“We know a lot of student parents are having challenges with bills, not only housing but utility bills like wifi,” said Paula Umaña, director of institutional transformation at the Hope Center. “We see students who are homeless, but they stay with their family or couch surf with one or more children. Then they sometimes don’t see themselves as homeless, so they don’t get assistance.”
Yet colleges can support student parents who are housing insecure by offering dependent care, according to Christine Baker-Smith, executive director of the Hope Center. Because childcare costs are often high, cutting down on those expenses can offset the burden of housing plus tuition, helping keep student parents in school.
“That’s an area that campuses can do something about. The housing market is more difficult to problem-solve for an institution. But campuses can provide dependent care not just for children but all ages and relations,” said Baker-Smith. She noted some student parents also support their own parents, hence the need for greater age inclusion in these services.
Tracking student parents as well as those who are unhoused or housing insecure has been tough, however. The federal Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System, or the core national data collection program on colleges, does not collect information on this population. And most colleges and universities do not gather data on student parents, in addition to unhoused students.
Still, the tide may be turning. In July, Illinois signed into law the Student Parent Data Collection Act, which requires public colleges and universities in the state to track data on student parents. A rough estimate suggests 14% of all Illinois college students are parents, but experts note that may be an undercount.
Such data collection may be the start to better meeting the housing and basic needs among this growing population.
“We can say whatever we want about education and having a degree, but it’s obvious that getting a degree changes everything,” said Jackson. “If that’s the case, why are we not giving support systems for someone who has had a child instead of telling them to figure it out on their own?”