As the program director for the Student Parent Center at the University of California—Berkeley, Ginelle Perez has a big job. She helps undergraduates with children apply for university-owned family housing, connect with counseling services, line up subsidized child care and figure out how to manage their course loads.

For Perez, this job isn’t just a job. She’s giving back to a community that once helped her.

“I was a UC—Berkeley undergraduate student parent,” says Perez, who is a mother of two. She credits the center and school resources with helping her succeed in college and go to graduate school.

The hundreds of students the center serves are among the millions of college students with children. In the 2011-2012 school year, colleges and universities in the U.S. enrolled 3.5 million students who were also single parents, according to an infographic released in September by the American Council on Education.

These students have a set of challenges that many other undergrads don’t face. “It’s just the overall burden of feeding multiple mouths and housing a family,” says Susan Warfield, program director for the Student Parent HELP Center at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. There’s also finding and paying for child care, and sometimes working through custody issues with a former spouse, she says.

Time management can be especially hard, says Katie Kough, assistant dean of students and director of the Women with Children Program at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. Even the most organized parent can be thrown off when a child gets sick the night before a presentation.

These and other hurdles lead many parents to drop out.

“Being a parent substantially increases the likelihood of leaving college with no degree, with 53% of parents vs. 31% of nonparents having left with no degree after six years,” according to a March 2013 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.