By Larissa M. Mercado-Lopez
As students quickly shifted to remote learning with the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Ashley de Jesus shifted to another reality — parenthood.
In addition to adjusting to a new learning landscape, Ashley, a single mother, found herself navigating a social welfare system whose offices were being shuttered. She recalls feeling unmotivated to study as she continued to work (virtually) and adjust to a newborn. She even considered taking a semester off. But the promise she made to herself, and the inspiration from her newborn, kept her going.
Student parents — students raising children while enrolled in a two- or four-year college — are typically 22 percent of the undergraduate student population. They are fathers, mothers, and nonbinary parents, though they are largely women of color, single, and low income. Some, like me, became first-time parents in college.
COVID created a caretaking crisis that not only pushed hundreds of thousands of parents, women in particular, out of the workforce, but also led to women putting a pause on their education to care for children and other dependents. The total number remains unknown, largely because campuses rarely collect data on student parents. As a result, student parents are often unrecognized as a significant student population, feeding the stigma against these skilled and ambitious students. Amidst an ongoing emphasis on “diversity and inclusion,” parenthood as a life experience should be, but is rarely, included within our diversity frameworks. Without it, student parents are left out of targeted student success efforts and how we tell the story about who our students are, and who they can and should be.
So what does the disappearance of student parents — women, in particular — mean for our economy and higher education?