8 UPDATE - FALL 2020
Parenting Students in
Benefit from Community
Colleges, but More
Research is Needed
By Marielisbet Perez
Mothering and fathering students are present in society and
continue to enroll in institutions of higher education as a way of
advancing their knowledge, promoting educational attainment to
their children, managing a career change, and/or enhancing their
professional development (Goldrick-Rab, Minikel-Lacocque, &
Kinsley, 2011; Schumacher, 2013). Whatever their educational
interest may be, parenting students who are seeking higher
education credentials are raising children while managing their
familial lifestyles, maintaining employment, and managing school.
When it comes to the diversity represented in the parenting student
population, mothering and fathering students are individuals who
are raising children of all ages and with varied care necessities.
They may be single, married, divorced, widowed, separated, or in
a relationship. Mothering and fathering students may be raising
their children as a single parent or co-parenting with their children’s
biological mother or father. When it comes to parenting students’
households, their family may be a blended one, with children present
from current and/or previous relationships. The demographic
background of mothering and fathering students is racially/
ethnically diverse and includes different age groups, socioeconomic
levels, genders, gender non-conforming, and LGBTQIAparents.
Additionally, parenting students can identify as first-generation,
postsecondary students who are enrolled in certificate, associate,
baccalaureate, and postbaccalaureate programs across institutional
types and majors, with varied financial needs (Goldrick-Rab,
Minikel-Lacocque, Kinsley, 2011 Ogren, 2003).
This article provides an overview of parenting students by first
discussing how traditional and nontraditional labels are problematic
for this population of learners enrolled in higher education. In
particular, the community college context is valuable when
considering viable pathways for parenting students due to the open-
door mission, lower tuition, transfer function, closer proximity to
home and work (Madden, 2018). Parenting students require support,
inclusion on their campuses, and need a sense of connectedness
with their college communities. Without support services, such
as affordable campus based child care, parents school age children
may experience barriers in managing school (Askelson et al., 2020).
Hence, it is imperative to identify, serve, and support mothers and
fathers who are attempting to earn degrees while navigating work/
life balance amid school and family commitments.
UPDATE - FALL 2020 9
Parenting Students in Higher Education Beyond Deficit Labels of Parenting Students
The profile of students who are raising children in higher education No one definition defines parenting students. As a researcher of
cannot be defined by one title, label, or categorization. The parenting the parenting population in higher education, I draw from various
population is diverse, and those who make up this population have interpretations to discuss who these individuals are. When we
similarities and differences among them. Factors such as their think of the mothering and fathering students who are enrolled in
children’s ages and schooling, co-parenting relationships, day care higher education, it is crucial to consider them as having multiple
access and cost, financial status and income, marital/relationship identities, similar and different personal characteristics and statuses,
status, and employment all contribute to their efforts in accessing and diverse backgrounds. Parenting students often relate with one
and attaining degrees (Arcand, 2015; Nelson, Froehner, Gault, 2013; another because of the similar responsibilities they have in raising
Peterson, 2016). Age, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, children and in maintaining student lifestyles.
ability, language, citizenship status, and other factors contribute to In higher education, we often use and hear terms and labels such as
their experiences and outcomes in higher education. nontraditional, traditional, first-generation, low-income, advantaged
Parenting students make up nearly a quarter (3.9 million) of and disadvantaged, and minority. These terms come with socially
undergraduate students in the U.S., and half of these students are constructed meanings, a social process that is defined by Ballantine
single parents (1.9 million) (Miller, Gault, & Thorman, 2011). (2007) as “conflicting functions of education,” which draws from
Within the low-income and first-generation student population, acts of “socialization,” “transmission of culture,” and “selecting,
over one-third of individuals are parents and students of color who training, and placement of individuals in society” (p. 28).
are managing school and family- simultaneously (Nelson, Froehner, The industrialization of society affects the educational process and
& Gault, 2013; Sallee & Cox, 2019). Students who are raising labeling of students by differentiating and categorizing them by
children are less likely to complete their undergraduate degrees race, gender, age, income, family status, educational background,
compared to students who do not have children. Nelson, Froehner,
and Gault (2013) reported that 53% of parents versus
31% of nonparents have a higher risk of leaving college
without a degree after six years.
The Community College Sector The demographic background of
Accessing and completing college degrees is not always mothering and fathering students
a smooth process for parenting students. Students who
are managing school and family lifestyles have specific
needs that non-parents do not require. Community is racially/ethnically diverse.
colleges specifically provide parenting students with
the opportunity to access education and complete
postsecondary credentials. Furthermore, community
colleges are more accessible to parenting students because
of their open-door admission policies, convenient locations, lower citizen status, and in other ways. As a researcher who is committed
tuition fees and costs, and flexible course schedules, which often to promoting access, persistence, and successes for parenting
includes night classes. The transfer function is another benefit of students and their families.
community colleges (Arcand, 2015; St. Rose & Hill, 2013), and 80%
of students in two-year institutions strive to earn a baccalaureate In particular, I am concerned by how we define parenting
degree or higher (Horn & Skomvold, 2011) with student parents students and how those definitions come with deficit views
being no exception. and misinterpretations of individuals’ potential without
considering the dynamics of white patriarchal status quo that
Nationally, the number of parenting students enrolled in pervades organizational culture, especially predominately white
postsecondary education institutions between 2004 to 2012 has institutions (DePouw & Matias, 2016). Many times for example,
increased by 30%, from 3.7 million to 4.8 million (Noll, Reichlin, parenting students of color are not considered to have cultural or
& Gault, 2017). Noll, Reichlin, and Gault (2017) reported that navigational capital as parents or as students let alone access to
26% of undergraduate students are raising children. Of the entire community cultural wealth drawn from their collectivist cultures
parenting student population nationally, community colleges enroll (Yosso, 2005). Parenting students, particularly those that are
45% (2.1 million) of those attending institutions of higher education first-generation collegians juggle managing the responsibilities of
(Noll, Reichlin, & Gault, 2017) and 15% of parenting students at raising their children while navigating, pursuit of their studies and
community colleges are single parents (American Association of seeking degree attainment (Perez, 2016; Peterson, 2016).
Community College, 2020).
Despite the published literature that discusses the diversity of current
and past student populations that are enrolled in higher education,
the traditional profile of students as being single, being between the
ages of 18 and 23 years old, and being childless is consistently
10 UPDATE - FALL 2020
considered the norm in higher education settings (Goldrick-Rab, to manage for mothering and fathering parents without affordable
Minikel-Lacocque, Kinsley, 2011 Ogren, 2003). The literature on childcare and student-support services that explicitly meet their
“nontraditional” students, indicate students are older (24+ years needs.
of age). They are often also transfer students, married, divorced, Conclusion
parents, full-time employees, part-time college attendees, and There is no one way to describe or define the diversity of parenting
individuals who delay college enrollment after graduating from students and their children. In higher education, labels get used
high school or receiving a GED (Brenden, Deli-Amen, & Rios- as a way of categorizing students and their necessities. Some of
Aguliar, 2015;U.S. Department of Education, 2015). However, the indicators within these classifications are based on students’
little is known about how all of the personal factors collectively socioeconomic status and income level, as well as their race/
contribute to or dampen their ability to enroll, retain, and complete ethnicity, their employment status, and their families’ educational
their degrees. Critically examining how students’ identities, backgrounds. Even within this grouping process, defining parenting
family statuses, and background characteristics contribute to students, and understanding how they manage to get through
their experiences and achievements is important in discerning the school and other challenges, is limited in the published literature
degree to which what has traditionally been considered hampering (Gault, Reichlin, Reynolds, & Frohner, 2014; Huelsman & Engle,
student mobility serves as a motivating factor (e.g., being a 2013; Kruvelis, Cruse, & Gault, 2017; Miller, Gault, & Thorman,
parenting student) for persistence and completion. 2011; Women Employed, 2012).
Institutional Support Needed by Parenting Students
Various studies point to the crucial function of institutional There are a variety of reasons why achieving a higher education
support in contributing to academic retention and degree credential is of relevance to students with children. Many mothering
completion by parenting students. A survey of the policies and and fathering students find themselves seeking credentials as a way
programmatic needs of pregnant and parenting students at a mid- of escaping poverty and providing better living conditions for
Atlantic state university found that few resources exist for students their children and families. When referring to the success stories
who have children as dependents (Brown & Nichols, 2012). The of parenting students in higher education, there is not a clear
study found that institutions of higher education, particularly understanding of how they navigate school and family life all at
universities, show little effort to support parenting students by once. While these inquiries are taken into consideration, mothers
implementing child-friendly spaces and family-friendly events on and fathers of all ages and diverse backgrounds continue to enroll
campus. in higher education institutions for an opportunity to advance their
For parenting students to feel a sense of belonging at their college educational attainment, with minimal to no support (Nichols,
campuses, institutions need to become aware of the challenges Biederman, & Gringle, 2017).
that mothering and fathering students manage while in school. Parenting students experience a lack of support and inclusiveness on
Institutional policies and practices must provide for a more inclusive many campuses therefore it is critically important that institutions
campus climate that is open to students from diverse backgrounds, are not ‘care-blind’ and offer more than just childcare but
which includes individuals with children and family-oriented wraparound services with integrative supports (i.e., campus based
lifestyles. Past research that has focused on parenting students institutional agents) (Sallee & Cox, 2019). As stated previously, most
who attend community colleges has found that affordable child of the research on parenting students focuses on the community
care, financial assistance, and course schedules to be the primary college yet more is needed. Research that examines mothering and
factors affecting parenting students’ ability to complete their fathering students’ intersecting identities and how these identities
credentials (Arcand, 2015; Goldrick-Rab, Minikel-Lacocque, & contribute to their successes and challenges in attaining credentials
Kinsley, 2011; Peterson, 2016). Mothering and fathering parents at the community college level and beyond would fill gaps in the
who are working toward their degrees must manage employment, existing literature. Lastly, differential statuses of fathering students,
courses, and family simultaneously. Childcare, therefore, is crucial for example, (single, co-parenting, divorced, or widowed) are
for parenting students who have elementary-age children and not included in the research on college men or student fathers’
younger. Attending college and completing degrees is challenging enrollment by institutional type in the published literature on
For parenting students to feel a sense
of belonging at their college campuses, Marielisbet Perez can be reached at
institutions need to become aware of the [email protected]
challenges that mothering and fathering
students manage while in school.
UPDATE - FALL 2020 11
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