The 8 ways colleges can lessen stress on student parents

Despite their drive to earn degrees, many face barriers in reaching their goals, say researchers at Ascend at the Aspen Institute and The Jed Foundation.
By: | May 27, 2021
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“Student parents are superheroes who go above and beyond to complete their degree and make a better life for their families. They should not have to be superhuman to get their degree,” – Anne Mosle, Vice President of The Aspen Institute and Founder and Executive Director of Ascend at the Aspen Institute

But often they have to be, according to results of a new report done by the Ascend at the Aspen Institute and The Jed Foundation that shows they face extreme duress while trying to manage so many roles in their lives, including being a college or university student.

There are more than four million parents who are enrolled in higher education, and 40% face pressure that affects not only their performances in the classroom but their mental health, too. More than a third say they have thought about dropping out in the past month.

“Higher education institutions must do more to support the mental health of their students, especially the growing population of students raising kids or providing care to other family members,” Mosle said. “Student parents have been overlooked for too long.”

Ascend and JED researchers noted that “financial stress and feelings of isolation on campus” have presented barriers to students thriving on campus. Many of those who experience troubles believe they have few places to turn, citing affordability costs of mental health care and a knowledge of what services might be available at their institutions.

One of the critical findings from the collaborative report Improving Mental Health of Student Parents: A Framework for Higher Education – done from Aspen and JED’s own research and data of nearly 50,000 students included in several national surveys from the Healthy Minds Network, the American College Health Association and the Hope Center – was that 66% felt their institutions were not being supportive of student parents.

Despite all of these challenges, they remain deeply committed to getting an education. Older adults who have children and seek academic paths are more dogged about persisting and completing than those who don’t, according to researchers, buoyed by “a greater sense of purpose.”

How colleges can help

The Ascend-JED study highlights the stresses student parents have faced over the past year compared to peers who don’t have children:

  • Twice as many student parents are unable to pay for rent or their mortgage as their peers
  • More than twice as many student parents have not fully paid for utilities
  • More student parents (46%) have borrowed money than their counterparts (35%)
  • Three times as many student parents are facing collections for unpaid bills

And yet, stresses haven’t turned into negativity. More student parents collectively feel purpose in their lives and far fewer (nearly twice as less) have turned to substances to cope than those without children. But it has not been without challenges. Less than 6% said the transition to attending college was very easy, while 20% said they found balancing their academic work was difficult.

The goal for any institution, say the leaders at both organizations, is to provide a more welcoming, more supportive environment for student parents to thrive.

“The novel findings from our original research on parenting students illuminate a path forward for institutions of higher education seeking to better support these students,” said Sara Gorman, Director of Research and Knowledge Dissemination for JED. “These students endure incredible hardship but also show amazing resilience and are looking to their educational institutions to support them as they seek better lives for themselves and their children.”

Both Ascend and JED collaborated with parents and higher educational leaders to create a structure for colleges and universities to both support mental health and get student parents to completion. They offered these eight overarching strategies:

  1. “Training counselors and other on-campus mental health providers on unique stressors faced by this population and specifically in trauma-informed care. Train faculty and staff to be  being sensitive to the unique stressors faced by parenting students to allow for a culture shift whereby parenting students are fully factored into professorial and staff decisions and policies.
  2. Creating spaces on campus that meet the specific needs of student parents and help foster a sense of belonging among these students. This includes encouraging creation of spaces and activities for children at all school events.
  3. Facilitating affinity groups and mentoring programs for older and younger parenting students.
  4. Forging policies that allow for flexibility for parenting students in the classroom.
  5. Tracking student-parent data – from mental health to their use of on-campus services, and their feelings of connectedness and belonging on campus – in order to inform how to best support these students.
  6. Creating purposeful plans to help address the basic needs of parenting students.
  7. Identifying strategies to ensure parents have reliable access to childcare, including on-campus childcare options.
  8. Make parenting students feel more “visible” by representing them on campus materials and creating customized orientation materials.”