Waukecha Wilkerson is a mom, a small business owner and a tutor when any one of her three kids is struggling with math homework. On top of all that, she's is a part-time student at Sacramento State in California.
She says being a student parent comes with its own unique challenges – challenges not every college is equipped to help with.
"It's very easy to get lost in the shuffle on college campuses and it can be very confusing without proper advising."
Wilkerson is one of more than 4 million U.S. college students who are also parents. That's about one-fifth of the total undergraduate population, and it doesn't even count students who are caring for siblings or other family members while working toward a degree.
For these students, it's important to find a college that fits into the already busy life of a parent or caregiver. NPR spoke to researchers, policy experts and student parents themselves for their advice on how to know if a college is a good fit. They highlighted four things student parents and student caregivers should consider:
- Access to affordable childcare
- Overall cost, and timeline of tuition payments
- Availability of academic advising
- Flexible class scheduling
1. If child care is a must, is there an affordable option near campus?
"[Child care] can make the difference between a student staying in school and dropping out of school," says Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that helps teen parents graduate from college.
She says it's important to ask colleges about on-campus childcare or other child care resources that are available. Sacramento State, for example, doesn't have an on-campus daycare, but it does have an interactive map of nearby child care options.
Before the pandemic, the number of on-campus child care centers were declining nationwide. Because of this, Lewis says, "They alone cannot be kind of the checkboxes that a parenting student would be looking to check off when looking for a really supportive environment."
Lewis also recommends checking to see if the school participates in a federal program called Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS), which gives money to colleges to help students pay for on- or off-campus childcare. Only a handful of colleges receive these funds, but a 2016 study by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, or IWPR, suggests that parents who use CCAMPIS "have higher retention and completion rates [than] students on average, as well as excellent academic performance."
2. Are there scholarships and grants that could help cover tuition?
It may seem like the only way to pay for college is to take out loans, but there are also grants, scholarships and financial aid resources specifically designed for students who are caregivers. Some colleges, like Baruch College and the University of California, Berkeley, have grant programs for student parents who demonstrate financial need. Others connect students to outside resources, like George Mason University's list of scholarships for parenting and expecting students.
The College Board also has a scholarship search tool that allows students to search by age, race and financial need.
And as NPR's Elissa Nadworny has reported, anyone who is even considering going to college should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which can unlock all kinds of grants, scholarships and loans to help cover the cost of a degree.
Taking out small loans can help students take more classes and reduce the need to work, as Nadworny has reported. But students — and especially student parents — should also be cautious when it comes to taking on long-term debt. In 2019, IWPR and Ascend, a policy arm of the nonprofit Aspen Institute, found that the median debt among student parents was more than two and half times higher than debt among students without children. Single mothers also tend to borrow more than other student parents.
"We know that college isn't affordable for the majority of students," says Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, who co-authored the 2019 study. "But when you have a child or multiple children, you're providing housing and food on top of tuition."
The timeline for tuition payments can also be an important factor. Myrna Perez, a mother of three in central Washington, says she chose to attend Pierce College because Pierce gave her the option to pay her tuition over time, instead of asking for thousands of dollars upfront.
"There was no way I was going to come up with, like $20,000 in one month," Perez says.
3. What do academic advisors and alumni have to say?
The best way for student parents and student caregivers to gauge how much support a school will provide is to talk to an advisor or alumni before enrolling. Portland State University hosts virtual information sessions where prospective students can ask questions to advisors and current students who are also raising children. Resources like Sacramento State's first-generation college student directory can connect a parenting student with someone from a similar background in their field of interest.
"The more you can talk to people like student services folks, people who work specifically and intentionally with students, even if not just student parents, can help you get a sense for the type of support you can expect as a student," says Cruse.
Wilkerson also recommends looking up how many advisors a school has compared to how many students are enrolled. One research-backed program aimed at increasing college completion recommends a ratio of less than 150 students per advisor.
It's also important, she says, to see if a school has specific advisors that specialize in supporting underrepresented groups, like student parents, first-generation students or transfer students. Front Range Community College in Colorado offers personalized advising for single parents – this is separate from the general academic advising center, so parenting students can talk to someone who may be more familiar with their unique situation.
Once enrolled, Wilkerson recommends reaching out to an academic advisor before classes even start to help establish an immediate connection to someone who understands the intricacies of college.
"The more efficient you are with planning your classes, the more chance you have of graduating," she explains.
4. Does the college have class options that fit a busy schedule?
Parenting students might not always be able to make it to campus during the day, so it's important to look for colleges that offer night classes, online learning or recorded lectures that can fit into a busy schedule.
"Parents experience this concept called time poverty," says David Croom, the assistant director for postsecondary achievement and innovation at Ascend. "They have about half the time to dedicate to academic pursuits – like being in class, tutoring, studying – as compared to non-parents."
Croom says, during the pandemic, remote learning and recorded lectures made it much easier for student parents to take classes. He believes institutions should continue to provide these flexible learning options. He also recommends asking admissions advisors about classroom attendance policies and flexible scheduling options for required courses.
Of course, for many colleges, online learning is nothing new. The CalIfornia State University system is one of countless institutions that allow students to complete their degrees fully online. For some programs and majors, students can choose a hybrid learning option so they have the opportunity to learn in-person when their schedule permits.
Even if going to college seems like an uphill battle, studies show that once student parents get there, they tend to thrive. Student parents often get higher grades than students without children, and Croom says they can find the process of earning a degree especially rewarding.
"There's this really strong sense of motivation. They want to do well and be better for themselves, but also for their children."