Student Parents and the Opportunity to Support Multiple Generations of Families

For 14 years, I have been an Institutional Researcher at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY. On March 17, 2020, I filled the largest bag I owned with my work files and locked my office door. I then headed across the quad to pick up my five-year-old from MCC’s Richard M. Guon Child Care Center. There were fewer people there than usual, but what struck me most was the hint of sadness behind the smiling eyes of the teachers and office staff. One of my son’s teachers lamented, “I thought I’d have more time with him,” as she walked us to the main door.

Driving home, I thought about the student parents I’ve gotten to know through the child care center, across MCC, and at other colleges across the nation. My solar plexus burned as I worried what would happen to them and their children during the pandemic.  I knew for a fact that campus-based child care helps student parents succeed, and other college-based supports can mean the difference between student parents dropping out, skipping meals, or being evicted from their apartment. But how “remote” were colleges going to go, and how was that going to affect this most at-risk group of students and their kids?

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

– Peter Drucker

 MCC is unique in that it collects data on its students’ marital and parental status each semester using a focused survey. In 2014, I analyzed nearly 10 years’ worth of that data, focusing on our Student-Parents who had kids young enough to use our campus child care center. Specifically, I compared the outcomes of the student parents with young kids who used the center with those of the student parents with young kids who didn’t use the center. The results, which have been cited by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, show that the student parents who utilized the child care center had one-and-a-half times the fall-to-fall persistence rate and more than three-and-a-half times the on-time graduation rate of the student parents who didn’t utilize the center. 

The reasons why campus-based child care helps student parents succeed aren’t a mystery. MCC student parents are candid when they’re asked how our child care center helps them:

“My daughter has thrived at MCC. She is excited about learning and has made good friends. Her teachers have been wonderful, both in the classroom and for me as a parent to work with.”

“My son is so happy and clearly developing his socializing skills. I can focus on my studies because I leave him in a secure place.”

Six months after MCC went remote due to the COVID pandemic, the college is still operational, albeit mostly virtual. Our child care center is operational as well, unlike many others that have had to close their doors permanently.

As the United States braces for the next phase of the pandemic, it is critical that colleges recognize that a large proportion of their student body isn’t age 18 to 24, childless, and living with their parents. Student parents are a unique—and large—subpopulation, one that deserves our attention, respect, and support.

Because MCC is able to quantify the number of student parents we have, we know that they make up 18% to 31% of our student body each year. That amounts to nearly 3,000 students, more than half of whom are single moms. Since we know who they are, we are also therefore able to ask for their input into how we can better support them and their families. With that information in hand, we are striving to make sure that we address the needs of our student parents during this critical time.

“When you know better you do better.”

– Maya Angelou

Using a human-centered design approach, MCC has spent nearly two years asking student parents, in particular single moms, what we can do to better support them.  Some of their top answers, which we’ve implemented or are in the process of implementing include:

  • Increasing funding for emergency grants
  • Having more awareness of and accommodations for student parents
  • Offering or assisting with affordable child care at both campuses for children of all ages
  • Being more accommodating of student parents in the classroom
  • Creating and/or communicating additional resources for student parents

Like many other colleges and universities across the nation, Monroe Community College has embraced student parents. We have recognized their sheer numbers, their unique needs and experiences, and our opportunity to assist multiple generations of families. Most importantly, we have recognized that in order to best serve them, we cannot use a top-down approach. It is only by involving their perspectives in all steps of the process that we can meet them where they are in order to lift them up.