Michael Burke for EdSource
Compton College, one of 116 community colleges in California.

California’s state and local college leaders must find new ways to identify student parents and ensure they can access all financial aid, child care, mental health and campus resources, according to two new research briefs.

The reports, from UC Davis’s Wheelhouse research center, published Thursday, amount to one of the most comprehensive looks yet at a substantial group of students in California’s higher education systems. Students who are also parents are mostly enrolled at community colleges, are more likely to be women and are older than their peers.

By examining financial aid applications in 2018, the authors of the research found that out of 1.5 million applicants in California, about 202,000 of them were parents. About 72% of those parents intended to enroll at one of California’s community colleges. Once student parents arrive at community college, they are less likely to earn a degree or certificate than non-parents, according to the research.

“We think a lot about the real need of English learners, low-income students, foster youth and other groups,” said Sherrie Reed, executive director of the California Education Lab at UC Davis and one of the authors. “This is just an additional subgroup of students that I think we really need to make some investment in if we’re going to improve and increase postsecondary outcomes in our state.”

The main report released Thursday details enrollment trends of student parents across California’s colleges and universities while also comparing those students to their peers across demographics, academic performance and more.

The other report examines an anonymous community college in California and finds that student parents at the college struggle to meet their basic needs, are unable to access some campus services and say that the campus environment is often hostile toward them.

“Student parents have the motivation to get a higher education, but the support systems aren’t there,” said Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education and one of the authors of the second research brief. 

Because the data for the two research papers was collected in 2018, it’s not clear from the research how the pandemic may be impacting student parents and their enrollment trends. 

The researchers found that one out of every 10 students in California’s community colleges is a parent. Because their data only includes students who applied for financial aid, that is likely an undercount of the total number of parents in community colleges, Reed said. 

Among the parents who intended to enroll in a California community college in 2018-19, about 80% of them were women.

The student parents are also older on average than their peers. In 2016-17, just 53% of parents in community colleges were under the age of 20, compared to 87% of non-parents. 

The racial demographics of student parents in community colleges are mostly similar to non-parents, with the exception of Black students, who made up 13% of student parents but just 7% of non-parents. About half of student parents are Latino, 25% are white and 14% are Asian or another race, per the research. 

Courtesy of Jessica Hecox

Jessica Hecox, a single mother studying at American River College, reserves her weekends for “fun time” with her 2-year-old son.

“It’s a good feeling knowing I’m bettering myself so my son can have a better life,” said Jessica Hecox, 25 who is studying construction management at American River Community College in Sacramento. “Just because you become a parent doesn’t mean you have to stop doing things because they may be hard or make your plate more full. If anything I feel your children should make you want to work harder and be better.”

Hecox has a two-year-old son and works full-time at a construction company. She hopes her education will help her advance in the company.

At 48, Sysong Vue is committed to studying mechanical engineering at American River Community College in Sacramento. The mother of five dreams of working for NASA or SpaceX. While her children are grown up now, she still juggles her family’s needs with her own.

Courtesy of Sysong Vue

Sysong Vue, (48) pictured center, a student at American River College, with her four children Angel Thao (30), left, with her fiancé, Jessica Thao (29), front left, Ethan Thao (20), front right, Asya Thao (27) and her boyfriend.

“They understood the sacrifice that I made in order to take care of them and make sure that they were safe growing up,” she said. “And so now that they are of age, they completely support me going back to school, and they know that I study, and I stay a lot in my room. But I always let them know that if they do need to talk or do something they’re always welcome to come in and interrupt me. I’m not always just shut off in my bubble.”

Reed said it’s important that colleges do what they can to identify student parents, which could be as simple as asking students for that information as they enroll.

“We collect a lot of data from students when they enroll,” Reed said. “Their address, their race, ethnicity, their gender identification. So asking them if they are also responsible for children is another question that we could ask. And not to penalize them, but to be able to offer more support services.”

Parents are less likely to remain in college after one year and complete a degree or certificate than non-parents, according to the research. Among parents who entered college in 2012 and applied for financial aid, nearly 30% did not return for their second year. About 24% of parents earned a degree or certificate within six years, compared to 28% of non-parents who sought financial aid.

At one unidentified community college in California, parents face a number of challenges that may make it difficult for them to persist through college. Researchers interviewed 67 Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander students attending that college, which the researchers did not identify for privacy reasons. 

Those students described an unwelcoming campus environment. For example, they shared photos of signage saying that children weren’t allowed in certain buildings and recalled arriving at counseling appointments with their children only to be told they had to reschedule and not bring their children.

Parents reported that they also had trouble accessing campus resources meant to help them. Some parents said, for example, that they weren’t able to use on-campus childcare centers because of limited space and hours or because their children didn’t meet the age requirements. 

Some student parents also said they struggled to afford basic needs like transportation and Internet access, which has become a necessity since colleges transitioned to mostly online instruction during the pandemic.

While many parents received tuition waivers and federal financial aid awards, few receive Cal Grants, the main source of state-funded financial aid, the researchers found. Many of those Cal Grant awards have age restrictions that prevent older students from receiving them. State lawmakers have proposed reforming the Cal Grant program by eliminating those age requirements, something that Huerta said would be a good “first step.”

But Huerta added that the burden is also on individual colleges to do more to help student parents. That could mean extending hours at childcare centers or creating “single stop” resource centers for parents to learn about all available academic, financial and social resources that are available to them. 

“These are not groundbreaking ideas. They’re really simple, basic practices that colleges could be proactive with,” Huerta said. 

Emily Chung, a student at the University of Southern California, and Taylor Helmes, a student at California State University, Dominguez Hills, contributed to this story. They are members of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.

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  1. Thomas James Norman 2 years ago2 years ago

    Now is the time to continue our understanding of this important group of students. Having taught for 15 years at Cal State Dominguez Hills, the time management, grit, and creativity of my students who are caring for children or others never ceases to impress me.

  2. NA 2 years ago2 years ago

    It's interesting that UC Davis headed this study - I became a parent when I was at UC Davis almost 25 years ago. I had one instructor that was supportive and encouraged my efforts to continue my education. I brought my daughter with me to class on days I did not have childcare. No one from various student outreach departments nor the financial aid department reached out to inform me of any additional resources that … Read More

    It’s interesting that UC Davis headed this study – I became a parent when I was at UC Davis almost 25 years ago. I had one instructor that was supportive and encouraged my efforts to continue my education. I brought my daughter with me to class on days I did not have childcare. No one from various student outreach departments nor the financial aid department reached out to inform me of any additional resources that may have been available to me.

    It’s very likely they were not available at the time but they would have made a definitive impact on my ability to remain a student at UC Davis – I would have loved to have been able to graduate with the rest of my peers. I eventually did earn my BA degree from CSU Chico just two years ago after getting my AA at a community college and then transferring to an online degree program. We definitely need to advocate more for student parents. Being a parent should not hinder you from achieving your educational goals.