Courtesy: Kenya Abner
Kenya Abner holds up her diplomas.

As a student parent with five children (and one grandchild) married to a fellow student also working toward a degree, I struggle to stay afloat as I balance my studies with my family life.

I provide child care and manage extracurricular activities for my two youngest children, one in middle school and one in elementary school, while I support my husband and two middle children in college with their educational journeys. My eldest daughter, who graduated from college last year, may come over for dinner with her husband and daughter. In between, I run errands, make sure the bills are paid, ensure my family’s basic needs are met, and manage work responsibilities.

The trajectory to college and economic mobility for my family began in the 1990s in Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento. My husband and I had moved to California from Michigan to start our paths toward a postsecondary degree to build a stable foundation for our family. Community college was much more affordable in California, and there were child care options available at American River College, which helped defray some college costs for student parents, including food, books and supplies as well as child care.

However, student housing was not available, and off-campus housing prices were skyrocketing and unmanageable. Without affordable housing that was suitable for family living, my husband and I had to divide our time between working multiple low-wage jobs full-time, studying and attending class, and caring for our children.

The consequences of this division forced us to take fewer classes, adding additional years to earning our associate degrees, less time with our children, and much more stress. Like a third of today’s students in California, we experienced housing insecurity and barely scraped by.

When my husband was accepted into UC Berkeley, we were excited that our commitment to creating a better future for our family was paying off. But housing in Berkeley was unaffordable, and there was a two-year waiting list for student family housing.

This very limited campus housing stock, particularly housing that could accommodate families, paired with astronomical housing prices, create huge barriers for student parents like us.

With determination to make our educational dreams a reality, my husband hopped on a train and waited on campus to make a personal appeal directly to the family student housing program director. We were able to secure housing for the next semester, but if we hadn’t, attending UC Berkeley would have been out of the question, and we most likely would have stopped our educational journey there.

Having access to family student housing was a game changer — it is what allowed us to complete our bachelor’s degrees — as the entire housing community was constructed to nurture students and their families. There were activities for children, an onsite preschool, playgrounds, laundromats, a bus service to and from campus, and even a community garden to grow your own produce. This created an environment of care where people treated each other with kindness, respect and encouragement. It made us feel like we belonged and were fully supported to achieve our educational and career goals.

Fast-forward 20 years to today. My husband now has an established career in mental health care operations and is working on his doctorate. I obtained my bachelor’s degree and am pursuing my master’s. Three of my children have completed or are currently attending college, and I am elevating the value of higher education in our household in hopes that my two youngest children and grandchild will invest in a postsecondary degree when it’s their time.

We must make student housing available and affordable for low-income students, including those with families, so they and their children can reach their full potential. Currently, California is making progress in addressing the student housing issue. In 2021, the state created the Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program, providing $700 million to California’s public postsecondary institutions to expand their housing capacity. And the most recently approved budget allocates an additional $750 million for 26 campuses to build affordable beds for over 7,000 students. However, many of the programs hinder student parents from accessing the new housing stock when projects are completed. For instance, several approved housing projects failed to include student parents in their estimates of who will need housing. As a result, these new housing projects will not meet the unique needs of student parents even as a recent report from California Competes finds that more than half of potential graduates in California have dependent children.

My husband and I made a decision to invest in higher education to place us in the best position for the long-term success of our family and future generations. We were successful because we were able to access family housing, which allowed us to balance a rigorous education with the demands of raising children.

If policymakers, institutions and education leaders factor student parents’ needs into the planning, design and development of the funded housing projects, I know their investment will pay off in shared prosperity for the community and future generations, just as our investment in higher education did for mine.

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Kenya Abner is a master’s student at Sacramento State University. She recently completed a fellowship at California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, as part of Sacramento State’s Pathways Fellowship Program

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