Struggles of Single Parent Students

“Nobody can imagine or tell you how hard being a parent is, but never mind being a full-time single parent and full-time student,” said Anna Sliviak, single parent and student at Front Range Community College-Westminster.

On the surface, Sliviak appears to be a typical college student: folders with papers and assignments spilling out, a mug of coffee and an iPhone with earbuds. These similarities are where her experience as a single parent and the experiences of many other students diverge.

Sliviak is a full-time mom of two young kids: 3.5-year-old son, Jasper, and her 2-year-old daughter, Juniper. She is in her second semester at FRCC and is currently enrolled in 12 credits.

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Anna Sliviak with Juniper and Jasper.

The plight of single-parent students is one that generally goes unrecognized, even though that demographic makes up a large percentage of college students. According to Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a non-profit organization dedicated to researching policy issues of critical importance for women and the source of the most recent information on this issue, “Improving educational attainment among low-income parents will have long-term multigenerational benefits in addition to immediate family economic returns. Higher education is paramount for achieving family economic security, and parental education yields powerful two-generation benefits, by improving children’s economic, educational, and social outcomes.”

Data published by IWPR from the 2011-12 school year shows that there were nearly 4.8 million student-parents enrolled in college across the higher-education system. This population constitutes nearly 25 percent of the total undergraduate student enrollment in the U.S. Moreover, single parents enrolled in community colleges constitute 29 percent of the student body. Of the roughly 2.5 million single parents, 80 percent are single mothers.

The IWPR further reported that community colleges comprise 45 percent of enrolled single-parent students, while accounting for around 40 percent of all students of higher education

Even campuses that feature child care facilities do not meet the parents’ child-care needs. Based on a survey of over 80 agencies, 80 percent of centers maintain waiting lists, and the average waiting list was 90 children.

Sliviak struggles to find child care while she attends classes. “I wish there was child care here. I wish that there was more support for parents. If there was a parent group, or a single parent group, that would help a lot,” she said.

A typical day for Sliviak involves taking her kids to pre-school and day care in Boulder, commuting to class in Westminster, then retracing her steps at the end of the day to collect her children and return home.

Child care is only one piece of the puzzle of hardship that student-parents face. On average, student parents work more hours per week than non-parent students and have more unmet financial need, assuming that student-parents find the time and resources to attend college. According to IWPR, in 2009, 52 percent of student-parents stopped attending college, without receiving a degree or certificate, six years after enrollment, compared to only 32 percent of non-parent students.

The declining access to child care is a consequence of decreased funding. School budgets are being slashed at historic rates while campus overhead is increasing. Child care is seen as an expense that can be cut to reduce that overhead. For instance, FRCC-Westminster used to offer child care but no longer does due to budget cuts.

The lack of student-parent resources does not stop at child care. Programs outside of campuses also pose issues for single parents. “It’s a catch-22 situation, because in order to afford housing, I have to take out the maximum student loans, which means I need to take the maximum credits. It’s frustrating because if I didn’t have to go full-time, it would be a little less stressful,” Sliviak said.

“I’m plugged into any resource I can get my hands on, but I still feel like I’m drowning. There are a million different factors that change my schedule every week. I try really hard to focus my time [on school], but it’s really hard because it’s exhausting.”

Reliance on society is not unique to Sliviak’s experience. The demographics of single-parent students are skewed towards minorities and low-income individuals. According to IWPR, over 75 percent of single-parent-students are low-income and nearly half are first-generation students. Plus, 37 percent of African American college students, 33 percent of American Indian college students and 25 percent of Hispanic/Latino college students are parents.

Considering that half of parent-students are first generation students, it is difficult to find a path. “College has been super overwhelming in the sense that I’m trying to find my sense of direction. To be 33 and not know who I am or what I want to do is a challenge,” Sliviak said.

Many community college students, especially student-parents, are non-traditional students. “It’s been super challenging in trying to figure out how to deal with loads of homework when there is no extra time,” Sliviak said.

She visited multiple advisors to find classes that fit her degree path, but nobody told Sliviak about the work-load that college entails. “I let everyone know I’m a full-time, single mom and I was kind of surprised that nobody said, ‘Hey, this is going to be a lot of homework; you’re probably going to get overwhelmed.’ Nobody was straight-forward,” she said.

Seeing that student-parents are often overlooked in education, it’s possible that the advisors were not aware of the struggles that student-parents face. More awareness should be disseminated so that the college culture can begin to shift to support student-parents, who need support more than most other student demographics.

Fortunately, there are people and organizations that are trying to help student-parents succeed. FRCC- Larimer has a single parent program where they support single-parent students by giving them access to numerous tools and resources intended to help them stay in school and earn their degrees or certificates. These resources include academic advising, career counseling, financial aid assistance, and health and wellness issues.

Sliviak hopes that FRCC-Westminster will employ a single-parent group as well. “I think that would be really helpful for single parents to be able to come together,” she said. “To be able to have the comradery and know you’re not the only one going through this, and having that support would be really helpful.”

There are also numerous grants and scholarships available to single-parent students. The IWPR is very active in conducting research on single-parent students, especially moms, then sending the information into the public to act as a catalyst for change.

Many teachers are understanding and willing to assist single-parents. Last semester, some of Sliviak’s teachers granted extensions on homework, for example. She also had some teachers who were not at all sympathetic to her situation.

“Not having enough time. Not having enough resources. Not having enough support. It’s all really hard. I feel very discouraged with trying to take this all on right now. I feel like I can’t handle all the stress,” Sliviak said.

Sliviak is actively trying to pursue a better life for herself and her children, but discouraging thoughts override her feelings of success. Higher education should more accessible and affordable for all citizens, but especially for student-parents.

Written by Alex Liethen

Photo provided by Anna Sliviak

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