Parents as Students: Online College Is the Solution

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In a lot of ways, going to college is like having a kid. You’re constantly learning new things. Your sleep schedule is always messed up. And every once in a while, somebody barfs on you. Then there are all the expensive things you have to buy, all the personal time you have to sacrifice, and the unshakeable sense that you’re always on the clock.

And that’s just if you’re doing one or the other.

But what if you’re doing both at the same time?

Well, that’s life for more than a quarter of all college students today. Nearly five million students balance both education and parenting.

In fact, more student-parents attend college than ever before. If you are a part of this ambitious segment of the student population, I don’t have to tell you how tough it is. Your life is a juggling act of testing and teething, professors and pediatricians, dissertations and diapers. And you probably have a job too. You’ve got a lot on your plate.

But evidence suggests colleges are failing to keep up with your needs. We’ll examine the rising demand for on-campus childcare support, the impact this need has on today’s student population, and what must be done to close the widening gap between the two.

Nannies Wanted

We’ve written before about the changing face of the average college student. We once called them “nontraditional” learners, but in reality, adult students are increasingly the norm. The best online colleges helped usher in a new wave of access and opportunity for nontraditional students — those who don’t fit the familiar mold of the recent high-school graduate. Now, working adults and returning students are carving out their own important space in higher education.

Even as millions of teenagers prepare to leave their parents’ home for the first time, so too are millions of parents trying to figure out how to manage working, studying, and child-rearing all at once.

In just the last two decades, the number of students attending college while raising children has exploded. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports such enrollment increased by 30% between 2004 and 2012.

For many of the students in this demographic, finding reliable, affordable child care is a serious and constant struggle. And too few colleges are either aware of this struggle or willing to help. In fact, as the population of student-parents has grown, the percentage of schools offering child care has actually declined. More than half of community colleges and public colleges provided some form of on-campus child care in 2004. By 2015, the number had fallen below 50% in both sectors.

And even in cases where that care is available, it can be just as costly as off-campus options, if not more so.

The Opportunity Gap

The resulting gap in support services is real and consequential for student-parents. Finding adequate child care is not just difficult for some; it’s logistically impossible. The result is a population of students uniquely vulnerable to non-completion. Only 33% of students with children complete their degree or certificate program within six years, as compared to 59% of all students.

This may initiate a downward spiral for the 67% who don’t earn a degree. As a population, non-graduating student-parents leave school with higher levels of debt and fewer job prospects. As The New York Times points out, these challenges only beget further challenges in balancing child care needs. “Their lack of a degree,” says The Times, “essentially locks them out of jobs with benefits like on-site child care, paid leave, and telecommuting that make it possible to be effective workers and parents.”

By failing to provide this growing population with a commensurate range of care and support resources, colleges may be sending many student-parents down a treacherous path. And specific demographics are more likely than others to stumble down it.

The shortage of support resources has its most profound impact on women and single mothers. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research:

“Women make up 71 percent of all student parents, and roughly 2 million students, or 43 percent of the total student parent population, are single mothers. Single student fathers make up 11 percent of the student parent population.”

There are racial implications as well: 40% of black women in college are single mothers. By failing to provide resources for demographics inherently more likely to drop out, colleges passively contribute to gender and racial inequalities.

Taking Candy from a Baby

U.S. News & World Report cites the two most immediate reasons for the resource shortage, and in doing so, offers two clear policy needs.

Foremost is the long trend of decline in state, federal, and private funding for community and public colleges, both in a broader sense and in terms of direct support for childcare directives and initiatives. For instance, reports The New York Times, a federal program — Child Care Access Means Parents In School — saw its budget slashed from $25 million in 2001 to $15 million in 2015.

Public funding has either been flat or in free-fall just as we are seeing the greatest level of need to date. But — and this is where the second cause for our current predicament comes in — colleges don’t seem to recognize this rising level of need.

Institute for Women’s Policy Research executive director Barbara Gault observed that an immediate obstacle to providing adequate child care and support resources exists because many colleges fail to compile demographic information on the subject. Considering the raw growth in this population size and the inverse relationship between parenting and degree completion, colleges and universities should feel compelled to evaluate this demographic more seriously.

Indeed, the reason for the oversight is that, in many instances, colleges don’t see it as their mandate to create childcare options and opportunities for their student body. But this is a mistake. Not only are student-parents a large and in-need segment of the college population, but going forward, colleges are going to rely more on them.

U.S. News & World Report points to projections that say the number of fresh-out-of-high-school admissions will drop considerably in the next several decades as many opt for more affordable and practical vocational and professional certification alternatives. We will continue to see a gradual shift away from the idea of “traditional” and “nontraditional” students. This shift pressures colleges to recruit, accommodate, and retain growing populations such as student-parents.

You are an important part of the future for higher education.

The Online College Alternative

One sector of higher education has been responsive to the needs of student-parents. While traditional campuses may not see the accommodation of student-parents as part of their mandate, online colleges most certainly do. For many, it is a key part of their business model.

The New York Times suggests the rising number of student-parents is “one reason flexible alternatives to brick-and-mortar institutions are so important. Many of these programs track progress toward a degree not by time spent in classrooms, measured by credit hours, but by students’ actual learning, measured by competency or mastery.”

The result is an approach to learning — and to earning your degree — designed to accommodate your challenging schedule. Granted, online college can’t help you rock a crying baby back to sleep at 3 AM, but it can provide you with learning opportunities that work within your schedule, a broad range of part- and full-time options, and access to instructors, classmates, and institutions that understand your needs.

Online college is certainly not without its challenges. You’ll still need to find a quiet place to concentrate while you view online lectures, study assigned materials, and compose essays. Depending on how many kids you have, that quiet place might be hard to come by. Check out a few of our tips on how to prepare for, survive, and succeed in online college. Hopefully, these will help you make the adjustment.

While we’ve got all kinds of advice about school, we won’t tell you how to raise your kids (though sunblock is really important). One thing we do know about parenting, your educational and professional ambitions will never be more important than your family. But that doesn’t mean they can’t peacefully coexist. The best online colleges offer you a way to have both.

Choose wisely!

Take the next step towards your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

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