When I became pregnant and gave birth to my daughter at the age of 15, there were very few supportive entities in place for me to go to when I needed help with my responsibilities as a student parent. Despite several challenges, I was able to complete my high school education and graduate on time with the rest of my class.
Image: Gloria Malone
While in high school, I always heard that college was more easygoing than high school. As a student parent, I was overjoyed to hear this, however, it seemed that colleges were just as bad at handling and meeting the needs of student parents as high schools were.
Now that I have successfully completed both my high school and college education, I can identify a few ways that both high schools and colleges can make education accessible to student parents.
1. Inform us of and respect our Title IX rights
All student parents that attend any educational institution that receives funds from the federal government are protected under Title IX rights. Some Title IX rights include having access and accommodations for all pregnant and parenting students and excusing all medically-necessary absences. Also, schools cannot force or coerce pregnant and parenting students to drop out of school or attend “specialty” schools if the student does not wish to leave their school. All federally-funded educational institutions should have a Title IX coordinator for student parents to speak to.
If your finals are during the time you are expected to go into labor, your professor and the entire institution must allow you to reschedule the finals for a time that works best for you.
2. Early childhood education options on campus and/or child care assistance
Student parents cannot attend classes if they do not have adequate child care arrangements in place. Most scholarships cover tuition and book cost, however, they rarely cover rising child care expenses. Some colleges have acknowledged this and offer child care options on campus to student parents. Unfortunately, oftentimes the child of the student parent must be at least toddler age but not old enough to be in public schools, which means the child care center will not take children 2 years old or younger. Then there is the fact that many of the child care centers operate during general business hours. Safe, adequate, affordable child care options on campus would be great considering tuition fees and student fees are high enough.
If for some reason child care on campus is not an option, a student parent liaison office would be wonderful in offering affordable and quiet child care option for students.
3. Allow children on campus
My alma mater has a strict no-child policy. Being that I was a student, a student worker and involved in on-campus clubs and organizations, this made it extra difficult for me to attend necessary meetings when a sitter canceled last minute. While I understand a college is not “a playground or day care center” and bringing a child to class often is not a long-term solution to an ongoing lack of child care assistance problem (see No. 2 again), having to find a sitter so I can simply drop my term paper in my professor’s office mailbox is not always financially feasible.
Having a babysitter cancel on me last minute should not result in my having to cancel my academic advisement appointment with my academic guidance counselor because a school does not want children on campus. Our children are potential future students. Please do not disregard my child, my child is part of my educational pursuits, too.
4. Offer lactation rooms
At 16, I was pumping breast milk on my high school campus. As a student assistant working college orientations, I would have to refer women who needed to pump their breast milk to the less-than-clean restrooms on campus because we had no lactation rooms.
Sitting through hours of courses with swollen and leaking breasts full of breast milk is extremely unnecessary, distracting and painful. Having a clean and non-public restroom to pump breast milk in would increase and possibly even help more student parents stay in school.
5. Create a respectful and healthy learning environment
I have done workshops around the country with pregnant and parenting teens who have informed me that other students were threatening to beat them up until they miscarried. When the pregnant students brought these threats to the attention of faculty and staff, the response was, “You get no special treatment.” The young girls often expressed that they would ultimately drop out because they did not feel supported by staff in any capacity. Other wrongdoings on the part of faculty and staff include not allowing students to use the restrooms as often as pregnancy demands, not being able to pump breast milk (see No. 4) and, in my personal case, having your high school academic adviser stop talking to you when they find out you are a pregnant teen. Colleges can and do create hostile learning environments in the same ways listed above and by refusing to allow timely and emergency rescheduling of assignment due dates and finals because, “You saw the syllabus before you signed up and knew you were pregnant/a parent when you signed up for the course.”
Student parents are in school because they want to be in school. They wake up every morning despite morning sickness, staying up with a crying child all night and having to pack a book bag, diaper bag and freezer packs for their breast milk in between writing term papers and changing diapers.
The least schools can do is allow them to have a student experience that fosters a healthy learning environment by providing and respecting student parent’s rights.