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“Like a Juggler”: New Study Highlights Balancing Act of Community College Students Who Are Also Parents

Parent and two small children with backpacks

“It’s like, how do you say, like a juggler. You have to try to juggle school, work, the kids, a little alone time, a lot of study time, a lot of homework time.”

Those are the words of one young mother talking about her experiences navigating community college in new research published this week by UC Davis Wheelhouse titled, “Like a Juggler: The Experiences of Racially Minoritized Student Parents in a California Community College.” 

That young mother is not alone but one of an estimated 3.8 million student parents enrolled in higher education institutions nationally.  And here in California, researchers from UC Davis found that 13.4% of students applying for financial aid in 2018-19 identified themselves as parents. Of those, nearly three in four stated an intent to enroll in a California community college.

Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, UCLA education professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, co-authored the research brief with UCLA Education doctoral student Daisy Ramirez, UCLA Ed&IS alumnus Adrian Huerta (’16, PhD), and Mike Muñoz, vice president of student services, Long Beach City College and adjunct faculty in educational counseling at USC. The brief is an effort to identify and better understand the challenges these students face and shine a light on strategies and practices that might ease their path forward. 

“These student parents are very resilient, and at the same time, maintain high educational aspirations and occupational goals despite the struggles and daily challenges they experience in pursuit of their education,” Rios-Aguilar said. “Our hope is that this research will help colleges and educational policy makers to better support and serve student parents in ways that value who they are and that increase their chances to succeed academically and beyond.”

The research examines the experience of students at Coastal City College  through interviews and focus groups with racially- minoritized student parents to understand how student navigated community college, received information and made decisions during the 2018-19 academic year. It is clear that student parents, many from low-income backgrounds, face significant challenges as they juggle multiple responsibilities including college courses and homework, childcare, and work to support themselves. 

In the face of these challenges, student parents often “stop and drop” their college courses, only to later reenroll in college to pursue credentials and degrees for careers that provide them financial stability. They also face barriers in enrolling in courses, navigating complicated financial aid processes and degree requirements, and securing affordable childcare. 

Too often, student-parents face environments and messages that are unfriendly and discouraging. Classrooms, academic counseling offices, and libraries have policies that forbid children from accompanying their parents, who may not have any childcare options available when needed. Student-parents shared photos of signs that stated, “No children allowed in this office!” Stringent policies, practices or eligibility requirements also prevented some student parents from accessing campus-based programs and services

Many student parents come from low-income backgrounds and struggle
to secure basic needs such as food, internet access, personal computers, and reliable transportation. Access to childcare is a critical issue, and in short supply.

Student parents also must  balance multiple demands from children, employers, faculty, spouses and partners and others that upend their academic goals and experiences.  These demands may limit their engagement in coursework, or their time for study.

Some student parents are also unaware of valuable resources that are available to them, such as the campus career center. A majority of student parents interviewed in the research did not know of the existence or utility of career and job connections at the college. 

The study also finds that dedicated campus programs provided essential support to student parents. Half of the student parents interviewed were involved in campus services such as EOPS, CARE, and Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN), providing networks of support, accurate college information, and campus and community-based support systems for the children of students. 

“This research has important implications for community college educators and education policymakers,”  Rios-Aguilar said. “Those start with better identification of students and what their needs are, and then connecting them to resources that can support educational success.”

The research also offers recommendations for campus actions, and guiding questions for campus leaders, faculty and staff to consider as they work to foster educational opportunities and provide meaningful support to parent students. 

Like a Juggler: The Experiences of Racially Minoritized Student Parents in a California Community College,” is available on the UC Davis Wheelhouse, Center for Community College Leadership and Research website. The brief was released in tandem with additional research, Student Parents, a portrait of community college students with dependent children. 

Above: Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, UCLA professor of education and associate dean for equity and inclusion, UCLA School of Education and Information Studies.