Understanding Students Who Are Parents

By Jillian M. Duquaine-Watson

Back in School: How Student Parents Are Transforming College and Family by A. Fiona Pearson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019.

Scholars in the social sciences have devoted increasing attention in recent years to the experiences of college and university students who are also parents. Much of this attention was prompted initially by the welfare-reform policies of the mid-1990s and the ways in which such policies at the federal and state levels restricted postsecondary opportunities for low-income student parents, the majority of whom are single mothers. Yet scholarly work pertaining to the unique experiences of these students is also rooted in practical efforts to better understand and meet the needs of the diverse groups that comprise the current US postsecondary student population. These efforts are particularly important because approximately one-fourth of postsecondary students are raising children.

A. Fiona Pearson situates Back in School: How Student Parents Are Transforming College and Family within the context of such scholarship. Using a sociological lens, Pearson draws from formal interviews with forty student parents who were enrolled at one of four postsecondary institutions (including two community colleges and two four-year state universities) in the northeastern United States and from informal interviews with a smaller group of faculty, staff, and administrators at those same institutions. Pearson’s primary aim is to identify and explore the various beliefs, actions, and outcomes relevant to the lives of these students, specifically as they exist at the intersection of familial and educational experiences. Using a multilevel framework that analyzes the existence and interplay of individual, institutional, and cultural dimensions, she provides an insightful account of daily life for those navigating dual roles as college students and parents. Her project examines the motivations, aspirations, anxieties, and frustrations of this significant but understudied student population. Of equal importance, it demonstrates both how student parents alter the cultures of the institutions they attend and how their status and responsibilities as students alter family dynamics.   

Pearson begins by exploring the history of higher education; the specific political, economic, and ideological factors that have shaped postsecondary institutions; and American attitudes about college or university degrees. Such attitudes reflect prevailing cultural discourses that emphasize postsecondary education as an investment—bestowing human capital in the form of a diploma—that many deem necessary in the contemporary job market. These discourses rely heavily on notions of democratic access and individualism, thereby perpetuating the belief that higher education is available to everyone and that success within postsecondary institutions is because of the success (or failure) of each individual student. Yet as Pearson reminds her readers, that belief is simplistic and fails to acknowledge the real structural inequalities of race, gender, and socioeconomic status that shape the US higher education system.

Subsequent chapters highlight the experiences of student parents, attending to both their academic and personal lives. The data in this portion of the book are particularly strong, and Pearson moves effortlessly between description of participants’ experiences and analysis of institutional policies and structures, including university-specific examples as well as relevant federal and state regulations. Childcare emerged as a concern for many participants, with access to it making a significant difference in their ability to participate in higher education, whether by attending classes or by carving out dedicated study time. While some parents were able to rely on relatives to provide such care, others had to enroll their children at day care centers, thereby adding to the costs associated with being a student.

Pearson demonstrates that participants’ experiences related to childcare occur within the context of specific institutional structures. Many participants criticized the lack of childcare facilities on their campuses or, if such facilities existed, found that they had long waiting lists. In addition, institutional policies influenced how participants responded to childcare crises such as the illness of a child or the closure of a childcare center because of inclement weather. At least one institution required students to get permission from their instructors if they wished to bring a child to class. Others did not have a formal policy in this regard, thereby leaving such decisions to individual professors, who tended to be more understanding and accommodating if they had their own children. Furthermore, state and federal initiatives—including Connecticut’s Care 4 Kids public assistance program and the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School grant program—had a significant impact on childcare access.

Key factors set Pearson’s study apart from previous research. First, it is unique in its attention to the experiences of both mothers and fathers. Such attention provides fertile ground for analyzing the gendered dynamics of student parents’ lives within both familial and educational contexts. Second, although random sampling techniques were not used, the participant population represents significant diversity of life experience as well as racial and ethnic identity. Some do not have partners, others are cohabitating, and others are married. Some are closer in age to traditional college students while others are in their thirties, forties, or fifties. Some have maintained relatively consistent enrollment during their postsecondary pursuits while others have alternated between periods of enrollment and periods of absence.

Furthermore, Pearson provides significant attention to the diverse range of factors that motivate student parents to pursue a college degree, categorizing participants into three groups. “Job seekers” believe that obtaining degrees will help them secure specific types of employment. “Practical explorers” desire the increase in social status and respect that they associate with completion of a college degree. “Self-reflexive learners” cite intellectual growth as their primary motivation.

While attention to diversity among student parents is important, additional attention to the intersection of identities would have strengthened this study. For example, Pearson provides an excellent analysis of the gendered dynamics of the personal and academic lives of student parents. In doing so, she demonstrates how student parents navigate the parameters of the American ideology of separate spheres—which assumes that a woman’s place is in the private sphere and a man’s place is in the public sphere—sometimes challenging it while reinforcing it at other times. However, separate-spheres ideology is grounded not only in gender norms; it is also rooted in racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic norms. Closer attention to the dynamic, intersecting identities of participants would have provided additional insight into the ways they were influenced by yet also challenged separate-spheres ideology.

In sum, Pearson’s study is a significant contribution to existing scholarship on student populations in general and student parents in particular. Insightful, well-written, and accessible, it is an ideal choice for undergraduate and graduate courses in sociology, gender studies, education, and public policy. In addition, it would be an excellent choice for faculty, support staff, and administrators who wish to further their understanding of the realities and needs of America’s increasingly diverse postsecondary student population.

Jillian M. Duquaine-Watson is professor of instruction and head of the MA program in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. She is the author of Mothering by Degrees: Single Mothers and the Pursuit of Postsecondary Education. Her email address is [email protected].