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Celebrating and supporting student parents in higher ed

September is National Student Parent Month, and we’re getting ready to celebrate student parents across Wisconsin who are balancing family responsibilities with college.

Jillian Stacey (pictured above) recently earned her master’s in social work from UW-Milwaukee while taking care of her two young children. She talked to us about the challenges of being a student parent and offered insights: “Revisit your ‘why’ and revisit it often. I had many times I wanted to give up, but I would look at my children and remember my ‘why,’ and it got me through.”

Ace Hilliard
Ace Hilliard

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, more than one in five college students—or 22 percent of undergraduates—are parents. Nearly a third of graduate students are parenting. Many of these student parents are women, single mothers, first-generation college students and students of color.

Student parents earn comparable or better grades than other groups of students, but they complete college at a lower rate. Let’s look at some barriers faced by student parents – and how institutions, such as the UW–Madison Office of Child Care and Family Resources, can support them.

Child care. Often the number one issue faced by student parents, child care can be unaffordable or not available in and around campus. On-campus child care centers or partnerships with child care providers to offer affordable and convenient services are essential to student parents. Emergency backup child care can help student parents get to classes, work and other school-related activities.

Stacey adds that parents should give themselves grace: “[Going to school] requires a lot of flexibility in the way you parent. Ideally, screen time would not have been a big thing in my house, but in order to get some work done, I had to use it as a tool. You have to let go of what is ideal and tap into the reality you have at the moment.”

Financial support. Although more than 50 percent of student parents are employed, two thirds of them live in or near poverty, as do nearly 9 in 10 single mother students. Schools and colleges could offer more financial aid to student parents. Subsidized or discounted child care services make a difference, as do emergency funds that student parents can access during challenging times.

Stacey said it’s important to talk to financial aid advisors: “I had excellent people to walk me through my options as a grad student who had child care bills on top of all my other expenses. Have them lay it all out on the table. Take the loans, or do what you have to do to lighten your load, and do it guilt-free.”

Belonging. Universities and colleges can facilitate belonging among student parents in a variety of ways. They can establish units that specifically serve this population, such as the Office of Child Care and Family Resources. Faculty can create flexible attendance policies, share resources and promote a culture of open communication.

Stacey suggested providing student parents with mental health support, adding, “Postpartum depression, anxiety, mom guilt and so many other things tied to parenting can be so hard to navigate.” She said she also benefited from peer communities: “I powered through many papers in my support networks’ homes while my children played their lives away in the other room.”

When passing the National Student Parent Month resolution, U.S. Senator Jerry Moran said, “Being a parent while juggling homework and classes requires tenacity and endurance.”

So true. If you are a parent going to college, we commend you!

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Ace Hilliard, an educational counselor, can be reached at A version of this article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on August 13, 2023.