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Student parents lacking support

Justine Parris keeps a mental list of scholarships for which she qualifies.

She tells herself she’ll fill out the applications — that she needs to so she can limit how much more her student debt of $32,000 grows — but she can’t find the time.

As a junior psychology major and a single mom of a two-year-old, every second in Parris’ day is dedicated to spending time with her son, doing homework or finding ways to stretch her limited means.

“It’s exhausting,” she said. “It’s madness.”

Parris is not alone, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In its “Digest of Education Statistics” report, the center estimates that at least 28 percent of undergraduate students have at least one child.

Student parents have become common on college campuses across the nation lately, but it seems UNM has not adjusted for this trend.

There are some resources available to student parents on campus, such as nursing stations for breastfeeding mothers, but they are few and difficult to find, said Summer Little, director of the UNM Women’s Resource Center.

“There may be different supports in different places; what there isn’t is a cohesive program or set of things for students who are parents,” she said. “I don’t think it’s coordinated and I don’t think it’s enough.”

Student parents are becoming the new normal on college campuses, and more attention should be given to the needs of this overlooked group, she said, and the best solution would be a student parent program or resource center to help students with their very real and time-consuming issues.

Student parent resource centers have been popping up on campuses around the country in the last few years. Several colleges, like the University of Michigan, Portland State University, University of California-Santa Barbara, University of Minnesota and Washington State University boast on their websites that they offer integrated services to help students with children manage their academic and family lives through advocacy, workshops and other parent-focused services.

No institution of higher education in New Mexico offers a resource aimed at helping student parents.

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Mike Smith, a graduate student in creative writing and single dad, said he averages about two hours of sleep each night, and divides the other 22 hours among his schoolwork, his job and his four children.

“I’ve had just ridiculous writing hours for almost a decade now,” he said. “It’s like, ‘OK, it’s 10 at night, the kids are asleep, I’m completely spent and have no ability to move. I guess I’ll sit down and write until four a.m. because half this stuff is due tomorrow.’”

For seven years Smith has accumulated a mountain of student loan debt. He will finally graduate at the end of the spring semester, but he wishes UNM had offered more support for student parents.

“I’d just like to worry about all this stuff less,” he said. “Any programs that can be put in place to make that happen would be awesome.”

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington D.C., student single parents often face the greatest financial needs, but there are few options beyond the Pell grants and student loans to meet them.

Single parent students have an annual unmet need of $5,500 beyond what student aid offers, according to the institute’s website. The average loan debt for single parents in 2008 was $29,000 and $24,000 for married student parents, according to the site.

For students like Smith, financial aid simply may not be offered at all.

Smith said he sees his children, ages two to eight, every day, but because their mother receives state benefits for them, he does not qualify as a parent in the eyes of the federal government.

“I have never been able to get financial aid to acknowledge that I have children. They’d give me paperwork to fill out and they either lose it or tell me it was the wrong stuff,” he said. “I get the same financial aid as someone with no kids.”

Parris said her son’s father is exempt from paying child support because he is disabled and receives social security benefits, but that she does qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid and daycare assistance through the state.

These things, she said, are the linchpin holding everything together.

“I couldn’t go to school, I couldn’t pay my bills without that help,” she said.

This help comes at a high cost to her time, however. At the end of every semester Parris must go to the Human Services Department of New Mexico to renew her SNAP, TANF and Medicaid benefits, and then go to the Children, Youth and Families Department to renew her daycare assistance. It takes a total of eight hours, she said.

Married students with children have a tough time financially, as well.

Andy Lyman, a senior journalism major, is a full-time student with a 3-year-old and a 13-month-old. He said his wife’s income puts them above the federal poverty line for a family of four, but without his added income as a student reporter at KUNM and his student loans, his family’s life would be different.

“I think probably we wouldn’t be living the lifestyle we have now without the student loans. We would have to adjust our housing situation,” he said. “I don’t think our kids would be in the daycare they’re in without them.”

He said that those student loans are the only support he gets from UNM, and that occasional leniency from teachers is the only assistance he gets as a student parent.

“There’s not really any support as far as being what they call a ‘non-traditional student,’” he said.

Mikki Browne said she began attending Central New Mexico Community College in 2009 and hoped to transfer into UNM’s journalism program.

During her first semester, she said, she attended classes three days a week, worked two days at a local clothing store, raised her two special-needs children, and did all of it with the help of Albuquerque’s bus system.

“I didn’t have time,” she said. “I was living on coffee and getting two to three hours of sleep a night, if I was lucky.”

She said she received SNAP and TANF benefits, but did not qualify for daycare assistance because she was not receiving child support from her children’s father.

According to CYFD’s parent guidelines, single parents must show proof of child support payments, proof of an open case with New Mexico’s Child Support Enforcement Division or proof that the absent parent was allowed by a judge to not pay child support.

After her first semester at CNM, Browne said, the unreliable schedule of the bus system and lack of stable child care for her children made it impossible to continue school.

“My teachers were very supportive, but they had a protocol to follow,” she said. “I almost never got my homework done on time.”

Two years later, she tried again at the for-profit Carrington College, hoping that its shorter semesters might make it easier for her to earn a degree, she said. After the first semester, Browne said, she had to drop out for the same reasons.

She said a transportation system dedicated to students would have allowed her to have a more flexible class schedule that would have made childcare easier, but because she was unable to get to evening classes she often found it hard to find a sitter for her children.

Now, she said, she’s in default on $25,000 worth of student loans and cannot continue her educational goals until she can pay for college out of pocket.

As an institution, UNM offers two things to students with children: a campus day care and family housing.

According to its website, the UNM Children’s Campus offers daycare services to students on a sliding scale, but has a wait list of two years.

UNM Student Family Housing offers 200 apartments with one, two or three bedrooms that range from $634 to $844 per month. These units are on a waiting list and usually become available near the beginning of each semester, according to the website.

Back at the Women’s Resource Center, Little said the current structure geared toward students who are young and single needs to change to better fit the changing student body.

She said she hopes to have better supports created for student parents within the next two years.

“This is an area that has to be attended to — has to be,” she said. “If we’re talking about student success, and we want to increase our graduation rates and we want to increase our retention and make sure all of our population has access to higher education, we have to fill in this gap. We’ve got to figure it out.”

Those supports won’t arrive before Parris graduates with her bachelor’s degree, but she said she hopes there are more opportunities when she is ready to attend graduate school. Until then, she said she will continue to make it work, because she believes her education is not just important to her, but to her son as well.

“I want to do it so I can better my life and give my son a better future,” she said. “I want to show my son you can do anything when you put your mind to it,”


Peer institutions/sprc

University of Arizona – NO

University of Arkansas – NO

University of Colorado Boulder – NO

University of Iowa – YES

University of Kansas – NO

University of Kentucky – NO

University of Missouri-Columbia – NO

University of Nebraska-Lincoln – NO

University of Oklahoma-Norman – NO

University of Oregon – NO

University of South Carolina-Columbia – NO

University of Tennessee – NO

University of Texas at Austin – NO

University of Utah – NO

University of Virginia – YES

University of Washington – YES

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