The 8 Ways Colleges Can Reduce Parent Student Stress

Despite their desire to earn degrees, many face obstacles in reaching their goals, say Ascend researchers from the Aspen Institute and the Jed Foundation.


“Student parents are superheroes who go above and beyond to complete their degree and improve the lives of their families. They shouldn’t have to be superhuman to graduate ”, – Anne Mosle, vice-president of the Aspen Institute and founder and CEO of Ascend at the Aspen Institute

But often they have to be, according to the results of a new report by the Go up to the Aspen Institute and The Jed Foundation it shows that they face extreme stress when trying to handle so many roles in their lives, including being a college or university student.

There are more than four million parents who are enrolled in higher education, and 40% face pressures that not only affect their performance in class but also their mental health. More than a third say they have thought about dropping out of school in the past month.

“Higher education institutions need to do more to support the mental health of their students, especially the growing student population raising children or caring for other family members,” Mosle said. “Student parents have been neglected for too long.”

Researchers from Ascend and JED noted that “financial stress and feelings of isolation on campus” presented barriers to student development on campus. Many of those with problems believe they have few places to turn, citing the affordable costs of mental health care and knowledge of what services might be available in their facilities.

One of the critical conclusions of the collaborative report Improving the mental health of student parents: a framework for higher education – made from Aspen and JED’s own research and data from nearly 50,000 students included in several national surveys from the Healthy Minds Network, American College Health Association and Hope Center – was that 66% felt their institutions did not support student parents.

Despite all these challenges, they remain deeply committed to getting an education. Older adults who have children and are seeking academic paths are more stubborn to persist and finish than those who, researchers say, are not driven by “a greater sense of purpose.”

How Colleges Can Help

The Ascend-JED study highlights the stress parents of students have faced over the past year compared to their peers who do not have children:

  • Twice as many student parents unable to pay rent or mortgage as their peers
  • More than twice as many parents of students did not fully pay for utilities
  • More student parents (46%) borrowed money than their counterparts (35%)
  • Three times as many parents of students face collections for unpaid bills

And yet, the stress didn’t turn into negativity. More parents of students feel collectively purposeful in their lives, and far fewer (almost half as many) have turned to substances for coping than those who do not have children. But it was not without challenges. Less than 6% said the transition to college was very easy, while 20% said they found it difficult to balance their academic work.

The goal of any institution, say leaders of both organizations, is to provide a more welcoming and supportive environment for student parents to thrive.

“The new findings from our original research on student parenting are informing the way forward for higher education institutions looking to better support these students,” said Sara Gorman, director of research and knowledge dissemination for JED. “These students endure incredible hardships, but also demonstrate incredible resilience and rely on their educational institutions to support them in their quest for a better life for themselves and their children.

Ascend and JED have both worked with parents and higher education officials to create a structure for colleges and universities to support mental health and lead student parents. They proposed these eight global strategies:

  1. “Train counselors and other mental health care providers on campus on the unique stressors this population faces and more specifically on trauma-informed care. Train faculty and staff to be sensitive to the unique stressors facing student parents in order to enable a culture change in which student parents are fully included in faculty and staff decisions and policies.
  2. Create spaces on campus that meet the specific needs of parents of students and help foster a sense of belonging among these students. This includes encouraging the creation of spaces and activities for children at all school events.
  3. Facilitation of affinity groups and mentoring programs for older and younger parent students.
  4. Forge policies that allow flexibility for student parents in the classroom.
  5. Track student-parent data – from mental health to their use of campus services, and feelings of connectedness and belonging on campus – to determine how best to support these students.
  6. Create targeted plans to help meet the basic needs of student parents.
  7. Identify strategies to ensure parents have reliable access to child care services, including on-campus child care options.
  8. Make parent students feel more “visible” by representing them on campus materials and creating personalized orientation materials. “

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About Rachel Gooch

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