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3 things teen parents need campus leaders to know

November 29, 2018

Student-parents already have an uphill battle to graduation. But if you have a child before you turn 20, it can feel like the end of your education. At least 29% of teen mothers attempts one year’s worth of college credits, but only 2% will have earned a college degree by the time they’re 30.

When Nicole Lynn Lewis became pregnant during her senior year of high school, she worried her dreams of going to college were over. On top of the pregnancy, Lewis struggled with homelessness and had to juggle senior year classes with doctor’s appointments.

“I had people telling me that I was going to be a failure, that I wasn’t going to go to college,” says Lewis.

Despite the steep odds against her, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the College of William & Mary and a master’s degree from George Mason University.

She also founded Generation Hope, a non-profit organization nationally recognized for its sole focus on helping teen parents graduate college. Generation Hope supports young parents’ transition to college and their success through with tuition assistance, mentoring, and case management services

For Lewis and the teen parents she mentors, having a child didn’t close the door on college—it ignited the fire that motivated them to pursue a degree.

To shed more light onto the barriers student-parents face, EAB hosted a panel of Generation Hope Scholars at our recent student success summit, CONNECTED18, in October.

1. They need advisors who appreciate their experiences, not pigeonhole them

The panelists shared that they worry revealing their status as a student-parent to professors and administrators may change how they’re treated. It can be particularly difficult for student-parents to broach the subject with advisors—especially if they’ve had poor experiences with them in the past.

Panelist Karen Escobar told the audience one story that made them groan: After Escobar’s advisor learned she was a parent, the advisor suggested Escobar rethink her major and select an easier program. “It can make you feel self-conscious… I’m not going to feel confident to tell them what I need,” she explains.

But advisors, faculty, and administrators can make spaces on campus more welcoming to student-parents with little touches. When Escobar noticed small toys around another advisor’s office, she felt comfortable sharing her experience as a student-parent and bringing her child into advising appointments.

Advisors may also assume that student-parents are only on campus for vocational training, not a liberal arts education. But for Carla Rocha, who is pursuing a social justice career, a humanities education is just as valid as vocational training.

“Sometimes I’m discouraged from my program of study, especially with the financial pressure to provide as a head of household,” she says. “But I also want to go to college to fulfill a need for myself. [Financial pressure] shouldn’t deter me from pursuing my degree in what I’m passionate about.”

Rocha also hopes her approach to college will set a positive example for her son. “I really want him to have a passion to learn and grow.”

2. They need the opportunity to recover from setbacks

Each of the panelists had a semester where their grades fell, and they lost their eligibility for financial aid. For many students, these kinds of setbacks can lead them to stop out.

But now all three scholars are performing at the top of their academic ability, earning close to a 4.0 GPA. They were able to persist because they had people on campus who problem-solved on their behalf and gave them an opportunity to come back from a setback.

Rocha, for example, explained how she failed two classes because she “felt overwhelmed with [her] newborn and [her] housing/living situation was unstable.” But her pathways counselor at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) helped her bounce back.

“When I lost my Pell grant, [my counselor] helped me write an appeal to financial aid and NOVA to explain my situation,” says Rocha. “It worked! They gave me another opportunity.”

Similarly, Escobar was able to overcome academic probation and financial aid suspension with the help of her campus’s tutoring center. “NOVA peer tutoring center became my home last semester,” Escobar says, “The biggest thing is asking for help and knowing you can come back from it.”

3. They want to feel part of the campus community

“Student-parents can really be an invisible population on campus, especially at a four-year college,” says Lewis. Consider whether your campus is “recognizing [student-parents] in your policies and your practices,” she urges.

Student-parents are often overlooked by the campus community, says panelist Joseph Yusuf. “I had a hard time finding on-campus activities. Even if they’re after hours, they’re not too welcoming to young parents… [and] haven’t been flexible,” says Yusuf. Event organizers can make it easier for student-parents to get involved on campus by labeling events as kid-friendly and scheduling events to accommodate different work schedules, he recommends.

Yusuf also called on administrators to promote the stories of student-parents—both moms and dads—in their recruitment materials and around campus. When potential applicants see that you recognize and support your student-parents, “they’ll feel like you get it,” he says.

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