By Meghan Brink | December 9, 2021
College was a breeze for Jorden Steffler. He scored straight A’s, had an active social life, and planned to get his Ph.D. in physics. However, now in his 30s, earning his Bachelor’s has become a struggle. The problem: he is a parent college student.
“I either have to be a dad or a student or suck at both,” said Steffler. “I begrudge the system for being set up in a way where someone like me feels like they have to sacrifice other important things that I can't sacrifice.”
Steffler is not alone. Compared to traditional undergraduates, parents in college face a unique set of challenges that are exacerbated by the financial and physical demands of balancing school and children. Traditional four-year undergraduate universities, like the University at Albany, are not built to serve the needs of parent students.
On average, 44% of student parents have a full-time job, working a median of 29.5 hours a week. On top of this, parents spend on average 30 or more hours a week on child care duties. The time leftover is reserved for balancing class, homework assignments, studying, and of course, sleep.
Without access to adequate child care, financial resources, and academic and emotional support, attending school as a parent is a hardship that forces many to choose between elevating themselves through education or taking care of their children.
UAlbany’s Resources Not Built to Meet Parent’s Needs
Interview with Academic Support Center Associate Director Michael Geroux.
The University at Albany is focused on serving the typical 18 to 19-year-old, full-time student who has freshly graduated from high school. Therefore, resources such as academic support, scholarships, and degree tracks are designed to attract and cater to the needs of this population.
According to Associate Director of the Academic Support Center Michael Geroux, fitting school into a parent’s schedule is a puzzle that looks different for everybody. It largely depends on how quickly a degree needs to get completed, how many classes they can take, when classes are offered, whether they prefer online or in-person classes, what their financial needs are, and what their obligations at work and at home look like.
Geroux said that at the undergraduate level, parents are rare to come by at UAlbany. Federal regulations prevent the university from collecting data on the number of students who have children, however, a 2019 self-reported survey showed that 2.6% of undergraduate students reported having at least one child. This figure is significantly lower than the national average of 22%. Throughout Geroux’s nine years at UAlbany, has only ever advised nine parents.
“We do have students who are parents, don’t get me wrong. But we are a very traditional undergraduate student university. The majority of our students are the traditional undergrad who are coming right from high school and are going to be here for four years and attending full time,” said Geroux.
Steffler’s experiences with academic advisors affirmed this. “Every piece of advice I was given was tailored to being a [traditional] student,” he said. “My family situation would garner sympathy, but I didn’t come to school for sympathy, I came for an education.”
Attending school part-time is an option that offers more flexibility in scheduling for parents. Though, from a financial perspective, students attending part-time cannot take advantage of the same financial aid resources as full-time students. This includes financial aid from the Excelsior Scholarship and merit-based scholarships from the university. However, the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), federal grants, loans, and work-study programs do offer options for part-time students.
Despite struggling with his 13 credit course load, in order to afford school, Steffler said had to attend UAlbany full-time because if he converted to a part-time student, he would lose the merit scholarship from the university that enabled him to afford to pay tuition without having to take out a loan.
“It would be nice to be a part-time student but have the support financially that I have as a full-time student,” said Sheffler.
For some parents, online degree programs are more convenient. However, at the undergraduate level, UAlbany currently only offers one program, Informatics, as a completely online program. This differs at the graduate level, where UAlbany offers 33 partially or completely online degree programs. UAlbany’s student parent population is also higher at the Graduate level. A 2019 self-reported survey from a sample of 633 graduate students indicated having at least one child.
Catherine Tremblay is a fully remote, full-time graduate student in the Informations Systems program at UAlbany. On top of school, she is the mother of a toddler and works full-time at a library.
She stated that taking courses asynchronously online is the only way she would be able to work on her Master’s.
She takes asynchronous classes that allow her to complete her work where it fits into her schedule. She spends her weekdays at work and uses her nights to balance finding time to spend with her son and to complete homework assignments.
“The university is always looking for more ways to attract a more diverse student population and that includes adult learners,” said Geroux. “But before we do that, we need to put the resources in place and have the programming opinions, part-time, full-time, online, that would attract an adult learner.”
According to Geroux, because UAlbany offers limited online programs and financial aid options for part-time students, advisors will often suggest to parents that they should look into alternative options outside of UAlbany that might better serve their needs.
“I will talk to parents that maybe we should look at Excelsior College or SUNY Empire State College that are both online programs,” said Geroux. “I don’t want a student to start a semester at UAlbany and then realize that they can’t actually get the courses they need for their major because it is going to conflict with their work schedule.”
Child Care Access and Affordability
Child care is a resource that frees up time in a busy parent’s schedule to take on more work and education-related obligations. However, it is a luxury few can afford.
According to reporting from the Times Union, the New York State Child Care Availability Taskforce found that statewide, a year of child care for an infant costs around $15,394, double the average cost of attendance to a SUNY school. According to a 2021 report from the National Women’s Law Center, low-income working-class families contribute on average 35% of their income towards child care costs. This is particularly problematic for student parents, who an average of 88% live below the national poverty line.
The pandemic caused many child care centers to close their doors as a result of limited demand and increased costs from State and National COVID-19 protocol. The Times Union reported that since the pandemic, 25% of child care centers in New York have closed since March 2020, according to the NYS’s Office of Children and Family Services. This has further narrowed the options available to parents.
Nationally, the child care industry is experiencing an ongoing crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents are faced with rising enrollment costs, long waitlists, and limited availability with the increasing number of “child care deserts” across the nation. A child care desert is defined as a census tract with more than 50 children under five with either no availability of child care services or so few options that there is only one open slot for child care for every three children. They are most common in low-income, minority, and rural communities.
In New York State, 64 percent of people live in child care deserts, according to data provided by the Center for American Progress.
Additionally, despite the fact that many 2 and 4-year public universities offer child care centers on campus, the number is steadily declining. According to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, New York State is ranked third in the nation for access to child care options on the campuses of public universities, with 77% of the 43 SUNY and CUNY schools offering such services. UAlbany is one of the 18 SUNY institutions that does not offer on-campus child care.
State initiatives are currently working to address the current state of child care in New York. In August 2021, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announced that federal and state dollars would be allocated to expand childcare access to schools in the SUNY system and eliminate child care deserts across the state.
The amount of funding given to UAlbany for child care services is based on numbers are submitted to SUNY on an annual basis, according to SUNY spokesman Jackie Orchard. Based on the numbers submitted by UAlbany in 2021, it was found that there was an increased need for child care. Orchard said that the university should expect to receive more funding for the 2022 year, however, the amount is currently unclear.
Additionally, the federal government offers the Childcare Development Block grant. This program allocates money to institutions based on need to support child care costs for low-income students. According to Orchard, UAlbany only receives around $7,000 in funding through this program “because they historically haven’t reported serving many students that need child care.”
UAlbany’s Student Child Care Program
UAlbany opened the UKids daycare center on its Uptown campus in 1995. Day care services had been available previously at the Campus Children’s Center (CCC), which was located on the Harriman State Office Campus. UKids was added as a second day care center service within the CCC organization located on Dutch Quad after many students, staff, and faculty requested that these services be available to the Uptown campus, according to retired university Vice-President Shelia Mahan, who played an instrumental role in the formation of UKids.
The combined forces of funding from New York State and SUNY through an initiative to expand child care access on SUNY campuses and the space on Dutch Quad that UAlbany donated rent-free to CCC allowed UKids to offer discounted child care enrollment costs to students, faculty, and staff. The UKids center on Dutch Quad had space for 30-40 children, and according to Mahan, their services were in “high demand.”
In 2016, CCC and UKids combined with the Carol A Duigan Day Care center to form Capital Milestones Child Care (CMCC). The new center occupied a larger space on the Harriman Campus, where an old cafeteria was once located. According to university spokesman Jordan Carleo-Evangelist, prior space on Dutch Quad was needed to use for student dorms to accommodate a growing student population. Additionally, the open space on Dutch Quad allowed the university to open new resources, including the Student Health Services and Counseling & Psychological Services Center (CAPS).
“A consolidated site in the old cafeteria on Harriman was ideal because it was large enough to accommodate all three centers that were merging and was located directly next door to campus,” said Carleo-Evangelist.
CMCC has space for 152 children, all of which are currently full. According to Carleo-Evangelist, “there’s usually a long waitlist for Capitol Milestones applicants. Priority child care services are given to New York State employees, including UAlbany faculty, staff, and students.”
The service fees at CMCC are based on the age of a child with different prices for infants, toddlers, and preschool-aged children, charged weekly. UAlbany students are offered a discount of around 12-15% of the price charged to the general community. For example, a month of care for an infant would cost $1,200, but for UAlbany students, it would cost $1,056.
CMCC’s prices, even when discounted, are around $550 over the average national monthly $490 for child care services.
When Sheffler learned about the UKids program when he was applying to UAlbany, he was hoping he could use part of his financial aid package from the university to cover the costs.
“I kinda figured it was something I could make part of my tuition,” he said. “Day care was going to cost $10,000 a year, I wish I had that kind of money to toss at that but it is just not reasonable.”
With child care out of the picture, Sheffler had to unenroll and wait until his children were old enough to attend school before thinking about starting school again.
“I applied to SUNY Albany 3 years ago, and when I found out how expensive daycare was going to be I retracted my application and waited until they were going to school because that was going to be the only feasible way to make it work,” he said.
Lily Polczak, the mother of a toddler and a 19-year-old criminal justice major, said that CMCC child care was expensive and that it would not work with her class schedule.
“They close at 5. That won’t work for my afternoon classes,” she said. “It is also really expensive, even with the discounts it is as expensive as a normal day care.”
The Balancing Act
As an alternative to child care, many parent students rely on partners, spouses, family members, and themselves to provide care for their children while away at work, in class, or doing homework.
Cindy Sparks was attending UAlbany part-time during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when classes were being conducted fully remotely. While completing online lectures and homework, her two children, one kindergarten and the other a junior in high school, were all trying to adapt to online learning at the same time. She had to share a laptop with her youngest son, and help her oldest son, who is disabled, with his classes.
“It was a lot of back and forth,” said Sparks. “Trying to listen to a lecture with headphones on and pay attention to your kids and meet their needs, chaotic and overwhelmed is the least I could say, and that was every day.”
Sheffler said that his wife is “critical” to his ability to complete schoolwork, however, he finds it difficult to overburden her with the responsibility of caring for his twin boys.
“She is working 40 hours a week, when she gets home, it would be ideal for her to have time to focus,” he said. “She comes home and she immediately starts parent duty, and I go from school to parent duty, and we both feel like we can barely keep up with the parent side. We are both giving 110%, but it isn’t super sustainable.”
The balancing act for Sheffler means bouncing from class, to parenting, to homework until the late hours of 1 a.m. It is juggling completing homework whilst his children beg for his attention. It is barely sleeping, and failing classes, despite hours of work put into attempting to understand the material.
“I feel like I am either doing homework and not paying attention to them or paying attention to them and then doing homework late into the night and I am not giving it the love it needs,” said Sheffler.
A Hidden Population
Multiple parents told the ASP that they often feel alienated from the campus community. Most clubs and organizations at UAlbany meet at night, where homework and parenting obligations prevent student parents from being able to return to campus to participate.
Additionally, because the majority of the student population at the undergraduate level fall into the ‘typical’ undergraduate age range of 18-24, student parents, whose median age, according to National University, is between 30 and 34 years old, find it hard to connect with the students in their classes.
“At the undergrad level, it is hard to seek out other students who are parents. If you are a parent, you are in a class with maybe another 200 students. You don’t know for certain, but you might be the only parent student in that class,” said Geroux.
Polczak, who is 19-years-old, said that making friends with her peers on campus has been a struggle. “A lot of people will get to know me and after they find out I have a kid they will just ghost me basically,” she said.
Steffler said that a student organization where ‘non-traditional’ students, like student parents, could meet and share advice and experiences would have been helpful to guiding him through pursuing education again as a parent.
“I do feel completely by myself,” he said. “I think I would have been a better student if I could talk to someone who has been through this.”
Currently, UAlbany does not offer any clubs or organizations for student parents, however, Geroux said that this is likely the result of a lack of demand from the small student parent population at the undergraduate level at UAlbany, and the fact that parents would likely not have to time to form such organization.
“I would love to say at some point here at UAlbany, if a student says ‘I am a parent’ I can say here is the club or the organization you are going to reach out to because it is all people who are parents as well,” said Geroux.
Due to the combined forces of hardship, finances, and life circumstances, a 2019 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that student parents are more likely to drop out, with 52% leaving without earning a degree compared to 32% of students without children.
Sheffer has found attending UAlbany full-time and taking in-person classes too much to handle. He decided to withdraw from “a majority” of his classes after scoring failing grades. Despite his workload decreasing, he said that he is still struggling.
“To fail at something you have always been good at makes you question what are you doing,” he said. “I am struggling emotionally to the point where it is interfering with my life.”
He is considering abandoning his dream to get a degree in Physics, and pursuing a degree outside of STEM that might require fewer in-person courses and have a lower workload.
“I have to reassess how I am going about school. I love physics, but the reality might be that it might not be meant for me anymore,” he said. “I either have to be a dad or a student or suck at both,” said Steffler. “I begrudge the system for being set up in a way where someone like me feels like they have to sacrifice other important things that I can't sacrifice.”