While The Faculty Parent most often centers the working lives of faculty parents and caregivers, this month’s blog entry, written by Catherine Clepper (P3 Collaboratory), imagines ways that faculty-, staff-, and student-parents might work together to increase both the visibility and support structures for Rutgers affiliated families, as well as what a more family-friendly version of Rutgers – Newark’s campus might look like.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, more than one in five college students — 22 percent of all undergraduates — are parents. Available data suggests that caring for children while pursuing an undergraduate degree both enhances and strains the resources of student parents. (Shout out to last month’s post by Dr. Amano for that language!) Many student parents cite their children as tangible reminders of why they pursue degrees and persist in their coursework, an explanation often given for why student-parents tend to have higher GPAs than their nonparent peers. But while the motivational benefits of parenthood may be evenly shared across groups, parenting students individually face uneven structural barriers to degree completion, especially single parents, and Latinx, Indigenous, and Black parents. Those demographic groups are amongst the least likely to hold a college degree, underscoring the fact that, despite a desire to earn a college education, many parents face institutional and logistical obstacles that can derail their educational goals. A sobering statistic from a recent study: one in five adults ages 25 to 64 holds some college credit but no degree — more than a third of whom (35 percent) are parents of at least one child under age 18 living in their household. More than two in five have children under the age of six. Simply put, student-parents are more likely to leave college without a degree in hand, and the younger their children are, the more challenging it is for student-parents to matriculate.
These numbers resonate with me for several reasons. I became a parent in graduate school — a different beast, I know — and the earth shattering changes brought by the arrival of my daughter impacted my degree progress in both positive and negative ways. Suddenly, and despite being awarded family leave for several months after delivery, I had a fraction of the time to research and write my dissertation than I had before parenthood. I look back on that time and (now) laugh at how high my ambitions were for maternity leave, how I naïvely saw it as months of “free time” and imagined the baby napping without interruption while I wrote chapter after chapter on the sofa, content in my mastery over both “work” and “life” domains. Well, there’s nothing like an infant, especially one who does NOT sleep 8-9 hours during the day as promised, to show you how false the work-life binary is. Turns out, caring for another human being IS work, and intellectually intensive work is only possible when life cooperates. Needless to say, I did not complete my dissertation before my daughter’s first birthday. With the help of an incredibly supportive partner, however, I did carve out new work habits and adopted a sacrosanct policy towards writing time that continues to benefit my professional life today.
Becoming a parent helped me develop new kinds of personal/professional rigor and provided necessary direction to several projects that had previously felt unmoored. The trade-off was that I was no longer free to organize my days or inhabit the world as I had prior to having a child. I came to campus less often and for shorter periods of time. I made fewer friends and potential collaborators at school since my new schedule didn’t allow for casual hanging out. On days when daycare was unexpectedly closed, I lost hours, days, weeks, of planned work. And after a couple of botched attempts to bring my infant, then toddler, to work with me (“She’ll just nap in the corner, right?”), I realized there was no place on campus that suited us both.
My experience of being a student-parent (which also coincided with being an adjunct-faculty-parent) is just one data point in a sea of lived examples, but it was enough to convince me that there must be better ways of arranging campus life to serve the needs of caregivers. And here’s the kicker: Rearranging the campus experience to account for family obligations is in everyone’s best interests. Here are just a few reasons why:
Student-parents are vital contributors to both our collective knowledge and our society. When we support their postsecondary educational efforts we increase the diversity of our campus both demographically and intellectually.
Without doing better by student-parents, we simply cannot meet our state or local goals for educational attainment, nor our national goals for growing/sustaining a competitive labor force. As of 2020, 45 states have expressed a commitment to ensuring that 60+ percent of their resident workforce will hold a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025. (New Jersey’s goal is actually 65%.) In collaboration with the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, Rutgers-Newark has additional expressed its commitment to ensuring that 25% of Newark residents hold a degree or credential beyond high school by the same year (2025). Without enlisting and retaining student-parents in this effort, we will inevitably fall short of our goals.
Student-parent, faculty-parent, and staff-parent struggles are aligned. Developing services and policies that serve student-parents cultivates a supportive learning environment. Developing services and policies that serve faculty- and staff-parents cultivate a supportive work environment. When we all feel supported, new opportunities for collaboration and communication emerge and we are collectively freer to thrive.
So, what would it look like to create a family-friendly campus at Rutgers-Newark? My current wishlist is by no means exhaustive, and previous entries have already documented some ways of improving campus benefits and infrastructure around childcare (ALWAYS the biggest elephant in the hyphenate-parent room), but here are a few key ideas:
Drop-in, On-demand, On-campus Care
The importance of childcare to doing meaningful work cannot be overstated. Ideally, our campus would bridge the existing gaps in the childcare infrastructure that most affect our campus community by providing direct care options for school-age kids while a student-, staff-, or faculty-parent takes or teaches a class. Want to think even BIGGER? How about care that is available in the evenings (when many student-parents take courses) and on the weekends and with rates on a sliding scale?
Help for the Holidays
RU-N’s academic holiday calendar frequently does not match up with those of area K-12 schools, like Essex County’s, and snow days for either system can throw everyone for a loop. Let's better coordinate our university calendar with those of our local school districts and encourage (and make available) flexible teaching and class attendance policies that recognize that school closures can derail both faculty-parent / student-parent participation and engagement.
Who Can I Ask About...?
Parents are always in desperate need of information. A Newark-based work-life office or dedicated HR/Student Affairs point-person for caregivers would be an invaluable aid to the RU-N community. Such a person could, for example, help student-parents brainstorm part-time vs full-time course loads and enrollment options, unpack family leave and tenure track-pause options for faculty-parents, and offer overarching knowledge of the caregiving resources and benefits available at Rutgers-Newark and in the region. Third-party service representatives often lack the deep institutional and local knowledge required to help families make informed decisions at critical junctures.
Where Can I Pump...?
An easy-to-access list and map of Rutgers-Newark lactation rooms for community use...and easy access to those lactation rooms, of course! (We can borrow the model used at Rutgers New-Brunswick.)
A Slide and a Swing Set
A campus playground or indoor play space would function as a clear welcome sign to children on campus and give them a designated place to burn off some energy.
A Seat at the Table
Ensure student-faculty and staff-parent representation in campus governance.
Rated ‘E’ for Everyone
More university events (talks, public screenings, exhibits) earmarked as appropriate for or aimed at campus families.
As we head into winter break, a time of reflection and (hopefully) restoration, I encourage us all to think about what it would take to unambiguously establish Rutgers as a place that joyously welcomes families of all stages and stripes. Doing so not only invites a reconceptualization of who higher education serves (and for what purpose), but pushes our collective imagination towards a more inclusive future.
Catherine Clepper, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the P3 Collaboratory where she delivers professional development trainings, teaches courses for graduate students, and keeps a close watch on all things "higher ed."
Are you a student-parent or caregiver who would like to share your experiences, connect with other RU-N student-parents, or assist with efforts to make our campus more family-friendly? If so, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cited Resources and Further Reading:
Crawford, Kerry & Leah C. Windsor. The PhD Parenthood Trap: Caught Between Work and Family in Academia. Georgetown University Press: 2021.
“Design Insights: Single Moms Success Design Challenge.” Education Design Lab, Nov 29, 2021 Report.
Ember, Sydney. “What if It Never Gets Easier to Be a Working Parent?” New York Times (Oct 30, 2021).
Flaherty, Colleen. “The Campus Kiddie Ban” Inside Higher Ed (Oct 12, 2021).
Hensly, Catherine, Chaunté White & Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, “Re-Engaging Student Parents to Achieve Attainment and Equity Goals: A Case for Investment in More Accessible Postsecondary Pathways.” IWPR, 2021 Report.
Lewis, Nicole Lynn. “How Colleges Tell Student-Parents They Don’t Belong,” The Atlantic (May 2021).
Peterson, Sally. “Community College Student-Parents: Priorities for Persistence.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 40.5 (2016).
Ryberg, Renee, Rachel Rosenberg, Jessica Warren. “Higher Education Can Support Parenting Students and Their Children with Accessible, Equitable Services” Child Trends, 2021 Report.
Springer, Kristen, Brenda Parker & Catherine Leviten-Reid. “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics,” Journal of Family Issues 30.4 (2009).
Ward, James Dean, Jesse Margolis, Benjamin Weintraut, and Elizabeth Davidson Pisacreta, “Raising the Bar: What States Need to Do to Hit Their Ambitious Higher Education Attainment Goals.” Ithaka S+R, 2020 Report.
Weissman, Sara “Reimagining Support to Help Single Moms,” Inside Higher Ed (Nov 29, 2021).
Weissman, Sara. “Studying While Parenting,” Inside Higher Ed (May 27, 2021).