Spotlight Exclusives

Black Fathers Attending College Need More Support

Ali Caccavella Ali Caccavella, posted on

Millions of college students—close to a quarter of the total nationwide—are also parents. But research continues to show that those students, particularly those students of color, too often don’t get the support they need to successfully complete their education. A new study by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University zeroes in on the specific challenges faced by Black fathers in college, a situation that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Hope Center Senior Learning Specialist Ali Caccavella, one of the authors of a recently released report on the study, spoke to Spotlight about its findings and recommendations. The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why don’t we start with some background on the study?

The study was actually a spinoff analysis from a larger data set based on the RealCollege Survey, which is the primary survey tool that the Hope Center has built and evolved to assess student basic needs. It’s a survey of students’ lived experience and their own reporting on various basic needs while enrolled. Close to 540 institutions across the country have taken part and we now have over half a million student responses. It’s the largest of its kind.

This particular survey was fielded in the fall of 2020, so we refer to this as the ongoing pandemic. There was a lot of reporting from this very rich data set of student information, including an intentional lens and focus on students who were parenting. There were nearly 200,000 students overall in the data set and over 32,000 identified as parenting, which means providing primary care to a child, biological or otherwise. We had another brief analysis specifically on the use of federal emergency aid grants that were intended for students. We wanted to do a deep dive and really understand how that played out for parenting students experiencing basic needs insecurity during the ongoing pandemic.

This specific report on student parents was on racial disparities. There is a dearth of data at the student level that disaggregates by race, ethnic and gender identities. So, we wanted to do that, to offer that analysis and lens into the landscape. We have a number of stakeholders and funders interested in advancing more specific attention to parenting students, recognizing that they are nearly a quarter of all college students nationwide, and the majority are students of color. Many of today’s college students are parenting, but they’re not being seen, and they’re not being acknowledged.

Has the number of parenting college students grown steadily over time?

It’s really difficult to nail down data on that because institutions typically don’t ask or identify student parents.  Part of the larger trend that the #RealCollege movement endeavors to elevate to higher ed stakeholders is that the traditional narrative of who today’s college students are is outdated. A growing number are older adults returning to postsecondary to upskill for the changing labor market, not directly from high school. Very few live on campus and many are parenting. And there’s also an entire set of students who also are taking care of family that are not children.

What were your major takeaways?

Overall, we found that parenting students suffer from basic needs insecurity at about 10 percentage points more than non-parenting students: we’re seeing a crisis of basic needs insecurity for college-enrolled parents. When we start to put a lens towards disaggregated identities by race and ethnicity, we see that Asian, Black and Latinx parents are suffering incredibly high basic needs insecurity. This has ripple effects because when we’re talking about parents, we’re also talking about children. We saw particularly that food insecurity for parents were very much experienced by their children and that is obviously incredibly important to address and heartbreaking to see.

We also saw that nearly all single Black and Latinx students with young children endure basic needs insecurity to the measure of nearly 90%—so almost all. In particular, we found that Black fathers are struggling mightily without a lot of access to supports. Where parenting students are acknowledged in the landscape, which is still not nearly enough, there tends to be a focus on mothers. And that makes sense, because nearly 70% of parenting students are mothers. But for that remaining 30%—over a million parenting fathers—Black fathers are struggling. We found that 1 in 4 reported being homeless in the last 12 months and are accessing support at about half the rate of their parenting mother counterparts.

And why do you think that Black fathers are struggling more?

One of our primary policy recommendations is that we need to be bringing parenting students to the table. There are many compounding socio-economic factors that converge within higher education access, affordability and completion. We are very much still reeling from state divestment in higher education, lagging investments in public institutions, community colleges, and minority serving institutions. People of color, especially Black Americans and Black males are continually enduring a context of racial trauma. There are a hundred reasons that we could surmise why this is happening, but I think the best thing for us to do is to talk to parenting students, and Black fathers in particular, and bring them to the table and get their insights on how we can change and better position programs that are systemically flawed. Being an enrolled college student renders one ineligible for many public benefits programs and there are competing financial aid eligibility requirements that a parenting student needs to navigate.

There is also stigma associated with accepting support. And I don’t think there’s a lot of trust in the system. HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) are continuing to receive coordinated, widespread bomb threats, and we have a significant portion of our national constituency that thinks critical race theory is propaganda as opposed to history. So that’s the context that we need to be mindful of and we need to center and acknowledge parenting students, including their intersectional identities, as they are the promise of what we hope our higher education system can be.

Do you have a sense of the impact of some of the pandemic relief programs, such as the expanded Child Tax Credit, that use unrestricted cash benefits on this specific population?

Absolutely, that’s a big piece for Hope, and we’re advocating that Congress make these programs permanent and increase them for parenting students. Some of our research found that parenting students were more likely to actually reach out and ask for emergency grant funding but were not more likely to receive it.  We think that’s related to the lack of institutional knowledge about who their students are—child care costs can be even higher than tuition and fees for many institutions, even the most accessible community, public institutions. Since parenting students are typically not recognized, those costs are not recognized and are not calculated as part of their cost of attendance.

Sadly, the expanded Child Tax Credit emergency extension has lapsed. This was wildly successful in its short term to drastically reduce child poverty and basic needs insecurity. Like emergency grants for parenting students, this desperately needed financial support goes to meeting basic needs such as food, childcare and housing costs like rent and utilities.

Child care has to be a gigantic issue that’s been made even worse by the pandemic

Exactly. And also, this report showed the way that Black fathers in particular, unsurprisingly, experienced the economic impacts of reduced hours and loss of jobs. Higher ed is a pay to play model after a k-12 public education system that is largely inequitable and underfunded in communities of color; access is leveraged by the ability to pay, and so all the intersecting social and economic factors that lead to the ability to pay come into play in being able to afford college and persist to degree completion.


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