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By the time she finished her sophomore year at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, Nicole Lynn Lewis had long stood out on the pristine 1,200-acre campus, juggling child care and part-time jobs while her classmates rushed for Greek life and partied at football games.

Nicole Lynn Lewis celebrated her graduation from the College of William & Mary in 2003 with her toddler daughter Nerissa in tow. Credit: Nancy Hannans

“As a young, Black, single mother halfway through a four-year degree, I was not just an anomaly at William & Mary: I was an anomaly everywhere,” she writes in Pregnant Girl: A Story of Teen Motherhood, College and Creating a Better Future for Young Families, published this month by Beacon Press.

One out of five U.S. college students is a parent, but you aren’t likely to meet them on traditional leafy campuses. In years of reporting on this hidden population, I’ve met student parents who are waitressing at Waffle House, working in warehouses or ringing up sales at Target, where Lewis worked during summer breaks.

In some cases, they were heading back to school for a second-chance career, usually at a community college, many years after dropping out. That’s because student parents are far more likely to attend community colleges or nonprofit programs than four-year schools, and they are also 10 times less likely to finish college within five years.

Students raising children borrow an average of $18,100 for college, compared with an average of $13,500 among all students, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found

“Pregnant Girl” provides a sobering reminder of obstacles that student parents face, but more importantly serves as a blueprint for supporting them – by expanding Pell grants, improving child care access, lowering costs and reforming federal financial aid. Lewis has pushed such supports for years as the CEO of Generation Hope, the nonprofit she started in 2010 to help young parents earn college degrees.

It’s not lost on Lewis that her book comes at a time when advocates for student parents are pinning their hopes on President Joe Biden’s more family friendly policy agenda, including free community college.

Related: Biden administration may help keep student parents in college

“This is our moment,” Lewis told me during an interview last week from her home in Maryland, recalling how difficult it was to get her book published and how often she was told that no one wanted to hear from or about teenage parents. With the exception of a few supportive faculty members and friends, Lewis often felt alone in college. During her four years at William & Mary, she never met a single student on campus who had a child.

“I was known on campus as the girl with the baby,” Lewis recalled during a webinar last week sponsored by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, describing her own struggles to get food stamps, campus housing, exam flexibility and affordable child care for her baby daughter Nerissa.

Taking a break from her studies, Nicole Lynn Lewis took her daughter Nerissa to a football game in college. Credit: Nancy Hannans

The pandemic has exposed the painful reality of student parenting that Lewis details in the book from her own experience: hunger, homelessness and a dire need for emergency supports when the money runs out.

Two other student parents participating in the webinar also described their triumphs and struggles, highlighting the need for more food pantries, affordable campus child care and employer flexibility.

Yoslin Amaya Hernandez, a mother of two who worked night shifts as a janitor while finishing her degree at the University of Maryland, called for culture changes around student parents.  “I would love to see that a pregnant woman walking on campus is not such a shocker,” she said. “When I first disclosed that I had a kid, people looked at me like I had three heads.”

“When I first disclosed that I had a kid, people looked at me like I had three heads.”

Yoslin Amaya Hernandez, student parent

Jesus Benitez said better communication about college costs and financial aid would keep more parents in school. He credited the support he got from CUNY Fatherhood Academy, a free program for underemployed fathers, where he is now a mentor. “It gave me a second chance without judging me,” Benitez said. “If it wasn’t for them, I would not be here, I would not have a bachelor’s degree.”

More specifically, Black students are more likely to hold student debt, while those raising children borrow an average of $18,100 for college, compared with an average of $13,500 among all students, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found.

If financial aid options and student loan counseling don’t improve, and if colleges don’t start doing a better job addressing the needs of student parents, they’re likely to continue seeing the enrollment drops of 10 percent or more that many community colleges  are now experiencing, Lewis said.

Related: Long before coronavirus, student parents struggled with hunger, homelessness

Yet big-ticket changes are unlikely to come swiftly; higher education is notoriously slow to change. During her time at William & Mary, Lewis was rarely able to use the four-story main library; she could not bring Nerissa, as there was no designated area for nursing mothers and no diaper changing station.

Nearly 20 years later, the library now has “a quiet, secure private place for nursing or pumping,” said Tami Back, the library’s director of communications. A few weeks ago, they added baby changing stations – just before Lewis returned to campus for a discussion of her book.

“Nicole may have been the impetus for making that happen,” Back said. “We realized this is something we could fix.”

And that, says Lewis, is how change can happen. “We are not going to have the economic recovery of the country if we don’t invest in and support parents,’’ she said.

This story about student parents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education journalist, has led the award-winning Hechinger Report staff as editor in chief since 2011. A sought-after moderator of education conferences and events, Willen also writes...

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  1. Even if we, society, won’t care about the student parent’s well-being, we should care about his/her child’s health.

    Sadly, due to the common OIIIMOBY mindset (Only If It’s In My Own Back Yard), the prevailing collective attitude, however implicit or subconscious, basically follows: ‘Why should I care — I’m soundly raising my kid?’ or ‘What’s in it for me, the taxpayer, if I support child development programs for the sake of others’ bad parenting?’

    Regardless of whether individually we’re doing a great job with our own developing children, we all have some degree of vested interest in every child receiving a psychologically sound start in life, considering that communally everyone is exposed (or at least potentially so) to every other parent’s handiwork. And this is from a purely self-serving perspective rather than humanitarian.

    I believe that the wellbeing of all children — and not just what other parents’ children might cost us as future criminals or costly cases of government care, etcetera — should be of great importance to us all, regardless of whether we’re doing a great job with our own developing children. After all, a psychologically and emotionally sound (as well as a physically healthy) future should be every child’s foremost right, especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter.

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