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While his wife was in labor in the hospital with their third child, Joshua Castillo was in the waiting room completing a computer science final and two quizzes.

By then he was accustomed to juggling the demands of fatherhood with the unyielding deadlines and expectations of college, where he is studying computer science while working full time and helping raise his kids — a responsibility for which he said he doesn’t get much sympathy from faculty.

“Most professors that I’ve come across are really in the mind-set of, this is your full-time job, this is all you have to worry about right now.”

Castillo is one of about 3.8 million students raising children while in college. More than two-thirds of those students — about 70 percent — are women, according to Education Department data analyzed by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. But about 1.1 million are fathers, who are often overlooked and face even longer odds of graduating.

Jesus Benitez and his son, Mason, cross the street on the way to a park. Like many student fathers, Benitez worked full time while he went to college. Unlike many of them, he managed to stay in school and finish. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

“If student parents are an invisible population, student dads are ghosts,” said Autumn Green, who researches student parents at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

Sixty-one percent of student fathers drop out of college without degrees, compared to 48 percent of student mothers, the women’s policy research institute finds. Among single, Black and Latino fathers, the dropout rate is about 70 percent.

There’s been little attention paid to the dismal graduation rates of student fathers — despite alarm bells over the huge decline in the number of men overall who are attending and graduating from college.

Enrollment has dropped nearly twice as much for men as for women since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and women now outnumber men in higher education by 59 to 41 percent.

“Further research needs to be done for us to be able to pinpoint why” so many men with children drop out, said Chaunté White, senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Castillo had his first child when he was 16. It’s been a rough go since then.

After changing high schools, getting expelled and dropping out, he earned a GED diploma. He took a few college courses, planning to join the military, but then decided that he might as well enroll full time in the hope of getting a job in cybersecurity. He was behind his classmates, and taking care of his sons sometimes got in the way of his studies. His mother, who had helped with child care, died last year.

He’s gotten assistance in the form of grants, tutoring and counseling from a nonprofit called Generation Hope that supports student parents and which he calls a “huge blessing.” But Castillo said that getting a higher education is probably the hardest thing he’s ever done.

“College is geared more toward the traditional student,” he said. “Not for nontraditional students like myself.”

“One of the biggest things is that familial pressure, that social pressure of being a provider. That’s where education becomes a second or third or fourth priority to everything else.”

Adrian Huerta, assistant professor of education, University of Southern California

Contrary to the perception that campuses are awash in carefree 18-year-olds right out of high school, more than one in five college students have kids of their own. Despite a lack of research about student fathers specifically, experts say that they are affected by many of the same issues that challenge student mothers. 

Those include struggling with finances and child care, while also fitting children, work, and class into the day.

Drayton Jackson first attempted to get his bachelor’s degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York decades ago. He and his then-wife would meet on the subway platform to hand off their daughter as they both went to and from class.

“You start to realize, ‘Man, I need to be here for my children,’ ” he said of why the couple worked so hard to go to college. “ ‘I need to be here for myself, which in turn will help my children.’ That for me was my driving force.”

He ended up leaving school because of a lack of child care.

When he reentered school at Olympic College in Washington State in 2012, Jackson was elected class president and made the dean’s list. Then he left again for similar reasons as the first time, only three credits short of a degree.

On some campuses, situations like Jackson’s may be common, but administrators may not know it. Many colleges don’t collect data on how many of their students are raising children, nor do they provide support for those students.

“I oftentimes just felt hidden,” said Brittani Williams, who was a student mother and now works as a senior policy analyst at the think tank Education Trust.

Jesus Benitez meets his son, Mason, after school at a pizzeria in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Benitez finished college as a single father so he could get a job that would let him spend more time with his son. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

About half of all student parents are people of color, who often face further barriers to graduation.

“We know that Black and brown fathers coming into higher ed are coming in with some significant disadvantages. They’re often coming from underfunded schools,” said Nicole Lynn Lewis, the founder of Generation Hope, who was also a student mother.

“Not only is it the student parent experience and all of the obstacles that are attached to that, but it’s also the experience of being a Black man and trying to earn your education in a higher ed system and even in an education system more broadly that wasn’t designed for you.”

By some measures, student fathers should have things easier than mothers. They are more likely to be married and have help with child care, said David Croom, assistant director of postsecondary achievement at the nonprofit Aspen Institute.

Men without degrees have better access than women to jobs that require only high school diplomas and are financially rewarding but physically demanding, such as welding and construction. Those jobs can divert them from going to college in the first place or, if they fo go, take them away from their studies and make them more likely to quit school.

Jesus Benitez at his desk at the CUNY Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, where he now works as an adviser after earning a degree as a single father. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

Experts suggest other reasons for the disparity in graduation rates between student fathers and their classmates. Student fathers are less often brought into programs for student parents. They may feel less comfortable asking for help, such as time off when their kids are sick, and less likely to receive it if they do.

Some experts believe that student fathers’ graduation problems are cultural and connected to the reasons men are less likely than women to go to college in the first place.

“Men are taught that you’re supposed to be the provider and you’re supposed to support your significant other and your family,” said Castillo. “It’s really hard for guys to take a pay cut.”

Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, has a similar assessment.

“One of the biggest things is that familial pressure, that social pressure of being a provider,” he said. “That’s where education becomes a second or third or fourth priority to everything else.”

In Huerta’s experience researching community college parents in California, a number of men told him that they didn’t sign up for support services because of the stigma of poverty.

“If student parents are an invisible population, student dads are ghosts.”

Autumn Green, Wellesley Centers for Women

That social pressure is among the reasons Jesus Benitez found it difficult to finish college. He had his son at 17 and dropped out of high school. By 18, he was a single father.

When he was growing up in the Bronx, Benitez spent a lot of time taking care of his younger siblings because his mother worked so much. He saw the same dynamic starting to happen with his own child.

“I was working too much, not being there for my son,” he said. “And I decided to go back to school.”

Benitez got his GED diploma through CUNY Fatherhood Academy, a City University of New York program for Black and Latino fathers. Mentors in the program pushed him to get his associate degree at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, where the Fatherhood Academy started.

Jesus Benitez hugs his son, Mason, at the Little Island park in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. The program that helped Benitez finish college is one of the very few in the country for student fathers. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

“They pushed me to see the bigger picture,” he said. “I decided that I should go to college, and that’s because I had a support team with me. If not, I don’t think I would have done it.”

Benitez worked full time on campus while attending LaGuardia and then City College in Manhattan. At one point, he took a break from school and considered dropping out.

“I grew up in the streets, so me being in college, it was just, like, ‘What am I doing here? I shouldn’t even be in this room with all of these book-smart kids,’ ” he said. “I was, like, ‘Man, I’m losing money, I should be going to work.’ ”

But those same mentors who had pushed him to pursue a degree in the first place were there to push him back when he felt like quitting.

“They went out and looked for me, to bring me back to school,” Benitez said. “If it wasn’t for them constantly helping me out when they were able to, I don’t think I would have finished.”

The Fatherhood Academy program is one of the very few in the country for student fathers. It prepares men with children for high school equivalency tests and college by providing classes, tutoring, counseling and parenting seminars. The program also provides weekly stipends.

One of the most powerful things about the Fatherhood Academy, said Raheem Brooks, who directs the program at LaGuardia, is getting fathers in a room together to talk.

“A lot of our guys, if you were to poll them, many of them didn’t have fathers in their lives or [they had] fathers that weren’t that involved,” Brooks said. “They don’t want to continue that negative legacy, they want to empower their kids and be in their children’s lives.”

Jesus Benitez plays with his son, Mason, at New York’s Little Island park. “Being in college, it was just, like, ‘What am I doing here? I shouldn’t even be in this room with all of these book-smart kids,’ ” he remembers thinking as he worked toward a degree as a single father. Credit: Yunuen Bonaparte for The Hechinger Report

About 77 percent of students complete the program. When men do leave, Brooks said, it’s often for dead-end jobs.

“History really tells us and has conditioned us to really believe that that’s pretty much what a father’s worth is a lot of the time, just to be the person bringing in the money,” he said.

For Benitez, support from the program helped him graduate six years after first enrolling in community college. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in May 2020. Now he’s a mentor in the program and a parent adviser at the Aspen Institute.

Shakur Burden, a current LaGuardia Community College student, is studying to become a social worker and raising his young son while working. He found out about the Fatherhood Academy from a flyer at his probation office.

The program “provided me with a family, brotherhood, that I had never seen before,” he said. “Fatherhood [Academy] gave me a sense of belonging I never felt. They’ll look out for you.”

It’s more a part of the college’s social mission than a recruitment tool, said Kenneth Adams, LaGuardia’s president.

“There’s a broader community service mission at stake,” said Adams. “We have an obligation to serve Queens — more broadly the city, but certainly Queens — in ways that go beyond recruiting students for our degree programs.”

Morehouse College, the historically Black men’s institution in Atlanta, has also experimented with providing support to student fathers. In the past year, its Fathers to the Finish Line program has supported three students to graduation with financial support and mentorship, administrators said; the school is expanding the program to include men who are not parenting.

Helping fathers graduate, experts said, is about more than individual men. When fathers go to school, they are more likely to earn wages that can sustain their families, and their children are more likely to also go to college. That, in turn, can boost the economy.

Short of creating programs like the Fatherhood Academy, experts said, colleges that want to improve the graduation rates of their student fathers could expand child care on campus, award more grants and scholarships for parents, revisit policies around allowing children in classrooms and offices, collect more data and create more spaces for kids in shared spaces such as libraries.

But student fathers say the first step is just reminding people that they exist. 

“Fathers,” Benitez said, “are the forgotten parents.”

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

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