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NEW YORK — Annisha Thomas is a single mother of two who works at a Waffle House while attending Nashville State Community College. Thomas is used to long days and nights, but she’s tired of answering the same question since the coronavirus closed her campus and her children’s schools: “How are you doing?”  

“Oh man, everyone asks me and I say, ‘I got this,’ but it’s really hard, it’s been such a challenge,” said Thomas, 35, who hopes to graduate with an associate degree next spring. “If it wasn’t for the goodness of my teachers, I would be failing right now.”

Annisha Thomas is a single mother attending Nashville State Community College via the Tennessee Reconnect Program at the age of 35 to set an example for her children, Kayden, 4 and Kaylee, 7.

And if it wasn’t for her tax refund of $4,009 and food stamps, Thomas doesn’t know how she would pay for rent or food. Hunger and homelessness are becoming a growing crisis for the more than one in five U.S. students who are also parents and who are now navigating education in the coronavirus era. Thomas told me her story while I was reviewing a study on Wednesday showing that nearly one-fifth of young people are not getting enough to eat. At the same time, a survey of more than 23,000 student parents taken before the pandemic shows that more than half of are concerned about food, 68 percent were insecure about housing and 17 percent had been homeless in the previous year.

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The survey by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice included student parents at 171 two-year and 56 four-year institutions, many of whom are poor and people of color and are looking for the promise of economic mobility a college education once provided. But the obstacles along their path to graduation now seem increasingly insurmountable.

“If our survey was taken now, the results would likely be 100 times worse. The system was failing parenting students even prior to Covid.”

–Carrie Welton, director of policy at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University

“If our survey was taken now, the results would likely be 100 times worse,” said Carrie Welton, director of policy at the Hope Center. “The system was failing parenting students even prior to Covid.”

Single mothers have always faced long odds in finishing college: Just 28 percent graduate from college with a degree or certificate within 6 years of enrolling, while national data suggests that parents are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than students who don’t have kids. Growing concerns about those low graduation rates have prompted calls for more child care options, better federal policy supports and new ideas and action.

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Related: How parents of young kids make it through college

To learn more about how student parents are faring in the pandemic, I called officials at community colleges, where these students are more likely to be enrolled. Stephanie Sutton, vice president of enrollment management at Stark State College in Northeast Ohio, said she and her colleagues recently surveyed students to see what kind of help they need.

The answer? A lot.

“We are hearing stories about students who can’t pay bills, they have finals and they need someone to watch their kids, but child care is closed,” Sutton told me. “Some are just heartbreaking. We are hearing about lost jobs, eviction notices and parents trying to balance teaching remotely and worried about getting food on the table and keeping kids entertained.”

Stark State staff is trying to stay in close touch with students, via phone and email. President Para Jones does frequent video chats, while faculty and staff are sharing messages of encouragement. “We are really intentional about sending positive messaging, like hang in we are here if you need us, supporting and believing in them,” Sutton said.

At Nashville State Community College, which Thomas attends, President Shanna Jackson has been pushing hard to stanch declining enrollment. But she knows that many student parents are overwhelmed and may decide to put off their educations. In addition to the coronavirus, the Nashville area recently experienced deadly tornadoes and high winds that left some students sleeping in their cars and without internet – in the middle of finals.

“They need resources for food and child care, and we are trying to reach out and say we are here,” said Jackson, who has been collaborating with community groups to connect students – including the many who are parents – with technology and other basic needs. “Education is the strongest ladder for social and economic stability, but we first have to get them out of the situation they are in.”

“I came clean and told one of my teachers what I hard time I was having, saying I was literally going to quit, and she said, no, you don’t have to do that.’’

– Annisha Thomas, student, Nashville State Community College

Jackson doesn’t have all the enrollment numbers yet for summer and fall classes, but when she speaks to students who aren’t registering for classes and asks why, some have said they are too busy meeting basic family needs like food, shelter and water. It’s a worrisome trend. Thomas, who had been pursuing paralegal studies via a Tennessee Reconnect grant, was one of those students who considered leaving college. But when she spoke with advisers and teachers, they extended her deadlines on assignments – and gave her lots of encouragement.

“I came clean and told one of my teachers what I hard time I was having, saying I was literally going to quit, and she said, no, you don’t have to do that,’’ Thomas said. She’s decided to keep going, and now hopes to graduate next year, working four days a week once Waffle House fully reopens, and going to school two.

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Related: With college decisions coming due, sleepless high school seniors worry college may not be worth it

Briana Whitfield tells other student parents to stick with it. “It will be worth it in the end,” she says. Credit: (Photo courtesy of Briana Whitfield)

Concerns that poor and minority students are suffering most are also growing louder, Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, noted during a webinar this week via the Strada Education Network. “The challenges disproportionately affect low income students,” Smith said. “They are feeling it far worse than other groups.”

At LaGuardia Community College, in New York, the school’s foundation has raised $150,000 for emergency student funding, including food, rent and hot spots for those without internet. Sixty percent of LaGuardia students are immigrants; most are first-generation college students. Some 71 percent come from homes with less than $30,000 in annual income. “We are working on the assumption that everyone is in dire straits,” said Bartholomew Grachan, interim vice president of student affairs.

Grachan said the school is maintaining its food pantry once a week, but he knows many students are instead accessing food banks closer to where they live. Staff are also making sure student parents are aware of emergency grants and other ways of getting help.

“We are sending out communications now to students whose situations have changed,” Grachan told me. “If you travel that close to the edge, it doesn’t take that much to push you over.”

Related: Where education systems stumble grassroots groups step in to raise student success

Briana Whitfield graduated from George Washington University in 2018, the same year her son Mikey graduated from preschool. Credit: (Photo courtesy of Briana Whitfield)

Still, there are stories of hope and inspiration that reminded me why education can be life changing, and why so many I spoke with are invested in making sure students stay the course. Consider Briana Whitfield, 24, a single mom who six years ago navigated a full scholarship to George Washington University with a newborn son.

Her scholarship included campus housing, but with a caveat: Baby Mikey would not be welcome in a dormitory filled with students straight out of high school. So Whitfield delayed entering college for a semester and managed to find temporary housing, childcare and a part-time job before finishing her degree in four and a half years in 2018.

Whitfield is now working full time and volunteers with Generation Hope, a nonprofit that works with student parents on college completion and their children’s early educational success. As a mentor, she urges anyone thinking of dropping out to stay the course. “It’s going to be worth it,” she tells them.

“I was struggling, but every time I wanted to quit, I realized I would not have a job that could take care of me,” Whitfield, now a client management associate with UnitedHealth Group in Maryland, told me. “The pain is only temporary. Don’t go for the quick and easy. It will be worth it in the end. Now, I have financial stability. Once you graduate, life is so much easier.”

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

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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