Melissa Cheyney, PhD: How Can Higher Education Institutions Support Student Parents?

By Melissa Cheyney, PhD    //    Volume 27,  Number 5   //    September/October 2019

Balancing academic demands and parenting responsibilities is a constant struggle for college students with young children. The lack of childcare options can force many student parents to place their education on hold. Melissa Cheyney, PhD, an associate professor of medical anthropology at Oregon State University, is addressing the problem head-on by allowing students to bring babies and young children to class under certain circumstances.

What was the impetus for allowing children in your classroom and what hurdles did you face? As a professor and a midwife in my community, I had witnessed the struggles student parents face as they attempt to juggle school and parenting. In 2009, when I had my own child, it became even more personal. There is a severe shortage of affordable child-care in our community, as in most of the nation. When my own childcare struggles began, Oregon State University released a report examining overall student retention rates across campus. Student parents, and particularly student parents of color, were struggling with degree completion. I felt compelled to act, and so I simply wrote the policy, and added it to my syllabi. Student parents in my classes did begin to bring their children to class on occasion, and it quickly became clear that the policy, while not a long-term solution, was in fact helping students to stay in school. To my knowledge, no one ever complained about the policy, and I largely flew under the radar until about a year ago when the policy was circulated on social media.

What are your goals for this policy? Universities are full of reproductive-age people, and we should expect that some will either choose to have a child or have an unplanned pregnancy while completing their degrees. Unfortunately, when a student has a child, whether planned or unplanned, they are less likely to complete their degree. This is the exact opposite of what needs to happen given that completion of a college degree is associated with higher long-term earning potential. Enabling student parents to stay in school is a vital step in reducing cycles of poverty. In addition, graduate education and professional training can span a decade or more. It is inappropriate to ask female academics and graduate students to delay child-bearing until after they have reached certain career milestones (like graduation or tenure). I would like to see a society in which women are valued for their productive and reproductive contributions; it is unfair to ask women to choose between getting an education and having a child, becoming a parent or having a successful career.

Has the policy received any criticism?  For example, are there concerns that students will use the policy as an excuse not to find child care? When people find out about the policy, I am often asked whether students “abuse the option.” I take this to mean bringing their to child class rather than acquiring reliable childcare. To this I say that no parent wants to bring their child to class. It is a bit like flying on an airplane with a toddler; they all worry about sanctioning from fellow students who may have their learning disturbed by noise. The policy asks students with children to sit close to the door so that if a child needs something, the parent can step outside, attend to the need, and return when the child is settled. This has worked very well, especially since I describe the policy at the beginning of class and frame it as an equity and diversity issue. We all benefit from a diversity of experiences and identities in the classroom, and student parents are a critical part of that. Another critique I have heard is that having a child on campus could put them at risk given recent sexual abuse cases associated with universities. In response to that, I say that the solution is not to say “no kids on campus” but to say “no perpetrators of sexual violence on campus.” In reality, children are probably at greatest risk when student parents feel pressured to leave them with less than optimal providers as with very young care givers or people they and the child do not know well.

What advice would you give to institutions as they try to help student parents achieve their educational goals? We asked students at our university this very question. While many, not surprisingly, talked about the need for more free and reduced cost on-campus childcare, by far the most common responses reflected struggles with treatment by faculty and peers. Many described attempting to hide their student status, fearing that if they were late on an assignment or missed a class that professors would blame their child or assume they were ill equipped for the rigors of university. Student parents wanted us to know that their struggles are real. Juggling school, parenting, and often another job is not for the faint of heart. Because reliable, high-quality, affordable child care for all is unlikely to be forth-coming, what student parents most need immediately is support, understanding, and flexibility if they are to be successful.

Here is a link to the policy: https://studentlife.oregonstate.edu/childcare/family-friendly-syllabi-examples.