As part of my work as a summer intern at IWPR I have had the privilege of working with the Student Parent Success Initiative (SPSI). The SPSI report, Improving Child Care Access to Promote Postsecondary Success Among Low-Income Parents (2011), reflects my personal obstacles to higher education. Lack of access to childcare was the sole reason I did not attend college earlier and it is the reason many student parents struggle to complete their education. I am an IWPR intern, a single mom, and a graduate student at the age of 42 because I could not do these things when my children were young. I am sharing my story here as a thanks to the SPSI team at IWPR for research that improves the lives of student parents. I hope this serves to add some personal context to the SPSI research.
Like many people, when I graduated high school I was unsure of the career I wanted to pursue. I decided some life and work experience would help me choose. For a year, I worked for a citizen lobby organization where I felt like the work I was doing was important and made a real difference. The job paid well (for a recent high school graduate) but there were no benefits as I was considered an independent contractor. Shortly after leaving that job, while working a part-time temp job, I discovered I was pregnant. I was 19 years old, had no secure, permanent job, and no health insurance. If I could find a job while pregnant, at that time, any health insurance company could consider my pregnancy a pre-existing condition and deny coverage. In 1996, the Health Insurance and Portability Act made it illegal to treat pregnancy as a pre-existing condition. At the time of pregnancy, Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the AFDC program that was ended in 1996) were my only real options to provide for my child and pay for the costs of his birth and my prenatal care. I reluctantly accepted the assistance but planned to move on as soon as possible.
After the birth of my child I intended to get my college degree. I qualified for grants to pay tuition but I would need assistance paying for childcare. I was told that childcare assistance was available if I was working but not while in school. If I got a job to pay for childcare for the hours I was in class I would lose most of my state benefits since I would now have an income. The state would assume I could use this income to pay for food and living expenses so they would cut my aid and I would not have money to pay for childcare. I felt trapped; there was no way for me to get the education I needed to improve my life and that of my child. Mine is a story shared by many mothers. Those on assistance are often discouraged from pursuing education over employment. This prompted Diana Spatz to found LIFETIME, an organization allied with SPSI that helps student parents successfully achieve higher education. You can read more about her story on the organization’s website.
The birth of my first child was over 20 years ago and I am currently taking classes towards my Ph.D. It took much longer than it should have to get here. I had to wait to begin until my son was in school, attend part-time, and rely on the help of student loans. At the completion of my doctorate degree I will be facing the repayment of those loans. The SPSI project at IWPR has recently shed light on the debt burden of single student parents like myself in their fact sheet, Single Student Parents Face Financial Difficulties, Debt, Without Adequate Aid (May 2012). Among the research findings, single parents are much more likely to need financial aid to enroll in postsecondary education and are more likely than traditional students to say that financial difficulties are likely to result in their withdrawing from college. If they do it make it through, they often face staggering lingering debt: Single student parents have between 20 and 30 percent more student debt one year after graduation than other students. The figures are startling and I am glad that IWPR is making visible my lived experience.
In addition, IWPR recently released a fact sheet The Pregnancy Assistance Fund as a Support for Student Parents in Postsecondary Education (July 2012) that details two programs funded by the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF) to offer support to pregnant and parenting students. I could not be happier that programs are finally being created to help women in these circumstances. PAF is also part of legislation under the Affordable Care Act. We have a long way to go but this is encouraging progress.
It is my hope that this information will make an impact on policies and programs at the national, state and local levels and help other parents attend college. I am grateful for the opportunity to work for such a wonderful organization dedicated to improving women’s lives and to assist on a project to help students like myself. Thank you IWPR and the SPSI team!
Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon is the Communications Intern at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.