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'It Motivated Me': 4 Million College Students Are Raising Children


Nearly 4 million college students are raising children. That's about a fifth of all undergraduates. So that means mixing homework and exams with feedings, naps and diapers. Institutions are rarely set up to support these students. As part of our Changing Face of College series, NPR's Elissa Nadworny brings us the story of one parent juggling it all.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Senior year of high school, Akiya Parks almost didn't open her acceptance letter from the University of Florida. She was just too nervous.

AKIYA PARKS: And then I opened it. And it was like, you got in. I was like, oh, my gosh. I got in, blah, blah, blah.

NADWORNY: No one else in her family had ever gone to college, so this was a big deal. Her mom bragged about it on Facebook. A few weeks later, Akiya received a four-year scholarship that covered everything.

PARKS: OK, I'm set. Like, that was all I was waiting for.

NADWORNY: That summer, she said goodbye to her high school boyfriend in Orlando and drove the two hours with her mom and brother to Gainesville. She bought a new laptop, met her roommate. But after just a few weeks of classes, she started feeling sick.

PARKS: I'm like, what is going on? This college food is not sitting well with me.

NADWORNY: But it wasn't the food. She was pregnant.

PARKS: Well, I went back to my dorm. I was just crying, devastated. I just was like, this is crazy.

NADWORNY: After the disbelief came the disappointment, and then fear and confusion.

PARKS: I didn't know how college worked. Like, do they kick out pregnant people? I just didn't know any of the answers to my questions.

NADWORNY: The biggest question was, would she stay in school? She hadn't met a lot of people in college before. Could you go to class and raise a child? Of course, what Akiya didn't know is that millions of college students are doing this right now.

LINDSEY REICHLIN CRUSE: When you talk to student parents, you hear the determination, the resilience and the motivation that they have.

NADWORNY: That's Lindsey Reichlin Cruse with the Institute for Women's Policy Research. She and her team study student parents. Most are women. And they're more likely to be low-income and students of color. In fact, 2 in 5 black women in college are mothers. The majority of them are single.

REICHLIN CRUSE: These are the people we need to be investing in. They're really facing the odds and trying to work as hard as they can to provide for their families. And that's what this country is built on.

NADWORNY: And the data shows that money will be a good investment. Student parents have better GPAs and grades than their classmates without kids, but they're less likely to graduate.

REICHLIN CRUSE: It's these other factors - these life factors - that get in the way.

NADWORNY: A big reason - campuses aren't set up to serve student parents. Residential colleges are often more likely to spend money on a new dining hall or athletic facilities than a day care. And that, Reichlin Cruse says, is a mistake.

REICHLIN CRUSE: Child care is just as important, if not more important, than a gym on a campus.

NADWORNY: And yet the number of day cares on campus nationwide is declining. That's despite extra funding that Congress authorized in 2018. The University of Florida, where Akiya Parks goes, is one of the schools that does have day care on campus. They call it Baby Gator. They also have lactation rooms on campus and family housing and good student advisers. So after Akiya Parks gave birth to a healthy baby boy, she decided to come back.

PARKS: Caleb, say, hey.


NADWORNY: Her son Caleb is now a rambunctious, happy 3-year-old. Coming back to school as a single mom - it was the most difficult thing she's ever done. Everything was harder. The campus day care was too expensive, so she'd found an affordable one off campus. But if Caleb got sick or the day care was closed, she'd have to scramble.

PARKS: Had a few meltdowns.

NADWORNY: Friends sometimes watched him, or she'd bring him to class. Once, a professor held Caleb while delivering a lecture. But even then...

PARKS: When I did have meetings on campus or whatever and I had to bring Caleb, I'm like, how am I supposed to change him? There's no changing rooms.

NADWORNY: And money was tight. Her scholarship covered tuition and housing. It did not cover milk, diapers and clothes.

PARKS: He's another human being. I needed more money.

NADWORNY: So she found a job at a cleaning company - another thing to add to her crazy schedule - all while trying to graduate on time with a degree in family, youth and community sciences.

UNIDENTIFIED PROFESSOR: OK. So today, we're going to move on to talking about attachment relative to adults.

NADWORNY: On campus, Akiya is just another student, and she relishes it. It's not a burden. It's her escape.

PARKS: So I just love it, and it's so exciting.

NADWORNY: Many of her classes in child development and psychology - they actually apply to her life.

PARKS: Nah, Caleb is the experiment, but this stuff I learn in class - like, I go home and try it on him and see how it works.

NADWORNY: Home for the two of them is an apartment on campus full of toys and books, early readers mixed with textbooks on psychology and criminal justice.

CALEB: Mommy, mommy.

NADWORNY: Homework and studying - that's done at night, and it's often interrupted.

PARKS: Stop singing and pick up the books. I'm picking up more books than you.

NADWORNY: It's easier now, Akiya says, since Caleb is no longer a baby. But there are new challenges. Imagine trying to study for finals and potty-training a toddler. Tonight, there's another accident.

CALEB: Sorry. I sorry, mommy.

PARKS: Come on. Why didn't you go to the restroom?

NADWORNY: But she's in the home stretch. This is the final semester of her senior year. And as we drive to drop off Caleb at day care, Akiya reflects on her life in college with her son.

PARKS: It motivated me more to finish. It wasn't like, oh, man. He's going to slow me down. I don't want him to feel like he held me back from anything because he didn't.

NADWORNY: She wants to see campuses celebrating student parents like her to help change the perception of who college is for.

PARKS: Remember, people do get pregnant.

NADWORNY: And those people, given the right supports, also graduate. Akiya Parks is planning on walking across the stage this weekend to collect her bachelor's degree. Three-year-old Caleb will be right by her side. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Gainesville, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.