Kennedeigh Poole stares up at her bedroom ceiling, deep in thought, as she considers her hopes for her 10-month-old son.

“I want my son to be just as ambitious as his mom,” Poole says.

Poole, 25, is juggling care for her son, Amari, with working full time as an administrative assistant at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. In the evenings, she attends online classes at Bowie State University and is a year away from a bachelor’s degree.

Her family lives with her in-laws in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They sleep in her husband Autoro's childhood bedroom, adorned with Philadelphia Eagles décor. Poole, a reservist with three years of active duty in the Air Force, wakes at 8 a.m. to attend to her son's needs, from diaper changes to meal preparation, before heading off to work.

Poole isn’t alone in her experience balancing the demands of being a parent with the stress and busyness of college. About 12% of undergraduates at historically Black colleges are student parents, compared to 18% of undergraduates at other institutions, according to 2020 data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. And among all student parents across higher ed, one-third of them are Black.

The path to a degree isn’t an easy one for student parents like Poole. Despite having higher GPAs on average than nonparenting students, student parents are more likely to leave college without earning a degree. They also carry more student loan debt than nonparenting students, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found.

The federal government is trying to increase resources available to student parents, particularly those who are low income. Every four years, the government distributes Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grants to colleges to bolster or create child care supports for student parents.

This fall, Grambling State University in Louisiana was among 34 grant recipients. The university will receive $500,000 a year for the next four years. Officials are aiming to open a child care center in spring 2024, a spokesperson said.

‘Time poverty’ for student parents

A 2021 Institute for Women’s Policy Research study found that 55% of student parents work 25 hours or more per week. Single parents working full-time jobs make up the majority of student parents.

Kennedeigh Poole juggles school work with caring for her son, Amari. (Dejah Miles/Open Campus)

While Poole is married, she is the only one currently working — her husband plans to find a job working for the Secret Service.

Caregiving demands on top of school work lead to what’s known as “time poverty,” a common challenge for student parents.

“For many student parents, the demands on their time force them to make tough choices about their priorities and their capacity to pursue college,” an Institute for Women’s Policy Research report found.

A lack of affordable child care is a major barrier for student parents, the institute found.

Bowie State offers free supplies to parents, such as diapers and baby formula. However, there isn’t a child care facility on campus.

Next year, Poole hopes to attend her classes in person. She is planning to hire a babysitter for Amari while she’s on campus.

Supporting students

Daria J. Willis, president of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland, remembers the challenges of being a student parent while she pursued bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Florida A&M University.

The experience has stuck with her as she worked as a professor, provost, and now in her second role atop a college.

Over the years, she has seen times when higher ed didn’t support student parents. She recalled once seeing a student parent at FAMU who came to class “ready to learn,” and left her son in the hallway. The student tried to multitask, checking on her son during class.

“However, children love to play, and that includes pressing red buttons. Unfortunately, that red button was the campus's emergency button,” Willis said. “Although the student tried her hardest to check up on her child, this incident resulted in her being called out of class to be chastised and severely punished.”

Particularly at HBCU campuses in the South, being a student parent means facing an environment that “is not friendly,” Willis said.

“It was almost like a scarlet letter — something to almost be ashamed of,” she said.

Now, some faculty members at Howard Community College welcome children to be with their parents during classes, according to a press release. There’s also a student-parent study room in the library, Willis said.

The college received a $1 million CCAMPIS grant this fall, and is putting it toward the reopening of its childcare center, Willis said. The college had closed the center before Willis’s arrival, during the pandemic.

Of the 2,900 Howard Community College students who received Pell Grants — federal aid for low-income students — last fiscal year, 24% have children, according to the college.

Colleges should also take steps to ensure student parents feel welcome on campus, said Nina Owolabi, a student parent and a doctoral student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

That includes publicizing the resources available for student parents, having a dedicated student-parent liaison, and creating family-friendly spaces, she said.

Even posting images of student parents around campus can help them feel like, “OK, I’m actually visible on campus. There are actually places for me,” Owolabi said.

Making it work

Poole starts studying at about 9 p.m. most nights — after working all day, making dinner, and putting her son down for bedtime.

On top of the time demands, Poole has had to deal with stereotypes about being a student parent. She avoids bringing up her family during class icebreakers to sidestep potential discrimination or judgment about her life.

“Sometimes, people hear that you have a child in college and immediately think you're a single mom who got pregnant while fooling around,” Poole said.

As she walked through the Bowie State campus on a recent visit, she created moments to play energetically with her son, tossing him in the air as his curly, soft hair jostled in the wind.

After play time ended, she headed to the science building to study. It’s a busy time, but she believes what she’s doing matters.

“I was hoping that I could explain why I did it when he gets older,” she said.

Dejah Miles is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.