4 Ways You Can Support Student-Caregivers Returning to Class and Campus This Fall

A typical day in the life of a student-caregiver involves juggling work, school, family, and more.

Student caregivers are becoming a larger portion of student populations, as the number of adult learners increases and more traditionally college-aged adults take on roles of caring for ailing family members.

In addition to caring for children, student caregivers also include those who provide support for parents, partners, neighbors, and other people in need of full- or part-time care. When I refer to student-givers, I’m not just talking about parents; this population includes any student who is balancing the challenges of pursuing higher education with caring for another person.

It is vital to advocate for these new and continuing students to have a successful semester start, especially with the added uncertainty of reopening campuses this fall.

So how do you advocate for student-caregivers when the future is so uncertain?

Whether you’re working with student-caregivers in orientation, advising, or other student-facing services, this post is for you.

Step 1: Get to know student-caregivers and the unique challenges they face

Top challenges for student caregivers include excessive tardiness, missing classes, strained friendships, burnout, financial strain, little time for self-care, and generalized anxiety. However, this doesn’t mean that student caregivers are any less intelligent, hardworking, or motivated than their peers. They’re simply facing additional barriers to success.

Here are some fast facts to help you better understand this student population:

  • Providing care can be time-draining. Around 38% of caregivers spend more than 30 hours a week caring for their loved one(s).
  • The number of student caregivers is predicted to increase in the next decade due to a national caregiver shortage that is expected to intensify as baby boomers age with fewer adult children than previous generations available to help.
  • Student caregivers are much less likely to complete their degree within six years than their non-caregiver peers.
  • It can be financially burdensome, with 44% of caregivers spending at least $5,000 per year to care for their loved one(s).
  • Median debt among student-caregivers is more than 2.5 times that of non-student-caregivers.
  • In 2015 (the most recent data available), 4.8 million students enrolled in higher education in the U.S. were raising a dependent child, of which 1.7 million were single student mothers.
  • The median age of student caregivers is 32.
  • 42% of all student parents are enrolled in community colleges.
  • Students of color make up a larger share of student parents than in the general student population.
a graph showing that 'most student parents are mothers and more than two in five student mothers are single' pie chart showing 'the largest share of student parents attends community colleges

Images and analysis from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research with data from the National Center for Education Statistics 

Despite the many challenges, when given the proper tools and resources, student caregivers can absolutely excel. In fact, on average, student caregivers on average maintain higher GPAs than non-caregiving students!

Step 2: Learn what strategies work best and implement them

Focus on best practices in being an ally to student-caregivers by learning what’s working for institutions around the globe and advocating for their implementation at your own institution.

Note that many of these suggestions benefit not only student caregivers; many also support first-generation and low-income students.

Best practices include:

  • Streamline admissions processes, policies, and procedures to make them less intimidating for prospective students who are applying without the help of a high school counselor or who are first-generation and may not be familiar with the admissions process.
  • Expand fully online courses and programs to make higher education more accessible to students who have schedules and responsibilities that are incompatible with attendance in traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction.
  • Emphasize student-centered teaching by focusing on individual learning needs to promote persistence and success. This method centers displaying empathy towards students and acknowledging individual needs. For example, an instructor who makes accommodations for a student experiencing a family emergency is practicing student-centered teaching.
  • Provide resources to alleviate frequent student expenses such as laptop sharing programs, free or reduced student health insurance, and emergency financial aid.
  • Ensure that student parents have access to affordable, high-quality child care — which one study found more than tripled their likelihood of on-time graduation.
  • Emphasize support services like academic coaching, affordable family housing, emergency financial aid, peer and professional support, and physical and mental health care, which have all shown to increase postsecondary success.

Doing any or all of these things will help create more equitable opportunities for student-caregivers, empowering them to succeed.

Step 3: Plan ahead

Although planning ahead to advocate for student-caregivers for fall semester 2020 may seem virtually impossible, utilizing the University of Michigan’s Survival Tips for Students as Caregivers is a great way to get started.

In addition to what they advise, I’ve added in some examples on how following these tips may look in practice:

  • Schedule ahead: Work with students to plot out their fall schedule as early as possible, with a backup plan should the campus need to go remote midway through the term. As a bonus, start filling in their planner, week by week or even day by day, by reviewing the syllabi for their fall classes together.
  • Emphasize the importance of securing reliable child care prior to the beginning of each semester: Have alternative care sources in mind in case daycares and/or schools are not open, with options for increased childcare hours around exam times.
  • Allot for downtime: Self-care is essential for caregivers, so plan time for meals, sitting in traffic, taking breaks between classes, checking email, socializing with classmates, and simply taking time to breathe between responsibilities.
  • Establish a support network: Create a map for student caregivers to identify when and where they will utilize their network of support, including professors, tutors, advisors, mentors, study groups, friends, and family members.
  • Improve time management skills: Connect student caregivers with academic success centers and other resources to improve their time management skills.
  • Emphasize good study habits: Build an early foundation of positive study habits to maximize the quality of studying that students do per study session. Students can utilize these skills throughout their entire education and even their careers.

Step 4: Share opportunities and resources

  • Share on-campus resources such as childcare, counseling, food assistance, maps of lactation rooms around campus, career services, tutoring, academic advising, and more. Brainstorm with staff, especially staff-caregivers, to create a list of resources that make living their dual roles while on campus easier. 
  • Caring.com provides scholarships for students who are caring for loved ones.
  • Other scholarships are also available based on special interests such as those affected by Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, or Multiple Sclerosis, are caring for someone injured in the military, are caring for an elderly loved one, and much more.
  • The Family and Youth Services Bureau supplies many valuable resources for supporting student-caregivers, including violence prevention services, sex health education, and help for victims of domestic violence.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides additional resources for community-based assistance for anyone experiencing homelessness, including student caregivers.

Providing a simple resource guide at orientation may make a world of difference for new student-caregivers starting this fall.

I know that planning for a successful fall start is rocky, especially for students balancing school with caregiving. 

But with empathy, resourcefulness, and communication, you can build policies and resources that advocate for student caregivers. By ensuring that these students have access to supportive staff and resources, institutions can build equitable environments for all students no matter their life circumstances.

How do you plan to support student caregivers this fall? Connect with us @themoderncampus.

Corinna Kraemer

About the author: Corinna Kraemer (she/her) works in ed tech and loves painting, running, and hanging out with her cat, Mr. K. She hopes her posts will finally help her dad understand what her career in student affairs is all about. Learn how we can help get your students involved.