Exploring the connectedness of health in our communities and imagining a better future
Aug. 30, 2022 | Issue #27
What policies or solutions could advance economic security and mobility for two generations? This was a question Blue Shield of California Foundation had been exploring when I saw the data — that student parents in California’s community colleges were struggling to complete their degrees. This gap represented a pretty profound missed opportunity for the future economic security and health of many women and children of color.
I also learned that many student parents successfully complete their degrees, in spite of many forces conspiring against them — including the systems meant to support them. At a recent summit, student parents shared their stories
and ideas about how to redesign policies and institutional cultures that will meet their needs and make the path easier for those who will come after them.
In this issue of Intersections, we celebrate their leadership and the impact it will have on many generations. Please consider forwarding this edition
to a colleague or friend.
Senior Program Officer
Forging equitable futures for student parents
Student parents say they face a mountain of challenges as they work to complete their undergraduate degrees. Attending classes and completing assignments can account for about 40 hours a week, and juggling that alongside parenting and the cost of child care doesn’t allow time for much else. Many report feelings of isolation, but they are far from alone: an estimated one fifth of undergraduate students in the U.S. are parents. These student parents are more likely to be women of color and older than 30.
“Serving student parents will help close equity gaps for populations that have been historically underserved by higher education,” said Dr. Su Jin Jez, executive director of California Competes, as student parents, educational leaders, and advocates convened at Forging Equitable Futures for Student Parents in California: A Virtual Statewide Summit.
As the attendees came together to design more supportive policies and institutions, Waukecha Wilkerson offered insight into effective solutions for parents working toward their degrees. She was working seven days a week, with her three kids in need of care, when she found Project Self-Sufficiency. The program offered support for her family while requiring her to enroll in college classes. When she earned her degree, she credited the resources she’d found and the network she was able to create with other student parents.
These types of support surfaced often at the summit: the need for affordable dependent care, affordable higher education, and family-friendly campuses, along with better data collection and sharing.
As Dr. Jin Jez said, if California can better address the needs of student parents and create a pipeline for higher education, it “will create ripple effects for education and the economy.”
More than rent: the cost of child care in California
To give California families — women in particular — a fair shot at economic security and mobility, we could start by tackling the cost of child care. The Economic Policy Institute offers a tool to explore just how expensive child care is for Californians, especially those who earn minimum wage or have multiple children. Among the findings: infant care in California costs more than college, and more than rent. Among the solutions: capping families’ child care expenses at 7% of their income. More affordable child care, the analysts predict, could give some 194,000 parents the chance to join the workforce and generate more than $27 billion in new economic activity.
Empowering advocates to change systems
Student parents are reimagining CalWORKs and community college systems so that they set up student parents for success, build economic security for families, and decrease the wage gap for women. In 2020, through a grant from the Foundation, Project SPARC enlisted student leaders from community colleges to conduct research and engage in a human-centered design process to create solutions to the many issues that student parents encounter.
“The idea of reimagining CalWORKs really is what sparked my passion,” said Shannon Riley, a SPARC leader, single mother of two, and recent Shasta College graduate. “The one thing that drives me more than anything is I feel like the system, as it is now, perpetuates the cycle of poverty and I would really like to see a clearer path out of poverty for recipients of CalWORKs.”
Riley’s work has included modifying her college’s online student portal to include CalWORKs resources. She’s also learned that she’s not alone in her struggles, and has identified transportation, housing, and child care as the three biggest problems for parenting students.
“[We need] support more than anything,” she said. “At one point I thought I could go it alone, but it’s just too much for any one person to do.”
SPARC student leader Lisa Quilan, a single mother of three living in Riverside, said the program has opened her eyes to systemic barriers student parents face — such as inconsistencies across county welfare offices — and to the power of her own voice and story.
“What I really like about SPARC is that our personal experience was really the only experience we needed. We’re welfare recipients, we’ve all gone through trauma, domestic violence, housing insecurity,” she said. “The system has really failed us. It has failed so many people over the years, so I think what we’re doing is really revolutionary.”
Making campuses family-friendly
Improving the experience of students who are raising children in college is possible. The Family Friendly Campus Toolkit shows the way. This free self-assessment system and guide has been used by staff, faculty, and students at two- and four-year colleges and universities across the country to:
- Raise awareness about the strengths, needs, and challenges of student parents.
- Increase the visibility of existing supports and improve services.
- Learn about recommended practices.
- Develop new resources devoted to student parent success.
The toolkit includes a student parent survey; recommended practices; guidance for setting up a task force, collecting institutional data, and conducting focus groups; and action and dissemination plan templates.
This month at Blue Shield of California Foundation
- We all have a role to play in supporting survivors of gender-based violence. FreeFrom recently shared a roadmap for supporting survivors before and beyond a crisis.
- What can we learn from the latest Cal-VEX survey on experiences with sexual violence and intimate partner violence? Join a Sept. 8 webinar with the Center for Gender Equity and Health, along with ValorUS and the California Department of Public Health.
- In the spirit of equity, the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence is selecting a survivor of violence to create the imagery for its Domestic Violence Awareness Month campaign in October. Graphic designers, artists, and creatives who have lived experience as survivors, apply to this opportunity!
- A study by our own Carolyn Wang Kong, Ana Jackson, and Courtnee Hamity, along with Jennifer Green, sheds light on gaps in state health equity data for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, and shows the need for better representation for this fastest growing racial and ethnic group.