Investments in college housing must consider the needs of student-parents

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Courtesy: Kenya Abner

Kenya Abner holds up her diplomas.

As a student parent with five children (and one grandchild) married to a fellow student also working towards a degree, I struggle to stay afloat as I balance my studies with my family life. .

I provide child care and manage extracurricular activities for my two youngest children, one in middle school and one in elementary school, while I support my husband and two middle school children in their educational journeys. My eldest daughter, who graduated from university last year, could come over for dinner with her husband and daughter. In the meantime, I run errands, make sure the bills are paid, make sure my family’s basic needs are met, and manage work responsibilities.

The path to college and economic mobility for my family began in the 1990s in the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento. My husband and I had moved from Michigan to California to begin our path to a post-secondary degree to build a stable base for our family. Community college was much more affordable in California, and there were child care options available at American River College, which helped cover some of the college costs for student-parents, including childcare. food, books and supplies as well as childcare.

However, student accommodation was unavailable and prices for off-campus accommodation were skyrocketing and unmanageable. Without affordable housing suitable for family life, my husband and I had to divide our time between several full-time low-wage jobs, studying and attending classes, and caring for our children. The consequences of this split meant that we had to take fewer courses, adding extra years to our associate degree, less time with our kids, and a lot more stress. Like a third of today’s students in California, we’ve experienced housing insecurity and barely been scratched.

When my husband was accepted to UC Berkeley, we were thrilled that our commitment to creating a better future for our family was paying off. But housing in Berkeley was unaffordable and there was a two-year waiting list for student family housing. This very limited housing stock on campus, especially housing that can accommodate families, coupled with astronomical housing prices, creates huge barriers for student-parents like us.

Determined to make our educational dreams a reality, my husband hopped on a train and waited on campus to make a personal call directly to the Director of the Student Family Housing Program. We were able to find accommodation for the next semester, but if we hadn’t, attending UC Berkeley would have been out of the question and we would most likely have ended our academic journey there.

Access to family housing for students was a game-changer – it was what enabled us to complete our bachelor’s degrees – because the entire housing community was built to nurture students and their families. There were activities for children, an on-site preschool, playgrounds, laundromats, bus service to and from campus, and even a community garden to grow your own produce. This created a caring environment where people treated each other with kindness, respect and encouragement. It made us feel like we belonged and were fully supported to achieve our educational and professional goals.

Fast forward 20 years to today, my husband now has an established career in mental health care operations and is working on his PhD. I got my bachelor’s degree and I’m pursuing my master’s degree. Three of my children have completed or are currently attending college, and I am raising the value of higher education in our household in hopes that my two youngest children and my grandchild will invest in a post-secondary degree when it is their turn.

We must make student housing available and affordable for low-income students, including those with families, so they and their children can reach their full potential. Currently, California is making progress in addressing the student housing issue. In 2021, the state created the Higher Education Student Housing Subsidy Program, providing $700 million to California’s public post-secondary institutions to expand their housing capacity. And the most recently approved budget allocates an additional $750 million to 26 campuses to build affordable beds for more than 7,000 students. However, many of the programs prevent student parents from accessing new housing stock after the projects are completed. For example, several approved housing projects have not included student parents in their estimates of people who will need housing. As a result, these new housing projects won’t meet the unique needs of student-parents, even though a recent report from California Competes found that more than half of prospective graduates in California have dependent children.

My husband and I made the decision to invest in higher education to put ourselves in the best position for the long-term success of our family and future generations. We succeeded because we were able to access family housing, which allowed us to balance a rigorous upbringing with the demands of raising children.

If policy makers, institutions and education officials consider the needs of student-parents in the planning, design and development of funded housing projects, I know their investment will pay off in shared prosperity for the community and future generations, just as our investment in education has done for mine.

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KenyaAbner is a master’s student at Sacramento State University. She recently completed a fellowship at California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, through the Sacramento State Pathways Fellowship Program.

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