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When Isabel Torres found out she was pregnant at 36 years old, she had enrolled in college twice before but left before earning a degree. Now, the stakes seemed even higher to go back and finish to better provide for her daughter.
She enrolled at Austin Community College and decided to earn an associate degree. That meant raising her daughter while balancing work, a work-study job and classes. A two-year degree took four years to complete. Torres said it took a lot of dedication and help from a slew of resources offered at ACC.
“I was able to access child care support. I was able to access book lending programs … I was able to qualify for a work-study [job],” she said. “I don’t know how I would have done it without those resources.”
According to national statistics, 1 in 5 college students have children, one of the many identified barriers that can make it difficult for students to complete a certificate or credential. Most student parents are women and more than 2 in 5 are single mothers, like Torres.
Texas is adjusting to a near-total ban on abortion after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson last year struck down Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional protection for abortion and allowing states to set their own laws regulating the procedure. Texas lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognized that the number of pregnant and parenting students will likely increase in the state.
This legislative session, lawmakers passed multiple bills that would provide more support to students with children as well as codifying their rights in state law to ensure all colleges and universities are set up to meet their needs. Gov. Greg Abbott has already signed one bill into law.
“What we like about these bills is that it sets the table for an understanding that students who are parents face different responsibilities,” said Amy O’Donnell with Texas Alliance for Life. “They have different weights on them, they have different pressures on them. They have to navigate different things than a student who is not a parent and there needs to be accommodations for them. There needs to be resources.”
One bill requires colleges and universities to designate an employee as a liaison specifically for parenting students to connect them with resources they might need on campus, including tutoring, transportation, child care or access to public assistance programs. Another bill requires schools to allow students with children to register early for classes. A third bill codifies existing rights for parents in state law to ensure faculty and school administrators understand what types of accommodations or services they need to provide students expecting or raising children.
“Those are all low-hanging fruit and things we should be doing, “ said Jonathan Feinstein, state director for Texas at The Education Trust. “It sends a much-needed signal that these populations and these students need to be visible and that it’s OK for them to be visible.”
The legislation forced strange bedfellows: abortion opponents pushing the state to show support for students who might keep an unplanned pregnancy and abortion-rights advocates pushing to ensure that without the choice to get an abortion that students at least get the services they need to complete their education.
“We don’t have that choice anymore. It’s a question of whether you choose to go college while you’re having children,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who sponsored House Bill 1361. “My team was actively looking for pro-parent, pro-family legislation in full acknowledgement that in a post-Dobbs world, we need to wrap people with services in a manner and to an extent that we had not seen pre-Dobbs.”
Abbott has already signed a bill carried by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, which spells out specific rights that pregnant and parenting students have to pursue a college degree. It allows them to take leaves of absence and excuse any missed classes due to pregnancy or childbirth. It requires colleges and universities to create a nondiscrimination policy for students with children or pregnant students.
Paxton told members when she laid out this and other bills in a March committee hearing that she had a personal connection to the legislation. Her birth mother had Paxton while she was in college and was able to persist only with outside help.
“She was actually able to go on and go back and finish her master’s degree, but many, many folks don’t have family support or they maybe have families that are just far away,” Paxton said.
Multiple women who testified in support of the legislation shared experiences in which schools suggested they take a leave of absence or provided little information on possible accommodations to continue attending classes. Others said they were unable to access recordings or materials for classes they missed to take care of a sick child. The stakes are high: In many cases if students miss a certain amount of classes, they can be dropped from a class. And if students fail too many courses, they could lose access to financial aid.
Monica Palma said her law school suggested she take a leave of absence when she gave birth to her third child.
“I was flabbergasted and disillusioned because my kids would still be here in a year or two and I would be further behind on my goals,” she told lawmakers.
Paxton also sponsored legislation that requires universities to allow students with children to register early for classes so they have access to the courses that best fit their schedules. That bill also received bipartisan support.
“Being able to plan out the next six months is crucial,” Torres, the student at ACC, said. “Being able to register and you only have two or three weeks to line everything up is sometimes not enough time if you have a boss or if you work for a corporation that doesn’t really bend.”
Another bill requires universities to assign an existing staff member as a liaison for parenting and pregnant students who would help them connect to various resources such as health care, transportation, child care and other public benefits. That bill also requires universities to start keeping track of how many student-parents they have on campus, including their demographic data and how well they’re progressing toward graduation.
“We actually will be able to quantify how many of these students we have in our Texas colleges, get a sense of their demographic makeup as well as their needs and how well we’re meeting them,” Feinstein said. “That was kind of an unknown.”
Advocates say the stakes are high for Texas’ workforce to make sure these students earn a certificate or degree after high school. According to The Aspen Institute, student-parents are more likely to attend community college. They are predominantly students of color and are older students who carry nearly twice the student loan debt as most students. They also perform better than students without children.
Torres was assigned a work-study job on campus at ACC to help other students access resources to support their needs in and out of the classroom, including food and housing insecurity or academic issues. As she was about to graduate, a full-time position opened up. So she decided to stay and continue helping other students get to graduation.
“These laws are crucial,” she said. “It really [makes] a difference of the students finishing their program or not.”
Disclosure: The Education Trust has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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