Columbia has a history of progressive change and has adapted countless times since its creation; it now seems to have a procedure for dealing with every possible issue ranging from disability to student concerns regarding food insecurity. However, the current mechanism that addresses the problems faced by students who are parents is inadequate, and, like many past shortcomings of the University, it must be improved. If student-parents were supported beyond situation-based accommodations, both students and their children would be more successful.
When issues arise, such as a child getting sick during reading week, students are often left at the whim of their professors if they hope to be accommodated. In my personal experience, when a professor was disinclined to give me an extension on my paper due to family responsibilities, I was advised by faculty to find a way to register with the Office of Disability Services. I felt as if my child was treated as a disability.
Having a child does not make a student less capable, but it does impact their ability to complete assignments on time. Cramming for a test or plowing through a paper over the weekend isn’t an option for parents who must also balance their children’s homework with their own.
Columbia’s current system for working with student-parents is inadequate. While there are child care programs near campus, like Barnard Babysitting, they are often expensive and have waitlists. Prospective students with children cannot reliably create a plan to resume their education with such uncertainty. Further, unlike graduate students, undergraduates don’t normally get paid, and parents without degrees are notoriously poor; even “inexpensive” child care can be a prohibitive cost. Unfortunately, many parents interested in a bachelor’s degree have to postpone their education until their children are old enough to start public school. I had to wait six years before resuming my education; that’s six years of lost job experience and postgraduate wages.
Even once children are in public schools, another issue arises, as public elementary schools are more generous with vacation days than Columbia is. Their calendars are filled with half days and weeklong breaks—breaks which force parents to scramble for babysitters. Parents can occasionally resort to bringing their children to class, but not all classes are appropriate. Once, I narrowly dodged bringing my daughter to a spontaneous class discussion about sexual assault.
The School of General Studies seeks to make it possible for nontraditional students “to complete [their] degree at one of the finest institutions in the country.” If they truly hope to embody this mission, they should also provide subsidized preschool for the young children of incoming students. There ought to be a lounge where parents and babysitters can watch children. The University should sponsor child care on public school holidays and offer occasional weekend assistance. Even when I have hired babysitters around campus, I’ve been stuck wondering: Where can they go? Currently, there isn’t even an appropriate indoor space for the children. The business school is planning to relocate, creating space in Uris Hall. Why not use some of that space for child care?
If we had a space, we could hold family-friendly events, such as Saturday playdates, and we could foster a sense of community. We could organize co-op style child care and take turns watching each other’s children. This would have the added benefit of increasing our involvement in the larger Columbia community, creating a more diverse environment.
In contrast, Columbia graduate schools subsidize backup care for students with children, but undergraduates are ineligible. Why does Columbia only offer these programs to graduates? To attract talent? To enable them to succeed? With the traditional student model dying and 4.8 million student-parents nationwide, Columbia should make use of these resources to attract talented parents, who are some of the hardest-working and most driven individuals.
Generally, student-parents don’t think of themselves as ideal candidates for esteemed universities. Many students who have taken time off believe they have missed their chance; the Ivy League seems out of reach. Yet students with children are driven by an intrinsic motivation incomprehensible to nonparents. For student-parents, their children’s well-being and future is immediately dependent on their success. What could be more motivating than that? Don’t parents deserve a chance at a great education? GS provides an amazing opportunity, but college is still inaccessible to many prospective students with children; simply accepting our applications is not enough.
Studies have shown that campus child care leads students with children to earn better grades and graduate faster. This would be beneficial, especially since student-parents are pitted against ageism and financial constraints. Furthermore, higher performance and an earlier graduation date would enable parent graduates to earn better jobs. All in all, expanding campus child care would enhance Columbia’s reputation.
There are already examples of campus child care programs across the country. New York State schools provide child care for over 5,000 children at 53 centers statewide. Columbia has been an innovative pioneer in education; GS has embraced nontraditional students, adult learners, and veterans. Columbia should be setting an example that other universities would strive to follow. Why not embrace student-parents next?
The author is a second-year GS student and mother of a seven-year-old.
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