So much has been asked of caregivers, especially those in the process of getting a college degree and balancing home and work responsibilities through the pandemic. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 4.8 million college students are simultaneously raising children. There also exists a great number of student caregivers who fall into the “sandwich generation”–those who are raising children and supporting their adult relatives simultaneously.
In a recent UNC Chapel Hill survey, more than 1 in 20 students identified as caregivers. These same caregivers are overwhelmingly women, financial aid recipients and part-time students who often reported lower GPAs and higher instances of anxiety and depression. As the number of student caregivers is expected to grow, colleges and universities must identify and offer unique services to this demographic.
Higher-ed institutions must empower student caregivers to succeed or risk seeing dropout and stop-out rates rise among these learners. To meet each student caregiver’s changing needs, there are a few focal points higher-ed leaders can prioritize to enhance their experience and put them on the path to academic success.
Offer Flexible Course Delivery Methods
In a global survey 80 percent of students prefer a hybrid learning model so they have more flexibility with online courses. This, no doubt, includes student caregivers who need to have more virtual options when it comes to course offerings and advising appointments, balancing school with the demands of their home life. For example, a single mother who is taking care of small children and lives off campus will likely have more difficulty coming to multiple in-person classes four times per week.
Caregivers also are more likely to work than their non-caregiver counterparts. By offering online evening or weekend courses, institutions are removing some of the barriers that cause these students to either drop out completely or take time off during a semester.
Get Caregivers Career-Ready Through Technology
Often, caregivers will seek a college degree to obtain a higher-paying job to better care for their dependents. In response to this need, institutions can leverage technology designed to help outline clearer pathways to the workforce and connect student caregivers with the courses required to build the skills they need to be successful in securing an in-demand job after finishing their degree.
For example, automated badging and microcredentialing can give these learners multiple levels of skills assurance and insights into different career pathways. This also allows them to showcase their accumulated skills via a digital portfolio that sticks with them after graduation while fitting into their busy schedules. These offerings also provide student caregivers with a clear picture of their return on investment, which offers reassurance while they may be struggling to see the value of seeking a degree amid their many responsibilities at home.
Going Beyond Academic Assistance
Helping caregivers in their academic journey requires attention placed beyond the classroom. According to a recent study done by AARP, student caregivers are more likely to screen clinically significant for major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Institutions must prioritize mental health and ensure that wrap-around services are accessible both on and off campus.
Additionally, student caregivers reported feeling significantly less supported by their schools, and said they struggle with feeling out of place on their campuses. Diving into relevant data through quick surveys, institutions can create caregiver-focused groups that cater to the needs and wants of these students – even as an online group. Overall, the goal is to make sure that institutions are inclusive and not putting out that message that college is only a place for single, young people looking to have fun.
Remove Financial Barriers
Financial assistance is another significant barrier many caregivers face daily as inflation and economic challenges impact this group even harder. The same study by AARP noted that the pandemic caused severe financial challenges for students who were caregivers, including lost or decreased salaries from their off-campus and on-campus jobs, leading to a higher likelihood of experiencing housing and food insecurity. All these factors play into the fact that student caregivers are more likely to drop out if they face too many financial barriers to earning their degree.
Knowing this, advisors should ensure they’re providing student caregivers with greater access to financial resources that fit their specific situations. This may include scholarships for single mothers, work-study jobs, aid for families dealing with chronic illness, special grants, and other financial aid opportunities from federal and state governments.
The fact that student caregivers don’t operate the same as traditional students should be seen as an opportunity for institutions to re-evaluate how their academic and non-academic services are serving their entire diverse population. By recognizing and supporting their unique needs, institutions will better be able to put student caregivers on the pathway to success, improving the lives of caregivers and the people they care for.
As a mother of small children, a former financial aid recipient and someone who worked and went to school at the same time I can’t even imagine the impact of caregivers who are also working and going to school during a pandemic.
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