A Balancing Act: HCC Resources Help Student Parents Juggle School and Home Life
Ray Reilly was working as a substitute paraeducator within the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) when faced with a decision. A single parent to two small boys, Reilly could climb the ladder within the school system to financially support the family, or enroll at Howard Community College (HCC) to pursue a degree in social sciences.
“I knew going to college and earning a degree would open the door to more opportunity in the long run,” Reilly said.
Reilly enrolled at Howard Community College (HCC) last summer and instantly faced the challenges many single parents encounter when returning to school, including finding time to study, adequate childcare, and financial resources to pay for college and make ends meet at home.
This experience is echoed in an August 2019 report to Congress by the U.S. Government Accountability Office which found that more than one in five undergraduates were raising children, and about half of student parents left school without a degree. The report also found that 55 percent of student parents were single parents, 44 percent were working full-time, and undergraduate parents had fewer financial resources to fund their education.
HCC is working to help students overcome these barriers with the Career Links program, designed to assist single parents and displaced homemakers in achieving their educational goals.
“A parent’s college experience is unique as they try to balance obligations of work, school, and family,” said Maureen Marshall, associate director of Career Links. “The program can help these students manage these challenges by working one-on-one to identify and access the resources needed for academic, career, and employment success.”
The program model is solution-focused.
“Students come to us with a problem and we’re going to try to find a solution where that student is going to walk out with a plan,” Marshall said.
The Career Links program was started over 30 years ago at HCC. Over the last several years, participation from low-income, single parents and displaced homemakers has increased from approximately 120 students in 2012 to around 150 students in 2019. This year, 25 Career Links students graduated from the college.
Students come to Career Links at all different points in their lives. Some have already attended college, some have advanced degrees, some have grown children and others have infants, toddlers, and school aged kids.
The program offers these parents case management, personal and career counseling, supports group social events, holds individual progress meetings, and points students to scholarship opportunities.
Reilly was advised to apply for Career Links, providing the opportunity to discuss academic and other goals with a case manager. Reilly’s two children were enrolled at the Children’s Learning Center (CLC), HCC’s on-campus childcare center, which also offers help for student parents.
CLC staff assists student parents in applying for the Maryland State Department of Education’s Childcare Scholarship Program and its voucher system, said Laurie Moran, director of the CLC.
“We accept these vouchers and it helps students pay for tuition, which significantly reduces the childcare cost,” she said.
The center also provides behavior and parent training during times that fit the parents’ schedules. Those taking two classes, or six credits, receive a childcare discount. And the center offers part- and full-time childcare.
“We work with the students and their schedules,” Moran said. “There are times we opened early for nursing students because they had a 7 a.m. rotation or lab.”
Reilly knew early on that time management would be key in balancing school and parenting two boys, ages 3 and 4.
After enrolling in four courses, Reilly said, “I realized I needed to drop one of those to dedicate one full day to study and homework. It is important to me to have enough time to complete all of my assignments and study for my classes.
“I’ve found just the right balance to get my classes, homework, work, and studying done during the week so on the weekends I am able to reconnect with my kids, and have every evening for dinner and bedtime together.”
When enrolling at HCC in fall 2016, Camille Thorpe, a single mother to two school-aged children and an grown child, wondered how she would handle being a student at that time.
“My issue was time and money,” she said.
Thorpe put a plan into place where she could prepare her children for school, drop them off, and head to HCC. Her focus paid off, and now she has just one math course to take to obtain two associates degrees in general studies and Social Sciences. She also balances volunteering at a government office four hours a day, Monday-Thursday. She dedicates Fridays to all of her assignments so she has the weekend free to be with family.
When it came to resources at HCC, Thorpe says she took advantage of everything possible.
“Career Links is my strength in terms of advice,” she said. “I can always call one of the case managers if I need anything.”
Thorpe says she also utilized the Learning Assistance Center, Student Support Services, and Step UP, a program on campus that pairs students with a faculty or staff coach to provide one-on-one support for managing the challenges of college life.
Her advice for any parent interested in returning to school is to “take up the challenge.”
“At first it’s going to be frightening, like a shock,” she said. “However, gradually things begin to fall into place. Just take it on and don’t worry about what’s coming next. It will fall into place, especially when you learn about all the resources on campus. They’ll help you out.”