Instead of Praising Student Parents for “Overcoming Obstacles,” How About Removing Them Instead?

We all love a good success story. The ones that leave out the messy parts of life, tying experiences of adversity up into a neat little bow.  

Colleges can’t get enough of this inspirational fodder either. Especially when it comes to sharing “student parent success stories.”  

As the University of Missouri–St. Louis shares on their website: 

“Undoubtedly, being both a student and a parent poses unique challenges and circumstances. Despite this, student parents persist and overcome obstacles in their pursuit toward a college degree—for themselves and for their families.” 

While it’s amazing that stories exist highlighting student parents who were able to graduate with help from their family, friends, and schools… that’s not the reality for a lot of young pregnant and parenting students who are ostracized and receive limited support.  

More importantly, why are we putting the responsibility on pregnant and parenting students to “persist and overcome obstacles” … when it should really be on schools to create a supportive environment that removes those obstacles for them? 

As it stands, student parents face immense discrimination and harassment. And student parents of color face even more barriers due to existing racist and sexist stereotypes meant to devalue and shame their experiences. LGBTQI pregnant and parenting students also experience stigma and unique barriers to completing school.

Student parents have been denied summer classes. Kicked out of clubs. Forced out of school and into “alternate” programs. One teacher even told a student, “You’re too smart to be pregnant.” These are just a few examples of how schools are punishing students for choosing to carry their pregnancy or become a parent. 

Even scarier, pregnant and parenting students are often forced to choose between their health and their education. As a nursing student from South Carolina shared: 

“Days after giving birth I was told I needed to come back and take exams and clinicals. I couldn’t take the time my doctor recommended. I had just gotten out of the hospital and could barely think straight but here I was having to choose between my degree and my health.”  

And once they’re back in school, parents may be forced to choose between their children and their education. Many high schools and colleges lack on-campus child care, child-friendly housing, parenting student support services, or other indicators of a family-friendly environment.  

And all of those barriers have lifelong consequences for student parents. Becoming a young mother is one primary reason why girls do not finish high school. And even though parenting students often earn higher GPAs than their classmates without children, over half of all student parents will not complete their degrees.  

None of this is because student parents aren’t smart or capable enough—it’s because they are expected to be superheroes, balancing their many responsibilities without any institutional support. That’s what could actually make a difference. One prime example: when student parents were able to access on-campus child care… their graduation rate nearly tripled. 

That’s why we are calling on all schools, at all levels, to: 

  • Implement stronger protections for pregnant and parenting students experiencing discrimination  
  • Train employees on pregnant and parenting student rights 
  • Provide accommodations and resources for student parents to thrive in school, such as lactation rooms, transportation, flexible absence policies, and young pregnant and parenting classes 

And maybe most importantly, schools must tell the messy, meaningful truth of what it’s really like to be a student parent.  

As a former pregnant student in California succinctly explained: 

“I was punished for becoming pregnant, forced to continue the pregnancy and keep the baby, then punished further for being a student and parent.”  

That’s not a shiny success story. But it’s the one we should be telling anyway.  

Because only when we understand the scope of the problem can we create an impactful solutionand ensure all student parents can access the high-quality education they deserve.