KUT News intern Lynn Romero is a graduate student at UT-Austin. She had a daughter at age 18, and was surprised by the invisibility of students like her on campus when she started school at UT several years later. She wondered how many other student parents there were – so she tried to find out.
Texas has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the United States. And those teens who have children before they finish high school are less likely to graduate high school, let alone make it to college. But what happens to those who do?
According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, nationally about 13 percent of all undergraduates at four year universities have kids. UT-Austin junior Vanessa Pulido is one of those students. Halfway through freshman year, she gave birth to her son, Isaiah. When she started school pregnant, she worried how people would react.
“As a freshman, coming into college, you don’t want that, especially when you’re a teenager and you already have that overwhelming weight on you,” Pulido says. When she got to UT she asked her advisor if there were any groups on campus to help out teen moms?
The answer? No.
One of Pulido’s biggest concerns is childcare – she says she can’t afford the subsidized prices at the campus daycare. "One of my professors, she had mentioned to me how it’s really good, but how she was put on a wait list for her son for like a year," she says. "And even then its really, really expensive."
Isaiah is now two. During the week, he lives in Houston where family members care for him.
Pulido says it’s hard being so far away. “And that’s like is the scariest thing is not knowing what he’s doing, what’s going on, if he’s eaten, does he have his clothes on, did he get hurt, " she says. "I call Isaiah’s father, which is my boyfriend, maybe every two hours."
Two years ago, Pulido tried to create a student organization to connect with other parents on campus, but it's been difficult to sustain the group.
“Things really move a lot faster on this campus when there is student drive,” says UT student diversity initiatives director Ixchel Rosal. “If you’re talking about a population who for whatever reason – in this case time – doesn’t really have the resource to organize themselves, I think it is really going to take some advocacy work on the part of others.”
Another hurdle making it harder to reach those who need services: many major public Texas universities aren’t tracking how many students are parents. UT and Texas A&M both have some resources available for student parents, but students on both campuses say they’ve had difficulty learning about them.
One university in Texas is taking notice. Last year, the University of North Texas found more than 2,000 of their undergraduate students have children.
"Last summer we had a childcare task force," says Courtney Newsome, who oversees off-campus student services. "Students can always come and talk to me, they can get all their information directly from the website, and we also have our non-traditional student representative that works about 10 hours a week."
The Institute for Women's Policy Research's Lindsey Reichlin says such programs help student parents graduate, but also benefit the entire university.
"Supporting these students mean completion rates rise, time to degree decreases," Reichlin says. "All of the alumni statistics and success measures that these universities use to attract new students would improve were they to more fully and comprehensively support their student parents.”
The Institute for Women's Policy Research estimates approximately four percent of parents in college will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. But students like Pulido say they are determined to beat the odds – for herself and her son.
"I hope one day when he gets older he’ll understand the struggle it was to go to school and to get an education," Pulido says. "But, you know, even though it’s hard right now, in the long run it’s going to be worth it, because I am going to have a stable job and hopefully I can impact people."