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A New Study Led by JED and Ascend Finds that Support for Student Parent Mental Health Could Make the Difference Between Graduating, or Not

May 26, 2021


By Kamla Modi, Ph.D., Director of Learning & Evaluation at JED, and Sara Gorman, Ph.D., Director of Research and Knowledge Dissemination at JED

Parenting is never easy. The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered the usual difficulties of parenting even more challenging. Anyone navigating working from home with children learning remotely or without adequate childcare knows how stressful, demoralizing, and extremely fatiguing these situations can be. Many parents have found this scenario to be nearly unbearable and have anxiously awaited the day when their children can return to school in person.

However, this temporary unbearable reality for many parents is the permanent situation of a population of students in the U.S. who are also parents. 

Like working parents during the pandemic, parenting students regularly juggle their own work with caring for their children, as many of them do not have access to childcare. Parenting students make up over 20% of the undergraduate student population in this country, but their experiences are often unknown and invisible to most. 

In an attempt to better understand this population and their mental health challenges, The Jed Foundation (JED) partnered with Ascend at The Aspen Institute to conduct research on the topic and develop a set of recommendations to help colleges and universities better support these students.

Our research led us to some important discoveries. Parenting students face extreme stress, including higher rates of basic needs insecurity, higher rates of trauma, and much less of a sense of belonging on campus than their non-parenting counterparts. Younger parenting students (ages 18-24) struggle significantly more than older parenting students (ages 25 and older). The threat of attrition (and ultimately the actual rate of attrition) is very high among parenting students, with 38% saying they considered dropping out in the past 30 days versus 25% of non-parenting students. Rates of extreme stress, extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation, and symptoms of anxiety and depression are often higher among parenting students than among their non-parenting counterparts.

At the same time, we also discovered incredible examples of resilience among parenting students. They often report a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives and the sense that they are positively contributing to the well-being of others. In addition, they exhibit significantly lower rates of problematic substance use behaviors. They are also incredibly committed to their academic studies, engaging with their professors during office hours and otherwise at much higher rates than their non-parenting peers. 

Our framework, consisting of eight recommendations that guide higher education institutions in creating programs, policies, and practices that make campuses more accommodating to and inclusive of student parents and their unique stressors, seeks to help institutions of higher education build upon the extraordinary strengths of parenting students and to support them in getting what they need so they can continue their studies. These students are often juggling full-time parenting with little or no childcare, full-time work, and school. Many of them have more than one child. 

The life that most parents have led during the pandemic is the life that parenting students were already leading. We have deep admiration for their strength and perseverance, and we hope that our framework and recommendations can help them thrive in college and beyond. 

Learn more about the framework.


A New Study Led by JED and Ascend Finds that Support for Student Parent Mental Health Could Make the Difference Between Graduating, or Not

Kamla joined JED in March 2019 with 15 years of experience in non-profit, academic, community-based, and clinical settings focused on promoting the well-being of diverse groups of youth. In a previous role with the Girl Scout Research Institute, she led national studies with girls and adults to inform Girl Scouts’ programming, policy and advocacy work, strategic direction, as well as to contribute to the body of knowledge on girls’ health and well-being. Kamla holds a PhD in applied developmental psychology from Fordham University and a BA from Rutgers University. 

A New Study Led by JED and Ascend Finds that Support for Student Parent Mental Health Could Make the Difference Between Graduating, or Not

Sara joined JED from Johnson & Johnson Global Public Health, where she was responsible for a large community-based mental health effort in sub-Saharan Africa. As a public health specialist and author, she has also written extensively about mental health, global health, and the intersection of public health and psychology, among other topics. Sara’s book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, published by Oxford University Press in 2016, explores the psychology behind irrational health beliefs and decisions. Sara’s work has appeared or been reviewed in TIME, The New Yorker, Science, Psychology Today, The Atlantic, BBC, NPR, and Quartz. Sara holds a PhD from Harvard and an MPH from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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The World Health Organization defines “mental health” “as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” In using this definition, S2i recognizes that some mental health challenges reflect brain diseases that, like physical diseases, require appropriate stigma-free and patient-centered care and include both mental health and substance use disorders. Other mental health challenges stem from social conditions and marginalization and require different forms of interventions.