A Twisting Path towards a Better Life: The Experience of Caregiver Students

Blog Post
Nov. 8, 2018

There are very few things more difficult than maintaining a work-life balance while having kids and attending college. In fact, a recent study found that caregiver students are far less likely to graduate college because of “time poverty.” Students caring for preschool-aged children only had 10 hours a day for sleeping, eating, homework, and leisure activities; students without children had 21 hours. The story of caregiver students illustrates how our social service and higher education systems fail those who are looking to make a better life for themselves and their children through further education.

Ariel Ventura-Lazo met his wife Naraya Omar at church. They fell in love and eventually were expecting their first baby. After graduating high school in 2009, Ariel entered the workforce in conjunction with starting college, but navigating both the workforce and school full time led to failing his classes. Unable to successfully balance school, work, caregiving responsibilities, and needing more money from full-time employment to support his young family, Ariel quit college to work at an armed transport company.

But financial stability remained elusive. With only a high school diploma, Ariel hit an earnings ceiling at his company. And the family struggled to pay its bills, not bringing in enough to make ends meet but making too much to qualify for public assistance. Their financial position also meant they had to rely on extended family to help provide housing, forcing them to move frequently.

Naraya had a tumultuous time in high school. Her mother died when she was 15, and she was kicked out of her house. This, and her pregnancy at 19, meant she attended a series of high schools before finally ending up at an alternative high school for teen parents. At that school, she connected with Generation Hope, a nonprofit that provides financial and mentoring support to teen parents to get them to and through college. Generation Hope helped her, and later Ariel, connect to and pay for Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA).

But when both Ariel and Naraya enrolled at NOVA, the difficult challenges they were already facing got even more complex. Ariel quit his full-time job for a more flexible part-time one, and Naraya also got a part-time job. This drop in income meant that the family was eligible for public assistance. But that assistance came with so many paperwork and compliance strings that it felt like another part-time job to manage. In fact, Ariel calls eligibility verification “another form of homework” that further stretched the couple’s already limited time.

For instance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families provided much-needed support. But the program also required the couple to get supervisors to sign off on their hours, not just provide pay stubs; get their professors to sign off on their class attendance, not just prove they were enrolled; and get their landlord, also known as Ariel’s mother, to provide a notarized signature on a document attesting to their rent.

These requirements were both humiliating and an incredible time suck. If all of their qualified activities—work, class, and job search—didn’t equal 30 hours a week for each parent, they would have to make up the difference by searching for jobs under supervision. Multiply this burden by all the different programs the family needed to scrape by, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and subsidized child care, and dealing with bureaucracy was indeed equal to a part-time job or college class.

At the same time, college itself is not set up with the flexibility needed to maximize the chances of success for caregiver students. The end of every semester brought trepidation for Ariel and Naraya. Of course, they felt a sense of accomplishment, but they also knew they would have to work out their schedules all over again with class, work, and child care all precariously balanced. They had to take turns with heavier class loads and try to access the classes, only offered at very particular times, that they needed to graduate.

Despite these challenges, Ariel and Naraya have been remarkably successful. On Mother’s Day, both walked across the stage at NOVA, having earned their associate degrees. Ariel is now a junior at George Mason University working toward a bachelor’s degree in business management. Next semester, Naraya will start her bachelor’s in education also at George Mason.

Because of their tenacity, they have done remarkably well. There are too few success stories like theirs. We need an overhaul of our social service and higher education systems to meet the needs of caregiver students. Over the coming months, New America will explore how better to support these students. We will dive into the data to reveal the demographics of these students, investigate policy roadblocks that prevent their success, and share institutional profiles of programs that help support student caregivers and their families. Students like Ariel and Naraya shouldn't have to display superhuman determination to navigate an unnecessarily twisting, circuitous path towards a better life for their families.

Related Topics
Pre-K Higher Education Access and Affordability Adult Education