Raising kids and GPAs: The stories of parents at Pitt

Abigail Self | Staff Photographer

When Agnes Haggerty was a Pitt student in 2003, she worked 50 hours a week, carried a full course load and looked after her toddler.

“The majority of my studying was done in the middle of the night,” Haggerty, now 34, said. “I was studying for three-hour periods while [my daughter] was asleep, and her bedtime stories were neuroscience textbooks.”

After attending Community College of Beaver County for two years, Haggerty transferred to Pitt as a junior and got her bachelor’s in neuroscience in 2004 and then her doctorate in bioengineering from Pitt in 2014.

She said she couldn’t have done it without family and friends, who coordinated their schedules into a patchwork of child care. While she worked on her degree, she shuttled her daughter from her father’s house, to her friend’s apartment and to her boyfriend’s place, sometimes only for 40 minutes at a time.

Like Haggerty, many student parents lack access to high-quality, affordable child care, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Nationwide, on-campus day care only meets the needs of 5 percent of student parents. Alongside faltering care, student parents are also more likely to take on larger debt than childless students and report feelings of social isolation on campus, the IWPR said — making raising a child while earning a degree is a common, but lonely, struggle.

A balancing act

For three years of her life, Haggerty, a single parent, slept about three hours per night. Between her daughter’s erratic sleep schedule, her late-night job as a bartender and her demanding coursework, it was all the sleep she could afford.

She graduated with only $10,000 in student loan debt — but the fast-paced lifestyle taxed her family life, and at school, Haggerty didn’t tell anyone at Pitt about her daughter until she was nearly done with her degree.

She said “was really fighting against that stereotype” — the teenage mother, dependent on welfare. She didn’t want anyone to feel like she graduated college only because she received special treatment, she said, but being a student parent was a lonely journey.

To stem isolation, Virginia Brown, associate professor of public health at the University of Maryland, published a paper, “Pregnant and Parenting Students on Campus: Policy and Program Implications for a Growing Population,” in the Journal of Education Policy in 2013.

In her research, Brown surveyed student parents at an unnamed four-year public university during the 2009-2010 school year and reviewed the literature on policies to support student parents in higher education in general, finding that on-campus day care and financial aid concerned them the most.

Although student parents often feel alone, according to Brown, the IWPR estimates that 15 percent of undergraduates at four-year universities have dependent children that live in their homes and rely on them financially.

She said the proportion of student parents is rising, largely driven by an increase in nontraditional students — those outside the ages of 18 to 24 — who either took time off before entering college or returned to school for career advancement.

Compared to their childless peers, student parents are much less likely to complete their education. According to the IWPR, six years after enrollment, 33 percent of undergraduate student parents had completed their degree and 52 percent had dropped out.

“[Student parents] are juggling so much more than the average student … They take out loans not only to provide for their education but also to provide for their childcare, housing and food,” Brown said. “When they leave, they’re going to be saddled with so much more debt than they would have if they had other options.”

According to the IWPR, student parents leave college with an average of $3,181 more debt than non-parents. Brown said most student parents willfully turn a blind eye to the long-lasting effect of this debt to support their families while in school.

For Teresa Pizzella, a 30-year-old psychology in education master’s student, turning a blind eye meant quitting her job to spend time with her son.

Pizzella said balancing work, school and a new baby was too much, despite the financial strain otherwise.

“The biggest issue is loans,” Pizzella said. “At some point, those are all going to come out of forbearance, and I’ll think about that then.”

What Pitt offers parents

According to University spokesperson John Fedele, graduate students receive free health care with very low co-pays and paid leave for either or both parents for the first six weeks of parenthood.

Birth mothers may receive additional paid parental leave at the discretion of a medical professional, according to Fedele.

He said during their paid leave, graduate students “continue to receive their stipend, benefits and associated tuition support.”

Additionally, Pitt’s College of General Studies — home to many nontraditional students — offers Students with Dependents Scholarships, which they can renew for up to three years. According to its website, CGS will choose as many as two students who have completed at least 80 credit hours with good academic standing and financial need to receive $1,500 each semester. CGS determines financial need based on the student’s FAFSA form, according to its site.

Students can also apply for discounts from Pitt’s campus day care — the University Child Development Center — according to UCDC business manager Marlene Schenck. Parents with household incomes less than $40,000 per year qualify for some amount of subsidy, which can range from 25 to 50 percent of the current tuition rate at the UCDC, Schenck said. The UCDC provides child care for Pitt students, faculty and staff whose children range from six weeks to five years old. To secure a spot on the waiting list, Pitt parents must fill out an application and put down a $15 deposit.

Tuition rates at the UCDC vary by age, number of days attended and income level, from $420 per month for a toddler from a low income family attending two days a week to $1,333 per month for an infant from a high income family attending full time.

Out of the 130 children who use the UCDC, Schenck said, only seven have parents who are also students, and none of those students are undergraduates. The other patrons are made up of Pitt’s faculty and staff.

Director of UCDC Mary Beth McCulloch said the day care’s waiting list — two-and-a-half to three years, depending on the age of the child, Schenck said — is often too long for students.

“Unfortunately, based on the length of the [waiting] list, it’s not often that [students] can get a space when they need one,” McCulloch said.

Pizzella said the length of the waiting list was the most important factor for her not choosing to use the UCDC.

“By the time I got even close to having a spot, I would be done and then not affiliated with the University most likely, so why even bother?” Pizzella said.

Brown found this same pattern in her research — most universities provide on-campus day care, but there is rarely enough room for children of students.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no plan to expand,” McCulloch said. “We do not have space here to increase the amount of classrooms or increase the enrollment.”

The UCDC only accepts full-time students, Schenck said. But part-time — or even drop-in — care would be much more useful for students, according to junior Morgan Donaldson, a 31-year-old public service major who has four sons ranging from six to 14 years old.

Brown said most students, like Haggerty, end up turning to family and friends to cover their day care needs.

A social life?

For first-year Dave Levine, a 31-year-old public service major with a six-year-old son, relying on his ex-wife for evening child care became a necessity. Donaldson also leans on her husband to care for the kids while she attends evening classes.

“I have attended [College of General Studies Student Government] meetings and events where children were welcomed,” Donaldson said. “It was a huge help, otherwise I couldn’t attend. But outside of that, I don’t know of any parent group.”

Donaldson said the child-friendly meetings aren’t indicative of most of Pitt’s events — usually, she can’t participate in on-campus activities when she’s with her children.

According to Pizzella, there is really no mechanism for student parents to find one another, and she was not even aware that the CGS provided a family-friendly social scene. There is no university-wide parent group — even on social media — to facilitate a supportive community.

“I have no idea who other student parents are,” Pizzella said. “There’s no one else in my program that I know of that’s a parent.”

Pizzella said she is older than most of her peers and also part time, so she doesn’t have a good community in her program in general, . Because of this lack of community, she said she never felt like she could really own her pregnancy on campus.

“I really did feel ashamed [of being pregnant],” Pizzella said. “I mean, I’m an adult married person! I don’t want to feel that way.”

For Haggerty, her time constraints as a parent and student kept her from connecting with the larger Pitt community. Unlike other students, she wasn’t able to go to parties or grab coffee with friends on campus.

“I think that Pitt could play a major role in connecting [parents],” Haggerty said.

Brown said administrators often notice that the student body contains a significant number of parenting students, so they create programs directed at these students to improve graduation rates.

Since 2002, Pitt has devoted an entire center to this purpose: The McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success in the College of General Studies, which is a “gathering place, resource center and oasis all rolled into one,” according to the CGS site.

The McCarl Center has a lounge, career development seminars, tutoring sessions and social and networking services, all of which the CGS student government helps facilitate.

According to Adam Robinson, director of the McCarl Center, in order to achieve the Center’s mission of helping nontraditional students feel comfortable at Pitt, creating a family-friendly atmosphere is an absolute requirement. He said all CGS student government-sponsored events are open to children.

But the Center isn’t advertised to student parents outside of the CGS — Haggerty and Pizzella both said they’d never heard of it.

Robinson said he wants to help form a University-wide student parent group at Pitt — something 40-year-old junior health services major Jessica Thomas wishes she had here.

“I would love to find a platform to incorporate nontraditional students from other programs on campus to gather and share experiences, provide encouragement and build friendships,” Thomas, who studies within CGS, said.

Thomas, who was a teen mom, has attended Pitt alongside her oldest daughter for the past three years, allowing them to share their struggles and successes. Thomas’s other two children are in high school and she does homework with them,  daring them to beat her GPA.

Like Thomas, Haggerty was only a teenager when her daughter was born. She chose to pursue her undergraduate education so she could provide a reasonably comfortable life for her and her daughter, and then she earned a Ph.D. as a personal goal.

“Being able to prove to myself and my daughter that you’re not stuck in a situation, that you have some control even in situations that seem like you don’t have a lot of control over, and that if you ask for help people will help you out,” Haggerty said. “I think that it was an incredible experience.”

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated that Jessica Thomas has four children, one in college and three in high school. She has three, one in college and two in high school. The story also previously stated that Thomas works with all of her children on their homework. She only works with her high-school aged children. Additionally, in the print version of this story, which was published on April 25, 2016, Thomas was misidentified as Agnes Haggerty in a photo caption. This story has been updated. 

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