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Fathers or students: Black men in college often face a choice

“There were moments I felt like I failed her,” said Joseph Yusuf, now 26, who balanced being a father with being a student at Howard University. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Joseph Yusuf had all of the anxieties of a new student when he started Howard University in 2016. Would he make any friends? Could he handle his class schedule?

But unlike other students he met, Yusuf also worried about how he’d balance college with his greatest responsibility: Jakayla, his then 3-year-old daughter.

Every day involved meticulous planning to give Jakayla time and attention, while Yusuf carried a full course load. There were trade-offs. Some days he had to stay late on campus to talk to a professor or work on a project, instead of being home to help out with bedtime.

“There were moments I felt like I failed her,” recalls Yusuf, 26. “I would have to fight to get home at a certain time, pick up my daughter ... and there wasn’t really anyone at school to talk to about it.”

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Colleges and universities are coming around to the realization that they are educating moms and dads, like Yusef. But comprehensive support — mentoring, community, child care and grant aid — for the nearly 5 million undergraduates who are parents is lagging. The disconnect is becoming more apparent in the experiences of Black fathers.

New research from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University found high rates of homelessness and financial instability among Black fathers in college. It builds on earlier findings from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that show Black fathers are dropping out of school at higher rates than any other student-parent group.

Although researchers say there is still much to learn about the root causes of these disparate outcomes, it is clear that Black fathers pursuing higher education are not getting adequate attention or support. While campus-based programs for student parents are broadly accessible to mothers and fathers, outreach often focuses on moms, experts say.

“Where institutions are acknowledging that they have students who are parents, most of their programs are focused on mothers,” said Ali Caccavella, one of the authors of the Hope Center report. “Targeted outreach is crucial. Accessing basic needs supports has to overcome a significant amount of stigma for students to seek and accept help.”

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Caccavella and her team surveyed 32,560 student parents of all races in the fall of 2020, most of whom reported struggling with food or housing insecurity, but some problems were acute among Black men.

Nearly one in four Black fathers said they contended with homelessness, with barely 11 percent receiving help finding affordable housing. Two in five experienced economic setbacks like job loss, pay cuts or reduced work hours.

The survey also found stark disparities in the rates of single Black fathers relying on emergency aid or emergency housing on campus. Thirty-four percent reported using such services, compared with 69 percent of single Black mothers. Black dads also lagged behind Black moms in accessing public benefits like food and child care assistance.

“Sometimes we find there are supports that exist on campus or out in the community that student parents have no idea about, so institutions can play a role in connecting those dots,” said Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of Generation Hope, a D.C. nonprofit that helps teen parents earn college degrees.

Higher education, she said, can be an unwelcoming space for Black men, who may be further marginalized for being parents. That places the onus on institutions to have an infrastructure to keep fathers, and all student parents, from falling through the cracks, Lewis said.

With his senior year at Howard closing in, Yusuf had nowhere to live. The relationship with Jakayla’s mother was volatile at the time, and he and his own mom were no longer speaking, ruling her out as an option.

“It was tough because I didn’t have a job,” Yusuf said. “A friend offered me a spare room, but that fell through at the last minute. I was clueless about what to do.”

Yusuf said he did not trust that Howard could secure him housing, having witnessed classmates struggle with their own housing. A week before the semester began, he found a cheap apartment close to campus but didn’t have enough money to pay the security deposit. After sharing the ordeal with his mentor at Generation Hope, the organization identified funding to cover the deposit and his first month of rent, Yusuf said.

Howard officials said the school encourages students to reach out for support and will find a way to help. That could mean connecting them with resources on campus, including Howard’s child care center or food pantry, or making referrals to community groups. Howard had two student-led organizations for enrolled mothers and fathers, but they are no longer active, according to the university.

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Yusuf, who graduated in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in media, journalism and film, doesn’t recall any peer groups for fathers but said it would have helped combat the isolation he felt.

There were professors who knew he was a dad, even one or two who let Yusef bring Jakayla to class when child care fell through. But a few fleeting moments of acceptance is not the same as an intentional community, he said.

To create that kind of community, Morehouse College in Atlanta surveyed its student body two years ago. Kevin Booker, vice president for student services and dean of the college, said he knew there were dads at the historically Black men’s college, but there was no formal accounting of them or their needs.

The data provided a road map for the school’s Fathers to the Finish Line Initiative, which provides funding for day care, transportation, groceries and unforeseen emergencies that can derail students from graduating. Participants attend workshops on parenting and receive professional development, mental health and wellness support.

Five student fathers have benefited from the program since its inception in 2021, but Booker suspects far more could use a hand. Morehouse is getting the word out through student leaders and plans to highlight the program in orientation for new students.

“There are young men that won’t share that they are fathers because this is not what they intended to happen at this stage of life,” Booker said. “Getting them to be open so we can help is a challenge.”

Peer outreach can play a critical role in helping student fathers persist in college and navigate support services, researchers say. That encouragement has paved a path to enrollment for many participants in the City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. The 16-week program, hosted at Hostos, LaGuardia and Kingsborough community colleges, helps unemployed and underemployed dads obtain their GED and head on to college, if interested.

“The dads build really strong bonds. When they go through the program together, they’re like let’s both enlist in this training program together, let’s enroll [in college] together,” said Maria Buck, who directs the academy. “It’s a powerful connection.”

While most graduates of the academy pursue employment over education, Buck said those who choose a CUNY college are met with support services designed for men of color and financial resources to help with completion.

Lewis at Generation Hope says there are a host of things colleges and universities can do to improve the experience of student fathers and mothers: End policies banning children on school grounds or ones that require freshmen to live on campus. Place changing stations in men’s bathrooms or make study centers and libraries more family-friendly.

States must also revise financial aid policies that favor full-time students to the detriment of parents who must balance school and works, said Caccavella, of the Hope Center. The Education Department, she said, should also partner with institutions to ensure affordable housing is available and targeted to student parents, especially Black fathers who are twice as likely as their white peers to endure homelessness.

“We’re talking about the future and success of not only these parents but also their children,” Caccavella said. “A multifaceted problem — housing insecurity, food insecurity, economic insecurity — demands a multifaceted solution.”

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