The invisible lives of Black student fathers

OPINION:  Black fathers in college are not the first image most people have when it comes to being a student-parent. But Black student fathers deserve systems, allies and communities that fight for them, elevate their experiences and understand their potential.

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

To be a young Black man navigating higher education is to be reminded that institutional spaces are rarely environments cultivated with our success in mind—or to simply see us. Young Black men encounter a cocktail of disparities, stereotypes, and discrimination that reverberate throughout the education system ultimately creating unwelcoming and unsupportive learning environments. 

Black men currently have the lowest college completion rate at 40 percent due to myriad reasons, but most prominently Black college students are more often balancing school with work and family responsibilities compared to their peers. Therefore, it is easy to imagine how adding becoming a father to this intricate equation can only elongate the pathway to completing college for Black men. 

Black fathers in college are not always the first image that comes to mind when thinking about the student-parent population—and there is even less representation for Black fathers on college campuses. Lack of representation makes the lives and experiences of Black fathers on campus nearly invisible. The first time I saw a representation of myself was on my son’s mother’s college campus. I attended a birthday party there and saw so many other Black fathers with their children. I had grown up primarily raised around women with few examples of Black fathers around me—let alone other Black student fathers. Seeing people who were having similar experiences and who also looked like me created a short sense of reassurance that was completely absent on my college campus. 

I had been in college for a year before having my son, and like many young fathers, my role as a provider was expedited placing the decision between earning a degree⸺and a future of economic possibilities⸺and immediate financial relief for my family on the table. I ultimately chose the latter and decided to leave school to focus on working.

When I left school, my only concern was making sure I could provide for my son. I felt like life was moving too fast to be focused on school. Balancing work and school meant my attention would be divided and I had to make a choice. Student fathers are far more likely than student mothers to leave college before completion, and this gap is even wider for student fathers of color. Research shows that the dropout rate for Black and Latino student fathers is 70 percent. Like me, one of the primary reasons student fathers leave school is because of the pressure to serve as an immediate source of income for their families. The balancing act of providing for your family and school often creates impossible odds for student fathers, with school frequently being pushed to the back-burner.  

After leaving school, I endured a mental “tug-of-war” between whether or not I could provide for my son. I wanted to quickly become a provider and fell into a cycle of business ideas and other avenues that I thought could generate immediate income. After a year of dealing with depression, I realized the best way for me to secure a future for myself and my son was to get my college degree. I wanted to ensure that my son had stability and to exemplify how education can serve as an ally. 

A college degree can open up a world of economic opportunities for student parents that would not otherwise be available while also creating stability, educational aspirations and other positive outcomes for their children. However, Black fathers are an invisible segment of a population that is already often ignored and at the convergence of numerous factors that stall college completion. 

Of the multitude of issues that higher education must address, representation and acknowledgment of the millions of students that account for the college student population is the first step. While there is still a significant gap in how student parents are acknowledged and supported in higher education, much of the efforts tend to focus on mothers. There are about 1 in 5 college students that are parenting with mothers making up 70 percent of that population. With those numbers, it is easy to see why mothers are prioritized when discussing student parents. However, for Black student fathers, there is a disconnect between our experiences and how socio-economic factors disproportionately impact our access to degree completion. 

Job security, housing security, financial aid supports and more are issues that impact Black fathers at disproportionate rates. Black fathers are less likely to have access to public benefits like food and childcare assistance and other financial aid benefits. Black fathers are also disproportionately affected by homelessness and job loss, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exasperated these disparities. During the pandemic, a report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that one in four Black fathers battled with homelessness. Fewer than 11 percent were able to receive assistance finding affordable housing. Two in five Black fathers also experienced job loss, reduced work hours and other economic setbacks. 

There is still much work higher education needs to do to ensure that student parents can succeed in postsecondary education一and, even more, to ensure that Black student fathers succeed at proportionate rates. Young Black fathers need allies that are willing to ensure that they overcome hurdles preventing them from obtaining a degree or seeing college as an option. My experience is not an anomaly. Organizations like Generation Hope not only provide Black fathers with tangible support, like tuition assistance, but it’s the intangibles like mentorship, mental health support, and community that create an environment where our voices and experiences are heard. 

When a young person becomes a parent, society has a tendency to attach limitations and stigmas to our journeys, especially for Black fathers. Black student fathers deserve systems, allies and communities that fight for us, elevate our experiences, and understand our potential. Throughout my journey, I have learned the value of feeling seen and supported, and every Black father deserves that experience. 

Jahkeer Wainwright is a sophomore majoring in computer science at the University of Maryland-Global Campus. He is currently a student scholar of Generation Hope. 

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