- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - It took a while for Nathan Hrnicek’s professors to understand he wasn’t skipping classes because of laziness or indifference.

He had to be at his job, where he works 50-hour weeks to support his family of six.

“This is the reason I’m doing it - her and these four kids,” Hrnicek said nodding to his wife, Alicia, and their children, all of whom are younger than 9. “I’m just trying to provide a better future for my family, and a four-year degree opens up a lot of opportunities and options.”

Hrnicek, who’s a district manager for Dairyland Seed Co., has been an agriculture student at Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette for more than three years.

In that time, he has built a good reputation with his professors, who now are understanding of his busy schedule as a full-time employee and father.

But Hrnicek will have to go through that trust-building process again next year if he transfers to Purdue University - one of two four-year schools he’s considering. Unlike Ivy Tech, student-parents aren’t the norm at Purdue, and not all of its professors accommodate the nontraditional student group.

That could soon change, however, as part of an effort to make the university a more welcoming place for students with children.

Purdue is one of a handful of schools nationwide piloting a toolkit that assesses the needs of student-parents. The overarching goal is to aid student-parents, specifically single mothers, in earning their degrees to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

“The research tells us that a single mother getting a degree is the best way to get out of poverty,” said Peggy Favorite, the director of Purdue’s Span Plan Nontraditional Student Services and leader of the toolkit initiative at the university.

On average, people with bachelor’s degrees earn nearly 65 percent more than those who have only a high school degree, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But only one-third of student-parents attain a degree or certificate within six years of enrollment, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

At Purdue, the toolkit is serving as a starting point to uncover how many students have children, the hurdles they face and how the university can better serve them.

“The reality is: If you’re a student and you need support with your family and you don’t have that, you’re not going to be successful,” said Candace Shaffer, interim associate director of benefits programs in Purdue human resources, who also is working on the toolkit.

Meeting a need

More than 1 million student-parents attend four-year institutions, according to theInstitute for Women’s Policy Research. That accounts for 15 percent of the entire four-year undergraduate population.

Still, little is known about the group, said Joan Karp, a senior research associate at Endicott College’s Program Evaluation and Research Group. The Massachusetts college is home to the National Center for Student Parent Programs.

In 2013, the research group received a grant to study student-parent programs at eight four-year public and private colleges that already had established programs in place.

The goal was to figure out factors that made those programs successful and barriers they face in assisting students. The group then used that research to build a toolkit of best practices that other schools could implement at their own programs.

That’s where Purdue comes in. The university was one of eight two- and four-year schools selected last spring to pilot the “Family Friendly Campus Toolkit.”

All the pilot schools had an established student-parent program, women’s center or nontraditional student office they wanted to ramp up, Karp said.

To get started, Purdue’s Span Plan sent out a survey in the spring to student-parents to learn the challenges they face and how the university can better assist them.

The survey also aimed to get a better grasp on how many student-parents are on campus. The office’s process for finding and marketing to the group is an inexact science based on information gathered from the registrar’s office, the financial aid division and other university programs, Favorite said.

Of 9,184 students who filed as an independent on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid documents in the spring, 567 said they had a legal dependent and 2,439 said they supported a child. That represents about 8 percent of the total student population.

But not everyone fills out a FAFSA, so those numbers are likely higher, Shaffer said.

“You can see just in (those numbers) that we don’t have a good gauge on how many are out there,” she said. “We just know that they’re out there.”

A little more than 200 undergraduate, graduate and professional students responded to the survey, Favorite said, and her team is still analyzing the responses.

Span Plan also conducted focus groups this month to gather more feedback, Favorite said, adding that many students expressed concern about their financial situations.

With their input, she said, the office will present data to campus stakeholders - including the Graduate School, advisers and student success offices - then propose actions to university leaders.

“We’ll really want high-level support,” Favorite said.

Child care access

Span Plan works with and advocates for nontraditional students, including those who are pregnant or the parents and legal guardians of children..

The office offers workshops and one-on-one guidance and makes students aware of scholarships for which they can apply, Favorite said.

One of the most vital scholarships is for child care at the university - a necessity that’s unavailable to many students.

There are four child care centers on campus, including one that recently opened and increased the full-time child care capacity on campus from 212 children to 352.

But Purdue’s child care centers tend to be more accessible to faculty, staff and graduate students because of the price point, Shaffer said. For that reason, one of her goals is to provide more undergraduate students with university child care scholarships.

For example, the Patty Jischke Early Care & Education Center costs $220 per week for infant care for families who make less than $75,000, according to the center’s website.

Kimberly Bargfeldt, a single mom and sociology and human development junior, said the prices and long waiting lists at the university’s child centers drove her to outside care.

Her 2-year-old son instead attends day care at Grace United Methodist Church in Lafayette, where Bargfeldt pays $80 each week.

“If (child care cost) was one thing we didn’t have to worry about … it would be easier for us to focus on school and our goals and how we’re going to better our lives for our kids,” she said.

Bargfeldt also said she would benefit from a drop-off center where she could bring her son in emergency situations when she doesn’t have any other care options.

An on-campus space at Purdue dedicated to the student population could make that a reality.

“A dream that I have is to have a student-parent center,” Favorite said.

Ideally, she said, the center would include amenities for students and their children and would be equipped with lounge furniture, areas for children to play and places for parents to chat.

Urging for excused absences

Student-parents also face obstacles inside the classroom.

Purdue student-parents and pregnant students currently are at the mercy of their instructors when they have to leave class. It’s at the discretion of each professor whether they’ll excuse the absence.

Last semester, a pregnant student came to Favorite’s office and said she had to forfeit an exam because she had morning sickness and students weren’t allowed to leave the lecture hall until they completed the test. Her only other choice would have been to throw up in a garbage can.

“(With) issues like that, we can help act as advocates with the professors,” Favorite said.

Span Plan is working on a policy to pitch to university leaders that would allow students to miss school for pregnancy, childbirth and child care situations, she said.

An excused absence policy would have helped Joni Bennett, a single mom and organizational leadership and supervision junior, when her children’s schools closed for a snow day last winter.

She emailed all her professors at the start of the semester to inform them she has two young kids and asked whether they’d prefer if she miss class or bring them with her in the case of a snow day. Only one instructor - a teaching assistant - said it wouldn’t be excused.

The instructor said she could bring her kids if they were well-behaved, but Bennett chose to miss class and lose her points for the day because she knew her 4-year-old son would be too disruptive.

Bennett talked with the teaching assistant’s supervisor and eventually the head of the department to appeal the lost points, but they said they couldn’t do anything.

“That would have never had happened at Ivy Tech,” said Bennett, who transferred to Purdue last semester after attending Ivy Tech since 2014.

Bennett said the community college is used to having student-parents, so professors there are more understanding in those situations.

That aligns with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s findings that 2.1 million student-parents attend two-year institutions, representing 30 percent of the community college student body.

Ivy Tech doesn’t have a program designated for student-parents, spokesman Tom McCool said, but professors there are aware that many students are juggling more than just their courses.

“We schedule a lot more classes in the evening and try to be aware that they do have schedules and full-time jobs also,” he said.

Purdue can’t offer many night classes because student organizations commonly use classroom space in the evenings, said Carol Horan, associate registrar of academic and classroom scheduling. Classrooms also are occasionally used in the evenings by professors who teach large courses so all of their classes can take the tests at the same time, she said.

Ralph Kaufmann, professor in the Department of Mathematics, said he and his colleagues are understanding when students need to miss class for their children.

“I think everyone here is very nice about that,” he said, noting that a majority of his doctoral students have children.

Kaufmann, who also is chairman of the University Senate’s Educational Policy Committee, said he would support an excused absence policy for pregnant students and student-parents.

A policy, he said, would give professors and students something to refer to in such instances and would ensure every student is treated the same, no matter which professor they have.

“Having a policy saying this is a valid reason is a really good thing,” Kaufmann said.

The cost of education

Ultimately, the lack of resources and flexible class schedules can have a large impact on student-parents’ graduation timeline and their wallets.

If he makes the switch to Purdue, Hrnicek said he’ll have to take fewer credit hours because he couldn’t be on campus all day, every day.

He estimates it will add another three to four years to his graduation timeline, which also will rack up expenses.

Hrnicek expects to pay more than $50,000 for tuition and books once all is said and done.

“(I’m) absolutely concerned with costs. They keep rising for all students, and at a more alarming rate for nontraditional students,” he said. “There is also an inherent cost to life when trying to be a nontraditional student.”

But the process, no matter how difficult at times, still is worth it to Hrnicek and his family.

“There’s a lot of lonely nights sometimes, and we spend a lot of time missing him,” said Alicia, Hrnicek’s wife. “I mean, this is what I signed up for and I’m extremely proud of him, and so no matter how long it takes, I want him to see it through.”

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Source: (Lafayette) Journal and Courier: https://on.jconline.com/2d0xwqE

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Information from: Journal and Courier, https://www.jconline.com

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