In summary

Signed by the governor in September 2022, AB 2881 aims to identify and address the needs of student parents in California by offering them priority registration. Coordinators and advocates are optimistic the law will formalize data collection, allowing them to better serve this student population that represents 1 in 5 students nationally.

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It was well past 8 a.m. by the time Elisa Arquieta finished dropping off her daughter at middle school and her younger two children at her university’s child care center. Only after dropping them off did she realize it was also well past the opening of fall class registration for her and the rest of her Cal State Long Beach classmates.

Arquieta eventually logged on to her student portal to find the final two classes required for her degree completely booked. As a fourth year student and with no other choice but to waitlist the courses, Arquieta became nervous, wondering how this would affect her graduation date. 

“I was just like, ‘Ah, but I kind of need these,’” Arquieta said. 

Student parents like Arquieta have long been an underserved population in higher education despite more than 200,000 college students in California having dependents. Nationally, 1 in 5 college students have dependents. 

To address their specific needs, Assemblymember Marc Berman, a Menlo Park Democrat, authored Assembly Bill 2881, which was signed into law in September 2022. The law stipulates that all campuses across California’s three public higher education systems provide priority registration for student parents  by July 1, 2023 and maintain a website listing resources for them by Feb. 1, 2023.

“This bill would remove barriers that inhibit academic success and degree attainment for student parents, bring greater attention to their needs, and in doing so, uplift their children as well,” Berman said via email. 

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Marc Berman

Marc Berman

State Assembly, District 23 (Palo Alto)

Marc Berman

State Assembly, District 23 (Palo Alto)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal Conservative
District 23 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem 54%
GOP 14%
No party 28%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Marc Berman has taken at least $892,000 from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 22% of his total campaign contributions.

Although the law took effect this year, most California student parents will have to wait for priority registration. While all 10 University of California campuses offered priority registration for student parents prior to this fall, both the California State University and California Community College systems failed to meet the deadline. They cited a lack of data on the number of eligible students and a lack of time to implement the necessary software. However, advocates and campus coordinators are optimistic the law will formalize and ease data collection, allowing schools to better serve these students’ needs. 

All three public systems in California lacked a comprehensive method of regular data collection on student parents and their needs on each individual campus prior to the law.   

In 2019 Larissa Mercado-López, a Fresno State professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, led the first effort in California public higher education to count the number of student parents on her campus. According to Mercado-López, 350 pregnant or parenting students self-identified as part of the 2022 fall survey — a figure she called a likely undercount.

Like other public campuses in California, Fresno State relied on numbers from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid prior to the release of Mercado-López’s annual survey. However, given some students become a parent after applying for financial aid and with only 70% of students nationally filling out the FAFSA, Mercado-López said universities should routinely collect their own data on student parent populations and their needs.

The law will now require campuses to collect that data. The California Community Colleges added a question to its application this past summer to identify student parents eligible for priority registration. The California State University added an option to students’ registration portals for student parents to certify their eligibility. At the UC, student parents must self-identify with their campus by filling out a form to alert the registrar of their priority registration eligibility.

“It kind of indirectly addresses that invisibility issue or awareness,” said Afet Dundar, senior research director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C. “So that’s the good part in terms of the resources and website.” 

Data collected by campuses can help them better assist student parents by connecting them to government programs like CalWORKS, Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children that are designed to provide financial assistance and other resources. All campuses in the UC and California Community Colleges systems successfully created or updated a website of resources for student parents to comply with the law. With the exception of CSU Bakersfield and CSU Maritime Academy, all other CSU campuses also created the resource pages for this fall.

Data captured from FAFSA and the California Dream Act application for the 2018-19 academic year found 72% of student parents in California intended to enroll at a community college, according to the UC Davis School of Education. In 2018, 145,061 student parents were enrolled at community colleges, while 24,023 were enrolled in the CSU system and 2,975 were enrolled in the UC system. 

“This is about gender and racial equity, really, when we talk about student parents.”

Afet Dundar, senior research director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Research on the racial demographics of student parents entering community college in 2016 in California found 48% of student parents were Latino, 25% were white, 13% were Black and 14% were Asian or “other,” according to a report from UC Davis. The same report found 77% of the state’s student parents were female while 33% were male. 

Women of color are the majority of the student parent population and about one-third are student-fathers, according to Dundar. 

“This is about gender and racial equity, really, when we talk about student parents,” Dundar said. “There are additional considerations because our student debt report showed [students of color] are more likely to take on debt. It has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with their lack of intergenerational wealth.”  

Pregnant or parenting students face a unique set of barriers in higher education: affordability, child care, family-friendly housing and transportation. These barriers result in 52% of student parents nationwide leaving school without their degree despite investing as much as six years in their undergraduate education, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“We’re talking about non-traditional students here and trying to fit them into a traditional four-year university mold is really difficult,” said Liz Reed, CSU systemwide assistant director of enrollment management technology.

Katie Dyer at Fresno State College on Oct. 16, 2023.Dyer is a student at Fresno State College and a parent. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
Katie Dyer at Fresno State College on Oct. 16, 2023.Dyer is a student at Fresno State College and a parent. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

Katie Dyer works part time as an office manager at a hydrogeology firm, parenting 10-and 12-year-old kids while double majoring in philosophy of religion and women and gender sexuality studies at Fresno State. Like many student parents, Dyer’s higher education journey began at her local community college. In 2018 Dyer began taking night classes at Fresno City College, saying she “wanted more and better — and that was not going to happen without an education.”  

Around 44% of student parents nationally are balancing a full-time job with their parental and educational responsibilities, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Having so much on their plate leads to what researchers call “time poverty,” in which student parents’ obligations leave them with little time to complete coursework and maintain mental and physical health. 

Over the course of their undergraduate education, Dyer navigated a divorce, child care during a pandemic, and homeschooling. 

“Every semester there is a point where I feel like I’m gonna completely fall apart every single time and it’s just because there’s a lot,” Dyer said. “I think the important part for me with being a student who has kids is that you include your kids in what you’re doing. We talk about what they’re learning, we talk about what I’m learning, we do our homework together.”  

“You know that you can’t fail and you can’t stop because you’ve got these two little cheerleaders just standing there ready to celebrate everything with you.”

katie dyer, student parent at fresno state

Dyer, like many other student parents, attributes her motivation to attain her bachelor’s degree to her children. 

“They know I’m graduating in May and they’re so excited about it,” Dyer said. “You know that you can’t fail and you can’t stop because you’ve got these two little cheerleaders just standing there ready to celebrate everything with you.”

For Arquieta, part of her stress turned to celebration when was able to get off the waitlist for her classes, putting her back on track to hit her graduation date and leaving her with one less challenge to overcome. 

“Luckily, I was able to get it,” Arquieta said. “But it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m gonna have to wait and I’m gonna have to figure this out.’” 

For the record: This article was updated to reflect San Fransisco State University and CSU Los Angeles were among the CSU campuses that created resource webpages for students parents this fall.

Iyer and Mendez-Padilla are fellows with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Atmika Iyer is a fourth-year history major at UC Santa Barbara. She served as the 2022-23 editor-in-chief of UCSB's student-run, independent newspaper, the Daily Nexus. Over the course of her career as...

Briana Mendez-Padilla is a bilingual journalist based in Long Beach, California, who is passionate about covering education and her community. She began her journalism career as a high school junior when...