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The Invisible Lives of Black Student Fathers

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Editor’s note: The following article is an editorial, and the opinions expressed are those of the author. Read more opinions on the Grio.

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

Black males currently have the lowest college completion rate at 40% for a myriad of reasons, but top black students balance school more often with work and family responsibilities compared to their peers . Therefore, it’s easy to imagine how adding becoming a father to this complex equation can only lengthen the path to college completion for Black men.

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Black dads in college aren’t always the first image that comes to mind when thinking of the student-parent population — and there’s even less representation of black dads on college campuses. The lack of representation makes the lives and experiences of black fathers on campus almost 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 dads with their kids. I had grown up mostly surrounded by women with few examples of black fathers around me, let alone other black student fathers. Seeing people who were going through similar experiences and also looked like me created a short sense of comfort 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 provider was accelerated by placing the decision between getting a degree⸺and a future of economic opportunity. ⸺and immediate financial relief for my family on the table. I finally chose the latter and decided to quit school to focus on work.

When I left school, my only concern was to make sure I could support my son. I felt like life was going 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 much more likely than student mothers to leave college before graduation, 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%. Like me, one of the main reasons student fathers drop out of school is the pressure to serve as an immediate source of income for their families. The balancing act of providing for your family and your school often creates impossible odds for student fathers, with school often taking a back seat.

After leaving school, I endured a mental ‘arm wrestling’ between whether or not I could provide for my son. I wanted to quickly become a supplier 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 that the best way for me to secure a future for myself and my son was to graduate from college. I wanted to make sure my son had stability and show how education can be an ally.

A college degree can open up a world of economic opportunity for student-parents that would not otherwise be available while creating stability, educational aspirations, and other positive outcomes for their children. Yet black fathers are an invisible segment of an already often overlooked population and at the confluence of many factors that hold back college graduation.

Among the multitude of problems to which higher education must respond, the representation and recognition of the millions of students who make up the college student population is the first step. Although there is still a significant gap in how student-parents are recognized and supported in higher education, much of the effort tends to focus on mothers. About 1 in 5 students are parents with mothers who represent 70% of this population. With these figures, it is easy to understand why mothers take priority when it comes to talking about student-parents. However, for black student fathers, there is a disconnect between our experiences and how socioeconomic factors disproportionately impact our access to graduation.

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

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There is still a lot of work to be done in higher education to ensure that student parents can succeed in post-secondary education and, even more so, to ensure that black student fathers succeed at commensurate rates. Young black fathers need allies willing to ensure they overcome barriers that prevent them from earning a degree or considering 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 intangible things like mentorship, mental health support, and community that create an environment where our voices and our experiences are heard.

When a young person becomes a parent, society tends to attach limits and stigma to our journeys, especially for black fathers. Black student fathers deserve systems, allies, and communities that stand up for us, elevate our experiences, and understand our potential. Throughout my journey, I’ve learned the value of feeling seen and supported, and every black dad deserves that experience.

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

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