When Tiffany Camacho enrolled in a master’s degree program at Pace University in 2016, she didn’t realize that she’d soon be balancing her academic work with the responsibilities of caring for her ailing grandmother.
Camacho’s grandmother had been living with dementia and Alzheimer disease for a while, but her condition took a turn for the worse right around the time Camacho entered graduate school. In the beginning, Camacho looked on as her mother upended her life to take on the role of primary caregiver and risked burning out.
“I could only watch her do so much before I was concerned about her health,” Camacho says. Camacho decided to pitch in, splitting the caregiving responsibilities with her mom. She took on bathing, feeding, administering medication, and making sure her grandmother got fresh air.
“The same things you would do for yourself every day when you wake up in the morning, you’re doing for someone else,” Camacho says.
She lived in the same building as her grandmother, though in a separate apartment, which helped with handling the caregiving tasks. Nonetheless, they started to impact her academic life. The responsibilities sometimes overwhelmed her, and she turned to her professors to request extra flexibility on deadlines or makeup assignments for missed work. She also started meeting with a counselor at Pace for mental health support.
“It was a moment to just process everything that was going on,” Camacho says of the counseling sessions. “You don’t realize you need it until you’re in it.”
Camacho, who went on to graduate from Pace in 2018 with a master’s degree in psychology, is not alone in having struggled to balance caregiving with academic studies. Approximately five million two-year, four-year, and graduate students are taking care of adults, most often their aging parents or grandparents, according to a study conducted by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP, a nonprofit serving Americans ages 50 and over. As the overall US population ages, the number of student caregivers is likely to grow, as are the challenges they will face. Seven in ten students in this category said caregiving negatively affects their coursework, and six in ten said caregiving hurts their ability to pay for their education.
Add to this a significant population of student parents caring for their own young children: nearly a quarter of today’s undergraduate college and university students are parents, according to the group Higher Learning Advocates. These students often struggle to afford the childcare that allows them to pursue a degree, and some report mental health challenges. And a large majority of them work full time, stacking another responsibility onto their already taxing school and family lives.
Student caregivers, whether tending adults or children, fall outside the traditional image of the eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old student with few nonacademic responsibilities. But advocates and higher education administrators say they are a growing part of the student population, one institutions should invest more in supporting.
“A student caregiver could be anywhere in your community,” says Ian Hartman-O’Connell, director of policy integration at AARP and coauthor of the student caregiver study. “It’s people of all ages, and they’re coming from all over.”
Tanya Ang is the managing director of advocacy for Higher Learning Advocates, which works to make higher education more accessible for today’s students, including first-generation students, returning adults, and caregivers. She agrees with Hartman-O’Connell and pushes back against the idea that student caregivers are “nontraditional” students.
“I don’t think there is a traditional student at this point,” Ang says.
A single dad pursuing a degree and a new career path. A twenty-year-old student caring for a terminally ill grandparent. A military spouse going to school while their other half is deployed. These are a handful of examples of what student caregivers might look like on today’s college campuses.
“The average student caregiver is very diverse in how they look,” Ang says. But across the board, this population faces common obstacles.
“When we dug into this one group, it was really challenging for them to achieve what their academic dreams were, goals were,” Hartman-O’Connell says. “And it was hard for them to cover the cost of the education.”
A large majority of students in the AARP study said that their caregiving responsibilities negatively affected their academic performance. The most common struggle, cited by half of the respondents, was emotional distress or distraction. A third missed classes, turned in assignments late, and lacked time to study for exams.
In grappling with these difficulties, student caregivers can experience mixed emotions. While 81 percent said that their role gave them a strong sense of purpose, 72 percent felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities and found it difficult to manage their time.
The challenges don’t end there. Student parents, in particular, struggle to find or afford childcare while they’re attending classes. Most rely on family or primary school as their main source of childcare, with a smaller portion resorting to childcare centers, according to Higher Learning Advocates.
If their college campus offers childcare, student parents are likely unaware of it: 61 percent of those responding to the Higher Learning survey did not know if their campus had such a resource. And only 2.5 percent were even aware of Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program, a federal program that provides low-income students with financial support for on-campus childcare services.
Many student parents would likely benefit from such a program, but they are not the only segment of caregivers in need of financial assistance. Seventy percent of respondents in the AARP study said that their caregiving responsibilities affected their ability to stay in school. That leads some to borrow money from family and friends, take on additional jobs, or, if all else fails, drop out of college.
“We also forget that a lot of times, these students are going to school to change the socioeconomic trajectory for themselves and their family,” Ang says.
That means that financial challenges can manifest as food and housing insecurity. Some students might not have a place to live off campus during summer break, while others might not always be able to afford food for themselves and their dependents.
Despite all these hurdles—emotional distress, academic challenges, lack of childcare, and financial strain—student caregivers are often invisible to staff and faculty at colleges and universities.
Only a third of student caregivers inform faculty or academic advisors about their familial responsibilities. Instead, most rely on fellow students as confidants.
“There can be a stigma about being a caregiver generally,” Hartman-O’Connell says. “I think students can be part of that, definitely.”
Camacho did not let stigma stop her from informing her professors about her caregiving responsibilities, which resulted in the support and additional time she needed. “It was very important to communicate that to them,” she says.
Camacho, though, is in the minority. Many students are not aware of the resources that informing faculty or support staff might unlock. In other words: it’s almost impossible for staff and faculty at colleges and universities to support student caregivers if they don’t know who they are in the first place.
Jason Ramirez knows all too well the challenge of supporting a population of student caregivers that does not always identify itself.
“That’s not historically a question we’d ask—it’s not really logged in anywhere,” says Ramirez, who is the associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students at the University of Utah. But for the caregivers who are transparent about their needs, it’s a game-changer, he explains: “Once we know that’s the case, it actually unlocks quite a bit of support pieces we can offer.”
The university’s Student Affairs Office, which Ramirez describes as the “Swiss army knife” on campus, sees all types of students with different needs. Ramirez and his staff work to connect students with the right resources and support programs.
For example, if a student caregiver is struggling with childcare, Ramirez might provide information about the on-campus daycare, which runs on a heavily discounted, sliding scale system according to the student’s financial need. Or, if the student doesn’t have the ability to pay at all, Ramirez might help them apply for a scholarship to cover the cost.
When academic responsibilities are the issue, Ramirez might help a student gain more flexibility in their courses, whether that be through online instruction or extended deadlines. The university is somewhat limited in how much virtual education it can offer, as the state of Utah has mandated a minimum level of in-person instruction, but faculty members are leveraging hybrid learning where they can.
“We have created more opportunities to be more flexible,” Ramirez says.
In addition, the university has created a “basic needs collective,” where students can, according to the collective’s website, find “resources related to food security, affordable housing, health insurance, managing finances, legal services, and mental health.”
The collective aims to help students cut through the bureaucratic morass of a big college campus, Ramirez says. Students can instead go to one place to find the food pantry, mental health services (from the counseling center), and tech help (from the campus library), to name a few resources on offer. “It’s a fantastic group of offices that work together,” Ramirez says.
The collective is a more appealing option for students who might be intimidated by a more official location, like the Office of the Dean of Students. “We’re trying to create softer nets that catch students in a way that they might be more comfortable with,” Ramirez says.
At Pace University, administrators are likewise working to offer resources to student caregivers, who have not often been the explicit focus of on-campus support services.
“It’s extremely stressful to try to balance [caregiving] and everything else,” says Harriet Feldman, the chief wellness officer at Pace, noting that assisting student caregivers presents a different challenge for the university, which has long supported students who work. “The added stress of being a caregiver,” Feldman says, “is much different than the stress of holding down a job.”
Feldman, who is also a professor and dean emerita of Pace’s College of Health Professions and the Lienhard School of Nursing, has recently developed a wellness strategic plan for all students. A big component of that is online learning and academic flexibility.
“We’ve had all kinds of exceptions for things, or accepted delays on due dates, or exam makeups,” Feldman says. The pandemic, she adds, has helped professors become much more comfortable with accommodating students who need that level of support.
Additionally, Pace started to up its investment in campus mental health services after a student survey during the pandemic pointed to some serious issues, Feldman says. As a result, students can now use a new, twenty-four-hour call-in service to connect to Pace’s counseling center.
Career services staff also work on a case-by-case basis to find internship opportunities that fit within tight schedules. Here, too, the pandemic has opened up more options, with many more remote opportunities and additional flexibility available for internships.
“We want the students [who are caregivers] to have the experiential learning opportunities that other students have while they are at Pace, so we need to work harder at finding opportunities that will fit in their lives/schedules,” says Phyllis Mooney, assistant vice president of career services and employer relations at Pace.
Much like on the University of Utah campus, none of these resources are exclusively marketed to student caregivers. But taken together, the supports can fill some of the gaps—financial, academic, and emotional—that these students face.
Despite the resources colleges and universities do provide student caregivers, campuses have work to do, both in understanding the needs of student caregivers and in making resources more explicitly targeted toward them.
Ramirez, the dean of students at Utah, notes that caregivers who are looking after older adults, especially, are not often acknowledged as part of the student body. “It’s an area that’s a little bit of a blind spot,” he says.
Feldman at Pace feels much the same way. “The whole awareness of this is pretty new,” she says.
For now, Feldman and Ramirez agree that identifying student caregivers—and encouraging them to share details of their situations—is a crucial piece of getting them the resources they need.
“It’s important to share what’s happening with your faculty so they can provide support or send you to the right places for support,” Feldman says.
The onus, too, is partly on faculty to be aware of and open to the needs of caregivers.
“They should understand the unique challenges facing that student as a caregiver and provide flexibility so they can address the issues they’re dealing with as a caregiver,” says Hartman-O’Connell at AARP. He suggests universities invest in faculty training to help grow that understanding: “It’s important to be able to identify a student caregiver, within your class or within your cohort.”
He emphasizes the role of staff beyond professors. “Academic advisors can really serve as a navigator,” he says, offering not just academic guidance but connections to financial or mental health resources.
Ang, from Higher Learning Advocates, also has a few suggestions for making campuses more welcoming to student parents, in particular: opening up student housing to parents and their children and ensuring it’s available year-round; providing lists of local and affordable childcare options if there isn’t an on-campus center; and offering emergency micro-grants to help students cover an unexpected cost like a car repair.
Finally, colleges and universities, Ang says, need to show student caregivers, by way of marketing and programming, that they are fully welcome as part of the campus community. That means shifting promotional materials to include parents or older students, not just eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds, and potentially organizing events like family tailgates and potlucks.
These types of investments can go a long way in making student caregivers feel more at home on campus. They can help, too, with student success and retention.
“The more these barriers can be addressed and removed,” Ang says, “the more likely the parent is going to stay in school and complete their program of study.”
Tiffany Camacho considers herself lucky: She was able to share her caregiving experience with her professors and, as a result, receive the support she needed. She was attending a university that was interested in helping her. And her field of study, psychology, inadvertently gave her tools to deal with the emotional burden of caregiving.
But going forward, Camacho is hoping other student caregivers won’t have to rely on luck alone.
“It’s important for all professors to have consideration for personal matters that do affect someone pursuing their education,” she says.
All photos: iStock
Did You Know?
• 7 in 10 student caregivers say caregiving negatively affects their coursework.
• 1/4 of today’s undergraduate college and university students are parents.
• 81% of student caregivers feel purpose in their role, but 72% are overwhelmed.
• Only 1/3 of student caregivers inform faculty or academic advisors about their responsibilities.