Gina Jackson, a 26-year-old single mom, fixes the hood on her son’s sweatshirt.

The Young-Parent Balancing Act

Parents can improve their long-term financial stability by working and going to school at the same time. But they need support to overcome challenges that can get in the way.

November 20, 2019

Working full time and taking college classes as a single mother left Coral Castro with little time to spend with her daughter, Diana. But Castro made the most of every opportunity, carting school books to the playground so she could keep one eye on her homework and the other on Diana. It was worth it, she thought, because a degree would lead to a better job, and she wanted to give her daughter a good life, free of financial struggles.

Castro had Diana when she was 20, one year after earning her GED. Castro always planned to get her bachelor’s degree in her mid-20s, even after her unexpected pregnancy. But her divorce at 23 left her without a partner, and the obstacles that came with balancing so many responsibilities alone piled up. Castro couldn’t find child care for the nights she was at school, her job’s strict schedule kept her from taking classes on weekends, and the cost of tuition and books was straining her budget. Reluctantly, she dropped out.

Ten years later, Castro, now 36, is back on track to earn her bachelor’s degree at the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. Diana is 16 and old enough to stay home alone. Castro’s job as an executive administrative assistant at Georgetown offers a more flexible schedule, and her employment there means the school pays for her tuition.

A photo of Coral Castro and her daughter, Diana, when Diana was a toddler. Coral regrets the time she missed with Diana in those early years when she was balancing work and school.
Coral, now 36, and Diana, now 16, outside their home in Vienna, Virginia. Diana is starting to look at colleges, and Coral wants to make sure Diana doesn’t have to work while she’s in school so she can get the most out of her education.

Left: A photo of Coral Castro and her daughter, Diana, on Diana’s 3rd birthday. Coral regrets the time she missed with Diana in those early years when she was balancing work and school. Right: Coral, now 36, and Diana, now 16, outside their home in Vienna, Virginia. Diana is starting to look at colleges, and Coral wants to make sure Diana doesn’t have to work while she’s in school so she can get the most out of her education.

Looking back, she wishes she could have finished her degree in her twenties. Castro is proud she’s been able to provide for her daughter on her own, but she longs for the life she could have had with a higher-paying and more flexible job—one that would ease her financial struggles and let her be more present through her daughter’s childhood.

“I never really spent as much time as I would have wanted with [Diana], ever since she was a baby, which is something I miss the most,” Castro said.

In 2012, Diana was one of 22.5 million children younger than 13 who had a young parent (someone who had their first child when they were younger than 25). Ten percent of those children, or 2.3 million, had a young parent balancing work and education or training, according to Urban Institute research. Seventy-one percent of those kids had a mom combining work and school; 52 percent had a dad doing so.

Urban researchers explored the long-term trajectories of young parents and the short-term challenges that come with balancing work, school, and parenthood. They found that combining work and education is linked to higher incomes later in life and sets parents up for greater financial security. But young parents juggling work and school need additional support, especially with child care, to succeed in the short term. And the stress of handling so many responsibilities can weigh on them and on their children.

“If combining work and education is something that is good for workers and good for society, we need to make sure it’s also good for kids and parents,” said Gina Adams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “We don’t have a support system around families to make sure that’s true.”

Striving for a stable future

Gina Jackson’s face lights up when she talks about her 6-year-old son, Kayden, who she considers her best friend and biggest supporter. When Jackson, a 27-year-old single mom in Fort Washington, Maryland, decided to go back to school for her bachelor’s degree while working full time, she wanted to make sure Kayden was on board with the change. He’s been dealing with anxiety since his father was incarcerated, and she was worried about how disrupting their daily routine would affect him.

Gina Jackson and her son, Kayden, outside their home in Fort Washington, Maryland.

Gina Jackson and her son, Kayden, outside their home in Fort Washington, Maryland. Gina worries how her busy schedule affects her son, but she and Kayden have a mantra: “Kayden and Mommy don’t give up.”

Before starting her bachelor’s program online in 2017, she told Kayden, “Mommy's going to come home from work, and I'm not going to be able to play with you as much as I normally do. We’re going to do our homework together. Is that OK?”

Jackson, who works as a special education assistant at Fairfax County Public Schools, explained to Kayden that getting more education would help her make a better life for them. And she tied her goal of greater financial stability to something Kayden would be sure to understand: getting more toys.

Parents who have their first child when they’re younger than 25 frequently lack the same financial resources and education as others because of systemic inequities that disadvantage them from the start. But working and going to school at the same time can help these parents close those gaps.

Combining work and education can increase parents’ incomes later in life because staying engaged with the workforce helps build a solid work history that is attractive to future employers. And obtaining a credential, engaging in coursework, or earning a degree can help job applicants qualify for higher-paying positions.

For young parents in work and school, more time spent in both activities can mean higher earnings in future years. Urban research shows that each 1 percent increase in parents’ time spent combining work and education is associated with a $451 bump in annual family income at age 30 (although there are other factors at play).

Young Parents Who Spend More Time Combining Work and Education Have Higher Family Incomes at Age 30 Chart

Jackson is counting on that long-term payoff for her career. She’s always had a plan for her future: get her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in psychology, then open a mental health clinic for low-income black children. Having Kayden at age 20 may have disrupted the timeline for Jackson’s career plans, but she hasn’t given up on that goal.

“Having a baby made me more motivated because I had someone who depended on me,” Jackson said. “I had someone who was looking at me. I could not fail.”

Navigating the responsibilities of work, school, and parenthood

Balancing work and school can create major scheduling challenges for parents. Young parents juggling these commitments spend an average of 46.5 hours a week in work and school combined, which is about 10 percent more than the work hours of young parents who only work.

Jackson’s day starts around 6 a.m. After getting Kayden ready for school, she drives to work, where she stays until 4 p.m. She then comes home, prepares dinner for Kayden, helps him with homework, puts him to bed, attends classes online and completes her own coursework, and irons Kayden’s school uniform. She goes to bed around midnight before doing it all over again the next day.

Castro has a similar schedule, except on Mondays and Tuesdays she goes to night classes and doesn’t come home until 11 p.m. “I feel like I really don't have enough time to get the most out of my classes, because I'm always trying to just rush through them since I don’t have time to go over all the material,” she said. “Sometimes I'll be trying to do homework, but I'm so tired that I just pass out.”

Longer hours mean parents need to find child care outside of the 9-to-5 schedule, which is a challenge because most child care centers are limited to standard hours. That’s why many young parents rely on family to help fill the gaps in child care. The children of young parents who work and attend school are more likely to be in the care of someone other than their parents, especially unpaid relatives, for more time than the children of parents who only work.

Gina Jackson holds up flash cards to help her son, Kayden, practice new vocabulary words.
Gina and Kayden high-five after he correctly defines the word on a flash card.

Left: Gina Jackson holds up flash cards to help her son, Kayden, practice new vocabulary words. On most days when she gets home from work, Gina helps Kayden with his homework before she can turn to her own studies. Right: Gina and Kayden high-five after he correctly defines the word on a flash card.

Jackson’s mother is a big part of her support system, and she often picks Kayden up from his after-school program while Jackson drives home from work. But Castro lacks that family support—her family largely cut her out because they didn’t approve of her divorce, so she has been on her own in finding child care for Diana.

Child care costs are a burden for many families and can be a major source of stress for young parents. Young parents balancing work and school typically spend 14 percent of their household income on child care—twice what the federal government recommends. These costs have been a strain on both Castro’s and Jackson’s budgets. Jackson said, “It definitely is expensive trying to find a place that you're comfortable with that he is comfortable with, trying to find a place that you trust.”

On top of those logistical and financial challenges, the stress of balancing everything can have profound effects on parents and their children.

Jackson is often overwhelmed trying to juggle all these responsibilities on her own, and she’s worried about how it affects her son. “I feel like if anything suffers, it's Kayden,” she said. “Normally, when I come home from having a hard day, I hug him. But if I have a great day, I'm like, I'm going right to homework. But did I give him that time he needs? Did I ask him how his day was? Did I really sit and talk to him? He needs that.”

When Jackson is having a particularly stressful day, or if Kayden is feeling anxious, they’ll go for a mother-son walk at a nearby park. “We have a little mantra: ‘Kayden and mommy don't give up,’” Jackson said. “So if I feel overwhelmed, if he's having a little bit of a day where he's a little anxious, we say, ‘Kayden and mommy don't give up.’ So that's what we do.”

How can policies and programs support parents balancing work and education?

When young parents successfully balance work and education, they can set their families up for greater financial stability. So how can schools, policymakers, and other stakeholders remove obstacles that threaten young parents’ ability to achieve those goals?

Urban researchers made recommendations for policymakers and education programs that can help these parents succeed. “Despite the positive associations, we can’t just say combining work and education is the obvious way to go. It’s not easy,” said Nathan Sick, a research associate at the Urban Institute. “We need to increase resources to help more parents focus on education because it does pay off, and we need to make sure there are sufficient resources for combining work and education.”

Coral Castro and her daughter, Diana, study together at their dining table.

Coral Castro and her daughter, Diana, study together at their dining table. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Coral takes night classes after work and doesn’t get home until 11 p.m. She can only make that schedule work now because Diana is old enough to stay home alone.

Even though the share of “nontraditional students” (including young parents) in higher education is growing, college programs are often structured to serve one type of student: recent high school graduates who don’t have children depending on them. But to better serve all students, schools should implement strategies that help young working parents stay enrolled without interruptions. Education and training providers could offer flexible scheduling, child care assistance, tuition and transportation subsidies, and counseling for young parents to ensure they can successfully complete their program and take care of their kids.

“I feel like the system was broken. I didn’t have the resources I needed to make it all work, so I had to drop out of college,” Castro said. “But I always kept thinking, ‘One day [Diana is] going to grow up, and I'll be able to go back.’ … But being away from school so long, it definitely makes it way, way more hard to adjust. You forget a lot of things. It feels like you're starting from zero.”

Policymakers should take steps to ensure young parents can access supports that help them stay in school while working. Because of insufficient funding, only one in seven children eligible for child care subsidies under the federal rules for the Child Care and Development Fund received them in 2015. States can also change their Child Care and Development Fund eligibility rules to let parents use that money to pay for child care while they are in school.

Policies could also improve access to other kinds of financial assistance for parents balancing work and education, support relative caregivers through strategies such as home visiting, and ensure child care subsidies can cover the cost of care for more parents with nontraditional schedules in the types of settings that meet their needs and schedules.

Castro’s daughter Diana is now in her junior year of high school and is starting to look at colleges, where she wants to major in nursing. Castro’s biggest goal is to make sure her daughter can focus exclusively on school and not have to work at the same time to support herself.

“I didn't have that opportunity, and if I can give it to her, I definitely want her to take advantage of it,” Castro said. “She has already experienced all the struggles we have gone through, and I don't want her to struggle more as a grown up. She seems to want to have a family, so it's like I tell her, you don't want to go with your kids through the same things I went through.”