I’ll Take a Year Off and Look What Happened’: How Family Caregiving Responsibilities Influence Educational Trajectories in the United States

Joanna Farrer Mackie 1 * , Janet Shim 2, Catherine Duarte 3, Robert Ream 4, Irene Yen 5

AM J QUALITATIVE RES, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp. 1-22

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Higher educational attainment has been linked to better health and economic outcomes. However, little is known about how family caregiving responsibilities influence individuals’ educational trajectories in the United States (U.S.). Currently, 26% of U.S. undergraduates have at least one dependent child. While some literature describes the experiences of college-student parents, few studies examine the myriad ways family caregiving may singly or simultaneously present, including caregiving for children, relatives, household members, and older adults. The literature shows that caregiving for relatives, household members, and older adults is a common experience, with 20% of Americans providing care for an adult. Guided by social reproduction theory and reproductive labor, this paper examined qualitative interviews (n=31) from the Educational Trajectories & Health study to understand how caregiving responsibilities, broadly defined, influenced educational trajectories. Participants who identified as women discussed bearing disproportionate expectations to take on family caregiving responsibilities, including caregiving for siblings and aging parents. For most participants, family caregiving responsibilities substantially influenced educational decisions. Some experienced additional caregiving responsibilities but still attained their educational goals; others with family caregiving responsibilities discussed stretching and substituting resources in an effort to manage but ultimately having to step back from their stated educational pursuits. Situating these findings within broader social and structural contexts, this analysis examines educational disruption when family caregiving responsibilities arise. Findings have implications for policies that support students with family caregiving responsibilities at school, state, and federal levels.

Keywords: Family caregiving, reproductive labor, qualitative research.