top of page

The Impact of Dependent Children on Student Experience:

A Qualitative Study of Australian University Students.


There is various research that explores the impact that student life has on the family home when parents undertake studies (Home, 1997; Scott, et al. 1996). However, in this paper we aim to explore the same situation in reverse- the impact that parenting responsibilities have on student experience. In this paper, we define student experience as all aspects of student life, including course content, teaching methods, student services, learning resources, extracurriculars, peer socialisation and value of their qualification after graduation (Shah & Richardson, 2014). Investigation regarding student experience is important as universities begin to designate large amounts of funding and resources towards student experience (Mallman & Lee, 2016). Student experience has become a priority in Australian Universities with institutions endeavoring to achieve good student retention as student feedback is being used as a measure of education quality (Buultjens & Robinson, 2011). This is the result of political forces that reward institutions that reflect government ideologies of what tertiary education should look like with additionally funding (Shah & Richardson, 2014). Mallman and Lee (2016) suggests that institutional initiatives to enhance student experience are heavily targeted towards the traditional school leaver, resulting in unfair resource distribution. It is necessary for academic institutions to ensure that initiatives to enhance the student experience benefit students from all demographics as the population of mature age students is significantly increasing (Heagney & Benson, 2017). Statistics show that 40% of applications to undertake tertiary study are received from Australians over 25 years old, many of which identify as parents (DET, 2018), these statistics highlight the importance of investigating the student experience of this demographic. The following research will recognise the real-life experiences of men and women who perform multiple roles simultaneously, and how those roles impact the other. Further, how the load and pressures of parenting affect a student's reflection on their student experience.

Background and Literature

The demographic of university students has changed over time as higher education becomes increasingly accessible following government initiatives to extend entry into undergraduate courses beyond school leavers (Home, 1997; Scott, et al., 1998). This has resulted in a significant increase of mature age students and students commencing studies after starting a family (Quimby & O'Brien, 2006). Over recent decades, higher education institutions have endorsed ‘life-long learning’ and implemented several strategies to widen access (Hotez, et al., 2020). However, Mallman and Lee (2016) propose this positive step towards inclusion and equal access to education has been poorly executed as institutions fail to provide sufficient support to this population, contributing to negative student experiences among non-traditional students.

Research demonstrates that there are well-being concerns among students with children and there is an identifiable need and duty of universities to offer the support and resources necessary for these students to be successful (Home, 1997; Quimby & O'Brien, 2006). Studies have been conducted that show having children and the demand of parenting responsibilities can hinder successful study and be a direct reason that some students discontinue their studies (Scott, et al., 1996). Quimby and O'Brien (2006), explore how parenting and student self-efficacy plays a crucial role in distress amongst this population as they feel they are unable to meet their potential in both aspects of life. This idea is supported by Scott, et al. (1996), who identify responsibility load, parental demands, lack of family support, financial strain and guilt as significant stressors experienced among students with dependent children. Moreover, non-traditional students face additional challenges during their first year of study than the traditional school leaver as they often lack recent participation in formal education structures, are affected by minority status, and struggle to adapt to existing universities cultures (Mallman & Lee, 2016). These additional difficulties contribute to the potential of negative student experiences.

Although there is evidence of the negative impact parenting demands can have on student life, research also indicates that children can positively influence student life. Often students who have children possess significantly more motivation as they endeavour to financially provide and be good role models (Mallman & Lee, 2016). This is supported by Hotez, et al., (2020), who state that increased motivation among this population leads to higher completion rates of degrees and greater attainment of qualifications. Additionally, university students who have children show significantly higher academic potential, often performing amongst the best of their cohort (Scott, et al., 1998).

Research Methods and Ethics

For this research, data was collected through semi-structured interviews and conducted using a constructivist approach (Waller, et al., 2016). Interviews were more appropriate as opposed to a focus group for this research project to ensure data was not influenced by peers, and to recognise and protect the vulnerability of participants during the interviews (Waller, et al., 2016). A constructivist approach recognised that the interviews conducted offered a look into the lives of the participants and allowed for the participants to feel empowered throughout the process (Denicolo, 2016). This aligned with the purpose of the research which is to improve the student experience of students with parental responsibilities. Further, the constructivist paradigm was appropriate as it acknowledged the potential of multiple realities that could have been encountered as the participants values and beliefs were each individually, socially constructed through their own lived experiences (Waller, et al., 2016). Lastly, working within the constructivist paradigm accounted for subjectivity and the possibility that participants would have different meanings of what a rich student experience looked like and what their parental responsibilities involved (Anderson, et al., 2021).

In the development of this project, significant ethics concern was considered with respect to consent, care, confidentiality and risk of harm to educational institutions (Waller, et al., 2016). Participants were issued with a formal information statement and consent form that they were able to keep. Formal consent from participants was achieved once participants were given an efficient amount of time to consider their decision and was done so with signature on a copy of the consent form for the researcher to keep (Sanjari, et al., 2014). The welfare of the participants was of the upmost importance throughout conducting project interviews, this was upheld by respecting the vulnerability of participants and avoiding distressing topics and questions (Waller, et al., 2016). Confidentiality was respected and participants were assured that complete confidentiality would be offered with involvement in the research project (Sanjari, et al., 2014). Digital recording of interviews would be password protected, transcriptions and analysis of data make use of pseudonyms to ensure that all identifiable data was retracted (Waller, et al., 2016). The project acknowledged academic institutions as stakeholders in this research and respected the potential risk of harm by emphasising the purpose of the project as improving the student experience of students with children and not identifying fault or blame.

The participants were invited to participate in this study using purposive sampling methods and specific inclusion criteria. Purposive sampling was determined appropriate because of the inductive approach of this research and complimented by working within the constructivist paradigm (Denicolo, 2016; Waller, et al., 2016). The inclusion criteria for this project meant that all participants shared the following attributes: were over 18 years old, spoke English, were enrolled in full time study at university, had at least one dependent child under the age of twelve and were responsible for their accommodation, whether that be renting or paying a mortgage. This criterion was chosen to target students who carry the greatest load of parenting responsibilities and therefore are more impacted by duties outside of student expectations, including financial, health, safety, emotional and social responsibilities of themselves and their dependents. This allowed for the collection of data to be directly address the research question and supported the goals of the project. Additionally, the project accomplished sampling for maximum variation by inviting the widest range of participants possible to develop a robust theory (Waller, et al., 2016). The data has been collected from both male and female, different cultural backgrounds, different age brackets and different employment statuses. Analysis of this data was performed using a thematic analysis framework. This approach was chosen as it best suited a novice researcher and allowed me to conduct a thorough examination of the perspectives of each participant and highlighted similarities and differences within the data (Squires, 2023). Using this analytical framework, key themes quickly emerged and meaningful relationships became apparent (Glaser, et al., 1967). The data collected found several key themes, the predominant themes were load of responsibility, low of self-efficacy, parental guilt and financial strain, poor socialisation and differential treatment of mature age students. Participants displayed great vulnerability and were surprisingly transparent with insights into their private lives and relationship dynamics which made for rich data. This paper will discuss load of responsibility, parental guilt and poor socialisation in greater detail as these themes gained the most data from the conducted interviews.


Load of Responsibility

In majority of cases, students who have children are not relieved of their duties as a parent in order to complete their studies meaning that this population face additional difficulties than the traditional student who has enrolled directly from secondary education (Home, 1997). Overload of responsibility was highlighted by each participant as all participants described maintaining multiple roles. This theme has been previously explored in studies as it can often lead to distress and negatively impact mental well-being (Home, 1997; Scott, et al. 1996; Quimby and O'Brien, 2006.) Each participants circumstances were different from the other, however together these roles included full-time study, employment and different amounts of domestic obligations.

In addition to her full-time studies, Dahlia works part-time, takes on all domestic duties and majority of parenting responsibilities. Dahlia expressed that prior to commencing her studies her family responsibilities and part-time employment were already affecting her mental well-being, describing feeling “flat”, “moody”, and “exhausted”. Research shows that the feelings described by Dahlia are common among female students who participate in multiple roles (Home, 1997). Dahlia discussed the concern of her spouse when she made the decision to enrol in university and stated that these concerns were valid as the extra student responsibilities have exacerbated her already existing feelings of exhaustion.

‘I guess it's me. It's my sacrifices. I barely sleep, I don't have any self-care. Mentally, I am moody, drained, sometimes down. Not because I am unhappy, I love everything I am doing. I think just down because I am so overworked.’

Dahlia continued to emphasise the impact of her responsibilities on her well-being and explains how she believes that alleviating some of her load would result in a more positive student experience. ‘I think if I had nothing else to do but study and work part-time, it would be a completely different story.’

Both Rose and Azalea, are not employed however still made mention of difficulties managing domestic, family and students loads. Azalea emphasised the extent of her load of responsibilities in a recount of her experience on placement with other undergraduate students.

‘…other students I was with were all school leavers, no kids, no husbands. They would complain so much about how tired they were from working all day, they were going home and passing out straight away… I would leave there, get groceries, go home, cook dinner, bath my daughter, do home readers, play a game, read a bedtime story, go through the normal bedtime fight, clean the house, get school clothes ready … It is just a really different life doing this as a mature age student with kids.’

Azalea made comparison to her peers and recognises the additional challenges she has faced throughout her student journey. This idea is discussed by Homes (1997), who states that the structure of universities accommodates single role students and those who participate in multiple roles suffer from strain and distress. Interestingly, whilst Dahlia, Rose and Azalea reflected on their load of responsibilities in a negative frame, Bud he did not describe any significant experiences of struggle or distress despite working in full-time employment and participating in full-time study. This aspect of the data sets indicates that parenting responsibilities are attributed to increased distress more so than employment responsibilities (Home,1997). An idea that is supported by Bud who said, ‘I would rather be doing what I do than being at home with the baby all day. I would say that is so much more stressful and exhausting.’

Parental Guilt

Another key theme that was identified in this research project was the presence of parental guilt, which was interesting only mentioned by female participants. This can be understood through existing literature that illustrates that despite societal progression away from gender roles, the primary responsibility of family continues to remain with women (Home, 1997). An idea that is evident in data collected from Dahlia who shares that she was only able to enrol in a university degree, ‘as long as it doesn’t disrupt our lives’ and the fulfillment of her duties as a mother. While Azalea recalled often being upset that she was missing out on time with her daughter and being preoccupied with thoughts of her daughter while attempting to focus on study.

‘…when I am at uni I am constantly feeling guilty and thinking about whether or not I paid for the excursion or put in a lunch order… it definitely impacts my overall mind set and sort of mental health or whatever. Like, I’ll have days when I get really down about it. If I am missing out on something, like don’t get to play with my kids or don’t get an assignment done in time, like I can get full depressed. Like really down.’

Azalea’s trepidations are shared by Rose who notes that she is unable reach her full potential as a mother or a student, this is connected to significant demands of loyalty, flexibility and time required to succeed in both roles (Heagney & Benson, 2017). However, Hotez (2020), rationalises this idea through a bidirectional relationship between student and parenting roles that reveals the potential for a positive impact by equipping individuals with multi-tasking skills and the ability to succeed simultaneously.

In addition, Rose illustrates how ‘mothers’ guilt’ has led her to a reduced engagement in course content and her studies being second priority.

‘For me, studying is a luxury, being a mother comes first… my priority is my children. If I fail of course and have to retake it, I can live with that. But if I fail to turn up to a school performance, and my child is crying looking for me in an audience, I wouldn’t be able to live with that.’

This declaration from Rose reflects the experience of many students with children and in many cases, this can lead to poor performance and the discontinuation of study (Mallman & Lee, 2016; Scott, et al. 1996). Illustrating the necessity for further efforts to destroy gender stereotypes and promote equal distribution of domestic obligations (Home, 1997).

Lack of socialisation

Each of the participants reported differently on socialisation, however all participants could recognise that their experience of the socialising at university would be different if their circumstances reflected those of a traditional university student. Dahlia and Azalea note that they had little to nil social lives at university and determined that this was due to lack of time which can be directly related back to the load of responsibility both participants experience. This topic did not concern Dahlia, however Azalea shared some disappointment about not being able to gain a ‘proper uni experience’ which for her, included a decent social life. Marandet and Wainwright (2010) share Azalea’s disquiet as they identify socialisation between peers as a principal contributor to a rich student experience and note that students who engage in social practices at university avoid feeling disconnected.

Although there was little similarity in Bud and Rose’s recount of their social involvements at university, both participants reflected positively on this aspect of their student experience. Rose describes facing some challenges as she recalls traditional students being apprehensive to engage with her. These challenges can be understood through the development of the mature age student as stigmatised learners and the existence of barriers in university culture (Mallman & Lee, 2016). However, Rose’s overall positive nature allowed her to overcome difficulties and find enjoyment in socialising with peers.

‘I have really enjoyed getting to socialise with a variety of different people from different demographics… I think it's giving me the opportunity to socialise with a lot of people that I wouldn't in my normal life and certainly a lot more socialisation than I would in my every day stay at home mum life.’

Bud reflects on a distinct shift in social life after becoming a father, although is still able to explain how current socialisation with peers enhances his student experience embodying findings from previous studies (Marandet & Wainwright, 2010).

‘I have probably bout 4 or 5 mates that I have made in different courses. We are all doing the same degree. We all help each other out heaps. I guess that is how I balance things as well.’


The impact of dependent children on student experience differs and were found to be greatly influenced by other circumstantial factors such as gender, employment and responsibilities within the family home. This study replicated thematic trends founding in existing literature, however, acknowledges that there are gaps in available research that focus on a male’s perspective. Students with children who bear the primary load of parenting responsibilities report poor mental well-being, exhaustion and a clear difference in student capacity compared to traditional school leavers. Interestingly, this study reflected outdated traditions where women maintain the family home and men provide financially, which resulted in the female participants having greater impact to their student experience (Home, 1997). Similarly, it was only women who described feelings of guilt for reducing time spent with their children to focus on their studies. These feelings of parental guilt prompted low self-efficacy as participants explained they were unable to entirely apply themselves to either obligation. The study also explored the impact dependent children had on socialisation and found that all participants either faced a reduction in capacity or complete inability to socialise as the result of lack of available time and other responsibilities being prioritised. Existing literature leads to the conclusion that students with dependent children are more at risk of a decline in mental well-being, feelings of disconnect and being overworked than traditional student (Hotez, et al., 2020; Mallman & Lee, 2016; Scott, et al. 1996). This study calls for further investigation into the significance of gender and comparison of the student experience of mothers and fathers.


Upon completion of this study, I was surprised at the magnitude of the task. I had not been able to follow my Gant chart and it severely affected the final product of the assessment. My nerves in the interviewing process hindered the richness of my data and as I was progressing through analysis of text I often thought of many additional questions that I would have liked to ask and potentially gain additional data. From the data that I was able to collect, I found it interesting that I resonated with all participants even though the participants had very different recollections from each other. Specifically, I related to the feeling of guilt and missing out on quality time with my children and the self-imposed pressure that Bud places on himself to achieve above average. Overall, it was a very enjoyable and educational project. I would be interested in continuing research through my studies and will take ample skills learnt throughout this process.


Anderson, A. et al., 2021. Research Paradigm Considerations for Emerging Scholars. 1st ed. Allison Anderson et al. (eds.) Bristol, UK;: Channel View Publications,.

Buultjens, M. and Robinson, P., 2011. Enhancing aspects of the higher education student experience. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 33(4), pp.337-346.

Denicolo, P. et al., 2016. Constructivist approaches and research methods: a practical guide to exploring personal meanings. London: SAGE Publications.

DET., 2018. Undergraduate Applications, Offers and Acceptances 2018 Report. Retrieved from and_acceptances_2018.pdf

Glaser, B., 81. G. & STRAUSS, Anselm L.(1967): The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research. New York.

Hotez, E. et al. (2020) ‘If I Spent Five Hours Giving Birth Then I Can Do This Final:’ A Qualitative Investigation of College Students With Children. Translational issues in psychological science. 6 (2), 147–159.

Heagney, M. and Benson, R., 2017. How mature-age students succeed in higher education: Implications for institutional support. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 39(3), pp.216-234.

Home, A.M., 1997. Learning the hard way: Role strain, stress, role demands, and support in multiple-role women students. Journal of Social Work Education, 33(2), pp.335-346.

Mallman, M. and Lee, H., 2016. Stigmatised learners: mature-age students negotiating university culture. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(5), pp.684-701.

Marandet, E., & Wainwright, E., 2010. Invisible experiences: Understanding the choices and needs of university students with dependent children. British Educational Research Journal, 36(5), 787-805.

Sanjari, M., Bahramnezhad, F., Fomani, F.K., Shoghi, M. and Cheraghi, M.A., 2014. Ethical challenges of researchers in qualitative studies: The necessity to develop a specific guideline. Journal of medical ethics and history of medicine, 7.

Scott, C., Burns, A. and Cooney, G., 1996. Reasons for discontinuing study: The case of mature age female students with children. Higher education, pp.233-253.

Shah, M. and Richardson, J.T., 2016. Is the enhancement of student experience a strategic priority in Australian universities?. Higher Education Research & Development, 35(2), pp.352-364.

Squires, V. (2023). Thematic Analysis. In: Janet Mola Okoko, Scott Tunison, Keith D. Walker. (Ed). Varieties of Qualitative Research Methods: Selected Contextual Perspectives. Canada: Springer Texts in Education. pp.463-468.

Quimby, J. L., & O'Brien, K. M., 2006. Predictors of well‐being among nontraditional female students with children. Journal of Counseling & Development, 84(4), 451-460.

Waller, V, Farquharson, K and Dempsey, D., 2016. Qualitative Social Research: Contemporary Methods for the Digital Age. London: Sage.


Appendices i. Interview Schedule

1. How did you come to study at this point in your life, as opposed to earlier or later?

2. How do you balance your student life and home life?

3. How engaged are you with course content and delivery? Are you satisfied?

4. How engaged are you with student services? Are you satisfied?

5. How engaged are you with extracurricular activities? Are you satisfied?

6. How engaged are you with peer socialisation? Are you satisfied?

Recent Posts

See All

“I’m not challenging you, I just need help”

A Qualitative Study into how Transgender People Navigate the Barriers to Accessing Gender-Affirming Health Care. Introduction For many transgender individuals, their physical, mental, and social wellb


bottom of page