Access to Child Care is a Major Source of Stress for Student Parents

Blog Post
Sept. 28, 2023

Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) reveals that college students face significant challenges in accessing basic needs. A key basic need for student parents —approximately 1 in 5 students (NPSAS:20 UG) —is child care. Student parents need child care during class, study time, and work hours, since almost 60 percent (NPSAS:20 UG) work full time. Finding child care is a constant source of stress for student parents, which has led some to slow down or give up on their dreams of a new career.

New America conducted a dozen interviews with student parents across the US to learn about their child care needs and the resources available to them. The interviews confirmed that child care is essential to student parents’ academic success, but in the absence of reliable options, many student parents string together various child care arrangements throughout the year. Student parents highlighted that the most important factors in choosing among child care options are cost, quality, and availability. However, very few of the students we interviewed had consistently found child care that was affordable, high-quality, and accessible, posing a significant hurdle to their goals of upward mobility and education.

Student Parents String Together Various Child Care Arrangements

Several student parents told us that they rely on family and friends to provide child care while they are in school. Data shows that about 50 percent of low-income student parents with children aged 5 and younger rely exclusively on child care provided by family members. Kelly, a student parent pursuing nursing at a local community college, has to rely on her retired mother to care for her son while she studies full-time and during her three weekly 12-hour shifts working at the local hospital. Another nursing student also relies on her mother to provide child care while she goes to school full-time, especially during late-night nursing clinicals. She said, “If I did not have my mom, I can honestly say that I probably would not have gotten to this point, because who [else] watches your child until 11:00 o’clock at night.”

While these student parents felt grateful for the care their family and friends provided, the arrangement took a toll. Several student parents told us they felt guilty for putting so much strain on their family members. Others noted that arranging care could be unreliable and hard to coordinate. Student parents tried to fill the gaps themselves, leading to exhaustion and missed classes.

A few student parents also used traditional center-based care such as those run by local churches or Head Start sites off-campus. This type of child care was the least commonly used by the students we spoke to. The few students who accessed center-based programs were able to cover the cost only because they qualified for and successfully navigated through complex applications to access subsidies. Even after receiving subsidies, some students said they were struggling to cover the cost of copayments which can be as high as $400 per child per month. Additionally, these centers had rigid hours, limited availability, and long waitlists, which made them less attractive child care options for many student parents.

Some student parents also used home-based child care arrangements. This type of care can be more affordable and tends to offer more flexible hours than center-based care. Most students who had used home-based child care highlighted that the greatest benefit of an at-home arrangement is the flexibility of drop-off and pick-up times, especially for very early morning classes and night-time classes. However, these students also expressed concerns with the quality of care and instruction. They also raised safety concerns in cases where staffing ratios and licensing requirements were not fully enforced.

Very Few are Lucky Enough to Have Affordable, High-quality, and Available Child Care Centers On-campus

At a college in Utah, Michelle is on track to complete her program because her children can attend the affordable on-campus child care center. Michelle had used various home-based child care providers before landing at the Wee Care Center at Utah Valley University (UVU). The center charges between $2.50 to $6.00 per hour per child based on a sliding scale according to family size and household income. Michelle said her yearly costs of $2,600 for her children were manageable thanks to grants and scholarships offered by the college to subsidize child care costs. Of all the child care providers Michelle has ever used, the Wee Care Center is her favorite because it offers a combination of quality, convenience, hours that align with her class schedule, and affordability.

Only two of the student parents New America interviewed were using on-campus child care, and both attend Utah Valley University. The rest attended schools that did not offer on-campus care or schools whose centers were prohibitively expensive. These parents worked hard to find care for their children, but they told us they had to make trade-offs in care quality, their families’ well-being, and their academic futures. Some students have needed to drop a class or take the semester off to care for their children, which delays educational attainment and the opportunities that come with post-secondary education. Almost all of them told us they wished they had access to an affordable on-campus child care center.

Cost was one of the biggest barriers to student parents using on-campus child care centers. Dana, a student at a local community college in Louisiana, wanted to be a nurse. She would have preferred to take her two youngest children to the on-campus child care center so that she could take in-person classes and clinicals which are required for the nursing program. However, in her words, “no student parent can afford the price of on-campus child care.” Dana’s on-campus child care center charges $600 per month per child for full-time students, plus an additional $300 non-refundable registration fee per child per year. It would cost Dana around $11,400 per academic year for her two youngest children to attend the on-campus center. For now, she takes one or two classes online every semester, working toward an associate degree in criminal justice (a much lower paid profession); she has paused her dream of becoming a nurse.

New America Embarks on a Child Care for Student Parents Project

We have heard that the lack of high-quality on-campus child care facilities is hurting student parents in their academic pursuits. In the absence of high-quality child care options that are affordable and offer flexible hours, student parents need to plan their work and school lives around a patchwork of child care options.

Over the next two and a half years, New America will work with community colleges and student parents (especially single mothers) to fill in knowledge gaps related to student parents’ child care access. This research will enable us to partner with community colleges to create concrete practice and policy recommendations for addressing barriers to child care access for student parents.

Please note that all names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees.

Related Topics
Child Care on Community College Campuses Project Higher Education Access and Affordability