Student Parents Who Persist with Community College Are More Likely To Get Help From Their School

Most parents attending community college struggle to balance child care and school, but supportive services empower some to continue college anyway
Blog Post
Four students walk down the hallway of their college
Feb. 26, 2024

This is the second blog in a series that presents our findings from the latest Community College Enrollment Survey. Read an overview of the survey findings here.

Community colleges are this nation’s answer to the need for affordable and accessible higher education options. Thanks to low tuition costs and open enrollment policies, the sector attracted 4.6 million students and 30 percent of all undergraduate students last fall.

While community colleges are generally living up to their mission of providing higher education access, the sector’s retention rates remain stubbornly low. Five years after enrolling in community college in 2012, 46 percent of students were no longer in college and had not earned a degree (BPS:12/17). Retention and degree completion rates are even lower for the one in five of community college students who balance school with parenting (NPSAS:20 UG). Two-thirds of community college students caring for a child under 12 years old had discontinued their studies without earning a degree five years after enrolling (BPS:12/17).

To learn how community colleges and policymakers can help more parenting students reach their educational goals, New America commissioned Lake Research Partners to survey a group of Americans with children under 12 who were enrolled in community college between January 2020 and July 2023. One group, which we call “continuers,” were still enrolled when the survey was conducted in November and December of 2023. Another group of “stop-outs” had not earned a degree and were no longer enrolled in community college by the time of survey. (Some students who enrolled in a community college between January 2020 and July 2023 had since graduated or transferred to a four-year program; these students were not included in this survey.)

We learned that both continuers and stop-outs face challenges with work and caregiving that threaten their education, but continuers were much more likely to attend a college offering financial, basic needs, and child care support. Parents who stopped out told us they didn't have enough financial and caregiving support, and they would consider re-enrolling if they were provided those supports. These trends suggest student support can move the needle on retention.

Student parent continuers and stop-outs both struggled with child care and material hardship

Our survey revealed that student parents who persisted with their community college journey faced just as many challenges as their peers who stopped out. A majority of both continuers and stop-outs with children under 12 agreed that caring for a child had impacted their ability to enroll in college at some time— and continuers were actually more likely to agree (figure 1). The two groups also reported similarly high rates of material hardships, with around half needing food assistance, half falling behind on rent or mortgage payments, and over forty percent postponing medical care for financial reasons.

Student caregivers who persisted were more likely to attend colleges that offered financial, basic needs, and child care support

Most parents face difficulties caring for their child(ren) and meeting their material needs while in community college, so what explains why some parents continue their college journey while others do not? Surveys cannot directly test which interventions boost persistence, but our results strongly suggest the availability of financial and in-kind support is a key factor in persistence.

Caregivers who persisted with community college were much more likely to report that their school provided help securing basic needs—like housing, food, mental health care, and transportation—than caregivers who stopped college (figure 2). For example, over 60 percent of continuing caregivers said their school provided subsidies for food, compared with 14 percent of stop-outs. Continuing student parents also reported more direct financial assistance, not just more in-kind support. Compared to parents who discontinued community college, continuers were more likely to attend a college that offered emergency aid (61 percent compared to 29 percent) and were more likely to use that emergency aid (33 percent to 12 percent).

Similar patterns emerged for child care support (figure 3). Only 12 percent of caregiving students who discontinued their education reported attending a school which offered child care subsidies. In contrast, 54 percent of caregivers who were still enrolled knew their school provided child care subsidies, whether they used them or not. Caregiving continuers were also much more likely than stop-outs to report that their college provided on-campus child care options.

These trends suggest that support with basic needs, finances, and child care can be crucial for parents’ persistence. Most community colleges still have a long way to go in providing this assistance. Even many (around a quarter) of the caregivers who managed to continue their education said they would have used more supportive services, had they been offered. Given that stop-outs reported high rates of uncertainty regarding available services, community colleges need to do a better job ensuring students know about available help—in addition to providing more of that help.

Caregiver stop-outs said support with finances, basic needs, and child care could bring them back to college

To further investigate what makes a difference for college persistence, we asked parenting stop-outs why they were no longer in community college. Nearly three in four caregiver stop-outs agreed that needing to work was a reason for not re-enrolling (figure 4). Additionally, over half of caregivers reported that not being able to afford the program was a factor in not re-enrolling. About 60 percent of caregiving stop-outs did not re-enroll partially because they needed to care for their child(ren) and 55 percent could no longer balance coursework with child care needs.

When asked what it would take to re-enroll, caregivers’ responses again highlighted the importance of financial, basic needs, and child care support (figure 5). Nearly three-quarters of stop-out caregivers said they would need free tuition and course materials. Other cost-related factors that caregivers said could bring them back to the classroom included decreased living expenses and more affordable tuition. Respondents also reported valuing in-kind services and support: 50 percent of the surveyed parents said more support from their college, such as academic support, health services, and food and housing support, would make them “very likely” to re-enroll.

Many caregivers who left community college also thought child care assistance could bring them back to campus. A little over half of stop-out caregivers said they would be likely to re-enroll if they had access to affordable child care and drop-in care on campus. About two-thirds would consider re-enrolling if their institution offered flexible scheduling and services, such as financial aid or advising, during non-business hours. This flexibility may help student parents balance their work, child care, and academic responsibilities.

Community colleges offer many Americans accessible pathways for advancing their skills, particularly because of low tuition costs. But the approximately 20 percent of community college students who are parents to young children (NPSAS:20 UG) still face significant financial barriers, including unaffordable child care and material hardship, that threaten their academic progress. In other words, the affordability gap between student parents’ possible earnings and their tuition, child care, and living costs—already shown to hinder student parents at four-year colleges—also impedes the academic progress of community college students.

Our analysis suggests supportive services can help community colleges close that affordability gap. The parents who persisted with community college were more likely to attend schools offering financial and child care support services in various forms, and the parents who stopped out confirmed that access to these support services would help them re-enroll. Given this, community colleges should prioritize offering and advertising wrap-around support services including food, housing, and child care subsidies. States and the federal government should do their part to fund these efforts, which are likely to be highly effective in increasing retention.

Related Topics
Higher Education Access and Affordability