It's All About the Dollars: Reducing Unmet Financial Need for Students with Dependents

Blog Post
Nov. 25, 2019

Today, 1 in every 5 undergraduate students have an additional responsibility on top of the physical and mental demands of being a college student - being a parent. And even though these students with dependents are a significant part of the student body, their needs are often ignored in mainstream educational policy discourse. Higher education can and should do more to financially support students with dependents considering the high cost of attending college while caring for dependent children. Failing to do so has resulted in students with dependents facing a higher cost of attendance, combined with limited financial aid options. If left unchecked, this can create financial challenges and even higher amounts of student debt, thus putting them at a disadvantage compared to their peers who do not have dependent children. With a disproportionate amount of students with dependents being students of color, there is an imperative to better serve this population to close existing racial equity gaps in higher education.

On average, students with dependents can expect to pay hundreds of dollars a month for childcare, as well as any other costs associated with raising a child such as food, clothing, housing, and healthcare. For low-income students with dependents, these costs can quickly add up. We can see from the higher amounts of debt taken on by this population, students with dependents are not being awarded enough grant aid or even loans to cover their higher total cost of attendance. This results in students with dependents usually having to make up this difference in cost with excessive work hours. This can have very real consequences on the academic success of these students - roughly half of students with dependents leave school without a degree. Often, this can be a result of not receiving the needed financial aid and having to increase their work hours to compensate.

While increased long term investments in federal programs - such as increasing the Pell Grant allocation for student parents and increasing funding for federally subsidized child care - are needed to help student parents with their financial challenges, this can be difficult to accomplish with different versions of the Higher Education Act still under consideration. Change at the federal level would most likely need to come through the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act - a process that can span over multiple legislative sessions. But what can institutions and higher education stakeholders do in the meantime?

There are two policy solutions that can be implemented to increase access to financial resources, and better support the growing student parent population:

  • Ensure schools are providing students with the maximum available aid options through the federal dependent care allowance and
  • Craft targeted grant aid programs at the state and institutional level to help student parents lower their unmet financial need.

At the state level and institutional level, targeted aid programs could be implemented to provide students with dependents with grant aid that would offset costs like childcare. With the average unmet need of unmarried student parents being $6,000 per year versus only $3,000 for students without children, targeted financial aid offerings could help reduce this disparity by providing direct financial assistance in the form of grant aid. As the conversation around updating our federal financial aid system continues, it is important that state and institutional leadership step up in the meantime to immediately serve students with dependents better. For example, Michigan State University has worked to address the gap in unmet financial need for students with dependents by offering programs such as the Michigan State University Child Care Grant which requires students to apply for additional funds to cover the costs of childcare. On the other side of the country, California has recently implemented a Cal-Grant Access Award for Student Parents which supplements student parents’ financial aid awards with up to $6,000 a year in grant aid.

At the federal level, the Department of Education can remedy inadequate financial aid packages by requiring Title IV institutions to properly advertise and inform students of the availability of the federal dependent care allowance for students with dependent children. Currently, the federal dependent care allowance allows financial aid administrators to increase the expected total cost of attendance in a financial aid award to more accurately reflect the actual expenses of parenting students but only if the student requests the modification. A higher cost estimate allows financial aid offices to award additional grants, scholarships, and federal loans, thus lowering the unmet need for parenting students and potentially reducing their risk of dropping out. And while providing students with additional federal loans may seem counter-intuitive, we see a trend within the students with dependents population of students taking on debt and still not being able to complete their education. Supplementing financial aid packages to get these students to the finish line is better than having students who take on some debt, but do not complete a degree before leaving the institution.

Of all the challenges faced by students with dependents, receiving the financial aid they need should not be one of them. With the population of students with dependents only expected to further grow, it is time for higher education to better serve their needs. By increasing available financial aid at the federal, state, and institutional levels, we can eliminate the disparities in unmet need for student parents, and ensure this vulnerable population is able to successfully complete post-secondary education. It will also ensure that students with dependents are offered equitable access to an affordable education. If we fail to properly provide this population with resources, we fail to ensure that all students are provided with what they need to succeed. Moving forward, students with dependents need to be prioritized in the allocation of financial aid programs.

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