On-Campus Child Care: A Valuable but Dwindling Support for Student Parents

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Oct. 17, 2023

Student parents must balance competing demands on their time, energy, and finances: attending classes and completing coursework and requirements; working for pay, often full-time; and providing care for their children. On-campus child care can make it easier for student parents to manage some of these challenges, especially when that care is connected to other campus services and supports.

On-campus care gives student parents the flexibility to not only attend class but also to attend study meetings and campus events, giving them fuller access to activities from which they may feel disconnected due to their off-campus obligations. These experiences are important for building relationships and networks that may create community, improve academic success, and facilitate later job opportunities. On-campus centers can also serve as central locations for connecting with other parents and accessing supports and services located within centers or about which center staff and other parents share information. Finally, on-campus centers may offer high-quality programming for children, for instance as part of early education training and degree programs for college students on campus or in partnership with programs like Head Start. Campuses working in partnership with federal initiatives like Head Start and the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program can make it easier for campus centers to offer affordable or even free care for low-resource parents.

Despite these benefits, many schools do not provide on-campus care. Among those student parents that do have access, some may not know about the program and others may not use it for a variety of reasons including cost, convenience, and accessibility. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic may have made it even harder for student parents to access this important service even when they have the resources to do so and it is their preferred option.

Most campuses don’t have child care for student parents

Just 38 percent of public institutions and 7 percent of nonprofit institutions have on-campus child care options that serve students. (See Table 1.) For-profit institutions almost never report providing on-campus child care. Where on-campus centers do serve students, demand may exceed the available supply, waitlists for limited slots can be long, and some centers may be more likely to serve faculty and staff.

In general, larger institutions are more likely to provide on-campus care. And public institutions are more likely to provide on-campus care than private, nonprofit institutions, even when considering institution size. For example, approximately three-quarters of huge public institutions provide on-campus care compared with one-quarter of private, nonprofit schools of the same size.

Schools with the fewest resources may be more likely to provide care

Among all public colleges, it is more common for four-year schools to have on-campus care than community colleges—almost half of four-year institutions offer this service compared with slightly more than one-third of two-year institutions. (See Table 2.) However, this statistic seems to be driven, at least in part, by the fact that huge, public, four-year schools—many of which are relatively well-funded flagship institutions—are much more likely to offer on-campus care. A similar or higher percentage of community colleges, which enroll more student parents than any other sector of higher education, offer on-campus care than four-year schools in every other size category.

Student parents are more likely to be students of color and older than non-parents, and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and schools that serve more students who are age 25+—among both public and private, non-profit institutions—also tend to be more likely to provide on-campus child care. These institutions—community colleges, MSIs, and institutions that serve more older students—typically have fewer resources than their peer colleges. But many are punching above their weight in terms of serving student parents, allocating their more limited resources to provide critical supports like on-campus child care.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the ongoing loss of on-campus child care

Federal data show a longer-term downward trajectory—one that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic—in the percentage of colleges providing access to on-campus care, a trend previously identified by other research. In the fall of 2012, 1,115 institutions across all sectors reported having on-campus care; in the fall of 2021, that number was 851, a decrease of 24 percent or 264 institutions. While the number and percentage of institutions reporting care has declined every year over the last decade, the largest year-over-year decrease was between fall 2019 and fall 2020 when 48 fewer institutions were providing on-campus care. This period coincides with the start of the pandemic.

The same trend holds across public institutions, and among schools in this sector, the COVID-era drop from fall 2019 to fall 2021 occurred more acutely at community colleges. (See Figure 1.) This decrease in on-campus care at community colleges is particularly concerning given the large number of student parents those institutions serve and the challenges these students faced during the pandemic. Households with children have also reported altering their plans for postsecondary education due to care-related issues during the pandemic, which may have contributed to the recent decline in community college enrollment. Though some schools, faculty, and staff have worked to ameliorate the impact of the pandemic on student parents, restarting support services—especially those with large regulatory and staffing hurdles like child care centers—may take time even when campus leadership is committed to doing so.

In addition, the child care workforce remains below pre-pandemic levels, and child care is among the lowest-paid occupations in the United States, despite its economic importance. As a result, sustaining on-campus services for student parents—which must be one part of a multifaceted approach to serving this population—continues to be connected to broader discussions about the inadequacy of our nation’s care infrastructure.

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