Movies and television shows have a certain narrative for the “typical” American college student— the 18-year-old who is dropped off at a picturesque campus by his or her parents, moving into the dorms, ready to spend the next four years of their lives fully submerged in campus life. In reality, America’s postsecondary student population is more diverse than ever and most students have little in common with this character portrayed by the media. For one, there are 4.8 million college students currently raising children in the United States. That is one quarter of all undergraduates—including 30 percent of those in community college. Of these students, 43 percent are single mothers.
Balancing family life, being a parent and focusing on school work is extremely difficult, especially for those without the support of a spouse or partner. For many the odds of finishing a degree seem insurmountable. According to a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), student parents drop out of college at a higher rate than any other demographic—only 33 percent of these students obtain a degree within six years.
Meanwhile, today’s economic reality is that a postsecondary credential has never been more important. Research shows that on average, college graduates, earn 66 percent more than high-school graduates over the course of their lives. Greater educational attainment is also associated with higher rates of employment over one’s life cycle and that it can have multi-generational benefits. By 2020, an estimated two-thirds of job openings will require postsecondary education or training.
So what can we do to support these parents? There is evidence that student parents are more likely to stay in school and to graduate, when they have access to child care on campus. And yet, the IWPR report shows that students rarely have access. In fact, in the last decade the trend has been going in the opposite direction — campus child care centers have been closing across the country.
Barbara Gault, the executive director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, explained in a 2014 Atlantic article: “Institutions are looking desperately for places to cut. Because there’s so little awareness of the prevalence of students with children I think it often ends up looking like something that’s an extra rather than something that’s essential.”
According to the IWPR report, between 2005 and 2015, campus child care declined at community colleges and public four-year institutions in 36 states, stayed the same in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and increased in only one state (North Dakota).
As seen in the figure below, in 2003-05, 55 percent of four-year public colleges provided campus child care. Today, less than half do. Community colleges have seen an even sharper decline, from 53 percent in 2003-04 to 44 percent in 2015. This is especially troubling given the large share of student parents enrolled in community colleges.
Access to on-campus child care also varies widely by state. California and New York have the highest coverage, with over 80 percent of their two- and four-year colleges having a campus child care center. In contrast, only 38 percent of public colleges in Texas provide campus care and only 27 percent provide campus child care in North Carolina.
Student parents also face barriers in terms of accessing community-based care. As discussed in New America’s recently released Child Care Index, the cost of community-based child care can be prohibitively high. According to the Index, the average annual cost for full-time, center-based child care for children 0-4 in the United States is $9,589 a year, which exceeds the average cost of in-state college tuition ($9,410). In certain states like Massachusetts, full-time infant care can cost as high as $16,682, or one quarter of the median state income. Paying these amounts can be a significant obstacle for students already struggling to pay tuition and living expenses. This is especially true given that nearly 70 percent of student parents are considered low-income.
While financial assistance for low-income parents to access quality care is available through state subsidy programs funded by the Child Care and Development Block (CCDBG), student parents often face challenges getting the financial support they need due to strict subsidy eligibility rules. For example, IWPR found that 11 states require college students to also be employed to be eligible for child care subsidies. In Arizona, Kentucky, and Washington state parents are required to work at least 20 hours per week — an amount which can be harmful for student parents’ academic success and increases the risk of dropout. Not to mention the time away from young children these work requirements impose. Research is clear on the importance of children having strong relationships with caregivers, especially parents.
Further, there are restrictions on the type of degree a parent can earn while receiving state-funded child care subsidies. The District of Columbia, for example, only allows parents to earn up to a vocational degree, such as a technical degree or certificate, while receiving child care assistance.
And the restrictions just go on… nine states impose time limits on subsidy eligibility for student parents, 18 states require parents to participate in education or training for a set amount of time or credit hours and six states require parents to demonstrate “satisfactory academic progress” to remain eligible.
Finally, if a student parent is fortunate enough to be able to fulfill all the criteria, there are still long waiting lists for child care subsidies. Sometimes a family may remain on a waiting list for months or even years before receiving assistance. According to a 2015 report by the National Women’s Law Center, 21 states had waiting lists or frozen intake for child care assistance in 2015, up from 18 states in 2014.
Student parents need support and that includes access to high-quality child care options. While campus child care has the potential to help more parents graduate, allowing them to secure better jobs and provide a more stable home for themselves and their children, current care meets only about five percent of existing need. In order to make quality child care more accessible to the almost five million student parents in college, states should align their child care subsidy rules and investments with higher education completion goals and make investments in improving the quality of early care and education options. Further, they should relax their eligibility requirements for child care subsidies, including the elimination of burdensome and unrealistic work requirements.