Nationwide, there is a growing recognition that low-income and middle-class families’ prospects for socioeconomic advancement often depends on their access to affordable, high-quality childcare. In many states, the average annual cost for an infant in center-based care is higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college. The high costs of childcare are particularly burdensome for single parents pursuing a postsecondary education.
More than one in four college students (4.8 million) are parents with dependent children, and over 40 percent of these student parents are single mothers. The number of undergraduates who are single mothers has more than doubled between the years 1999 and 2012. And according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), women of color are the most likely undergraduate students to have children. Despite the increase in student parents on campus, over half leave school before earning a degree.
Barriers to Completion
Such low persistence rates can be due to the heavy financial and time constraints faced by student parents. Over 60 percent of single mothers enrolled in college live at or below the federal poverty line, and most of them are working 20 or more hours a week. Time spent on care and work can leave student parents with little bandwidth for other activities critical to their academic success and mental health. Among single mothers who do graduate, those with a bachelor’s degree are more likely to leave with higher levels of debt than both nonparent and married mother peers ($30,000 compared to $4,800 and $4,300, respectively).
For student parents who can afford childcare, quality centers located on or near a college campus may require months on a waitlist or may not provide care during the evenings or weekends. As institutional budgets have tightened, the availability of campus childcare has declined. The current supply of on-campus child care centers is estimated to only meet five percent of student demand.
Promising Increase in Federal Investment
Earlier this year, however, Congress passed an omnibus spending package that increased spending to Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) – the only federal grant program dedicated to providing funds for campus-based childcare services to student parents whose earnings are low enough to qualify them for Pell grants. Prior to the $34.9 million increase, funding for CCAMPIS had remained virtually stagnant since 2003. In 2017, the program is said to have served approximately 5,000 student parents across 86 institutions, the majority of which were located at two-year public colleges. By some estimates, CCAMPIS expansion could result in an increase of 7,600 student parents served.
What Can Be Done at the Institution-Level?
The federal government’s decision to expand CCAMPIS presents an important opportunity for student affairs professionals to consider how to develop and sustain campus childcare for students who stand to benefit the most from service utilization. While childcare is just one of the many services that support student parent success, it is perhaps one of the most critical determinants of whether a student parent persists in school. Below are four ways that student affairs professionals can support student parents’ childcare needs:
Identify student parents and the extent of their childcare needs. Student affairs administrators need to have enough data to best understand the adequate level and range of care needed for student parents. Student data should be disaggregated by factors like marital status, and number and age of dependents. An IWPR report suggests that campuses should conduct a survey of student parents’ current childcare arrangements, financial resources, and preferences. Conversations with student parents about their current situations and goals for the future should occur as early as possible as part of a needs assessment. Advisors and counselors should be equipped with information about the range of available services, financial and transportation supports, and childcare placement opportunities available on or near campus.
Use on-campus childcare centers as hubs for a range of student parent supports. Institutions that already have an on-campus childcare facility can use it for more than direct care for children; it can serve as a destination for student parent information and community building. Childcare centers can provide informal or formal opportunities for student parents to share knowledge with one another and build peer-to-peer relationships. Some campuses assign a staff counselor or advisor to childcare centers to provide resources and specialized support to student parents in a convenient location.
Consider cooperative approaches to on-campus childcare. One way campuses can reduce costs for student parents and simultaneously improve child to staff ratios is to adopt a co-op model of providing care. Under a co-op model, student parents contribute a certain number of hours a week to assisting at a childcare center and in return have fees for their own children waived or reduced. At Linn-Benton Community College, student parents who assist with caregiving are eligible for class credit, which allows them to apply federal financial aid dollars towards the co-op fee.
Help student parents tap into off-campus childcare resources. Institutions that have limited or no on-campus childcare currently available should help connect students with alternative supports in the community. Campus administrators can help student parents apply for and secure federal, state/local, institutional, and private funding for near-campus childcare services. Participating CCAMPIS institutions can provide low-income student parents with scholarships to at least partially finance off-campus childcare costs. The federal- and state-funded Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) may also be available for low-income student families to help offset childcare costs.
As student demographics continue to shift, student affairs professionals should consider the possible ways to support student parents. Access to affordable, quality childcare services not only improves the chances of a student parent persisting in and finishing college on time, but it also has social and educational value for the children receiving the care. Investing the time and resources into understanding and addressing the needs of student parents means investing in the success of today’s students as well as the next generation of students to come.