Student parents are no longer a small subset of so-called non-traditional students. The number of college students who are raising children reached 4.8 million in 2011, making up more than a quarter of the entire undergraduate population. But they face heavy odds, as nearly 70 percent have low incomes, and, by and large, are less likely to complete their degree or certification within six years.   

A failure to provide resources for student parents—like childcare and transportation—could impede a disproportionate number of women of color, who are the most likely undergrads to have children, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Colleges that hope to see equity in the race and gender of their successful students require a firm understanding of the demographics and obligations of enrolled parents, according to Barbara Gault, the vice president and executive director of IWPR.

“The data show that students with children are less likely to persist and complete than other students,” Gault said. “Those childcare expenses can become a real burden and a challenge to their ability to succeed in school.”

Alejandra Lira, a 22-year-old nursing student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, discovered she was pregnant the first week of her first year. She had looked forward to attending her school for years, but the responsibility of raising a child made her question whether she could remain enrolled. She and her fiance had just moved from neighboring Kenosha, Wisconsin, where her family lived, so they would be alone in a new city, taking care of their baby. “I was worried about who was going to watch my son when I went to school,” Lira said. “That was my main concern.”

Lira sought advice from another student parent, who pointed her to a university program that could help her pay for daycare through the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program, a federal grant that subsidizes childcare for parents enrolled in college. She said that without those funds, she would pay between $300 and $400 per week for daycare. With CCAMPIS subsidies, however, Lira pays just $360 per semester. Her son is almost four, and Lira will receive her bachelor’s degree in nursing in May. “I definitely wouldn’t have had any money to pay for daycare, and that would mean I wouldn’t be able to go to school because I don’t have family in Madison at all, so I just rely on daycare,” Lira said.

“We’re talking about just the reality of who needs these services, and so it is a gender and race issue, it’s an economic issue, it spans so many of these categories,” said Neena Chaudhry, the senior counsel and director of education at the National Women’s Law Center. Access to childcare ultimately affects students’ ability to complete their education, which has major long-term effects, especially for women of color, she said. “We already know that down the line, the wage gap for women still exists and persists, and is even greater for women of color. So, it’s critical that women in general—and particularly women of color—are able to get the degrees that they need and advance and get into the fields that they want to.”

Lira said that even with the childcare subsidies, along with a full scholarship, financial aid for living expenses and a fiance who works full time, she still works part-time as a nursing assistant to fund the copay for childcare and other expenses. Her parents would love to help, she said, but that’s just not feasible. “They’re my parents, they’re always going to try to provide, even with 20 bucks to fill up my gas tank or something like that,” Lira said. “But most of the time I don’t take it from them because I know they don’t have money.”

“I think most colleges need to come around to an acceptance of who their population is, that the norm is no longer that 18-year-old coming straight out of high school but potentially that 26-year-old who has a part-time job and a child,” said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy who served as the project manager of the Benefits Access for College Completion program. BACC worked with community and technical colleges to connect low-income students to the resources that would help them succeed. At LaGuardia Community College, which worked with Duke-Benfield, a quarter of students are parents. LaGuardia opened its Early Childhood Learning Center in 1978 and served almost 200 children last fall, providing student parents with nearby, subsidized childcare. Of the parents who use the ECLC, 90 percent said that they would not be able to afford both childcare and tuition, according to Michael Baston, the vice president of student affairs at LaGuardia. Baston said that for parents in the student body—70 percent of which has a family income below $25,000—campus childcare can help remove a significant obstacle. “Because we have this program on campus, they can leave their children here and then they can actually study and not have to worry about running back to the neighborhood to pick up the child and [later] try to run back to school,” Baston said.

In addition to a daycare facility, LaGuardia provides a range of services, including a food pantry, food vouchers, a women’s center, and Fatherhood Academy. “All of these initiatives are aimed at helping students reduce the barriers to completion that are erected by their life circumstance before they get here,” Baston said. Duke-Benfield found that when colleges introduced access to benefits in established procedures—such as part of the process for paying a bill—students were more likely to participate in those programs. Baston said LaGuardia embedded screening for students who would benefit from extra supports in student orientation and in meetings with the financial-aid staff. LaGuardia has seen the positive impact: re-enrollment for two semesters is higher for students who are raising children than for the general student body.

The demand for such campus-based support programs for parents is growing. Congresswoman Katherine Clark hopes to increase the funding for CCAMPIS, the federal program that subsidizes Lira’s childcare costs, to $67 million. It has been funded at about $15 million each year for the last decade. “We’re seeing there’s such a financial burden for young families, and at the same time we're seeing the number of student parents hit an all-time high,” Clark said. “And we feel that this bill is a great way to try and take away one barrier for parents who are trying to get their college degree.”

Though being a student doesn’t bring in income, Lira believes that in the long term completing her degree is the financially responsible move. When her parents become too old to work, she will need to support them, and she needs to support her now son. “That was my belief. I need to make sure I stay in school because in the future, I want to have the resources to raise a child and provide him with a good life,” she said. “I also want [him] in the future to pursue higher education, so I want to be an example.”