The Quiet Struggle of College Students With Kids

More than one-quarter of American undergraduates have dependent children, but affordable, on-campus childcare is still hard to find.

Jim Young/Reuters

In 2001, Michelle Marie enrolled at Oregon State University. After two years of community college, and then another two years at home taking care of her baby, Marie was ready to complete her bachelor’s degree. But that meant she’d need to find someone to watch her daughter, who was nearly two years old, and both resources and information were scarce. “At the time nobody was asking me if I was a student parent. Nobody was saying, ‘Hey, we're aware that you're a member of a population that is perhaps not served by the services and resources that are available,’” Marie says. “I felt like I had to set aside my parent status in order to be a student.”

Marie was lucky; a nearby aunt was able to provide childcare until her daughter was old enough for kindergarten. Without her aunt's help, Marie says she’s not sure how, or if, she could have juggled both school and a young child.

Now, nearly 15 years later, she’s working on her Ph.D. and participating in student-parent advocacy on campus, in hopes of creating a better experience for others who will follow in her footsteps. But Marie says things haven’t improved all that much. “Childcare is actually even less available on campus, and more expensive than it was then,” she says. “Student-parents are still an invisible population.”

According to a 2014 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 4.8 million college students were parents of dependent children in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available—that’s about 26 percent of all college undergraduates. The vast majority of these students, 71 percent, are women. But while the number of enrolled students who have children has grown (increasing by 50 percent between 1995 and 2011, according to IWPR), the availability of childcare on campuses hasn’t. In fact, the number of overall childcare facilities available at public colleges (where more than 60 percent of students with children enroll) has decreased over the past decade or so. In 2002, 54 percent of public, four-year colleges had on-campus childcare; by 2013 that number had dropped to 51 percent. For public, two-year colleges, those figures declined from 52 percent to 46 percent during the same period.

Number of Parents Enrolled in College, 1995-2011

The reasons behind the declining availability in childcare are varied, potentially a mix of both budget constraints and academic culture, says Barbara Gault, the executive director at IWPR. “It’s taking a long time for institutions of higher education to undergo a culture shift that reflects the changing demographics, and to begin to view themselves as organizations that are family-friendly—not just for faculty, but for students,” she says. It might also be true that these types of facilities aren’t yet considered a financial priority. “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,” Gault says.

Graduate student Kimberly Lewis is a soon-to-be parent who is currently wrestling with the lack of both funds and childcare programs as she anticipates the arrival of a child in February. While she’s excited, she’s also a bit nervous. Lewis works as a graduate assistant at Western Illinois University in Macomb. In exchange she receives a stipend that helps cover her expenses while she furthers her education. She also receives assistance from SNAP and WIC in order to make ends meet each month. But when it comes to finding help for childcare, so that she can head back to work and school after the baby, Lewis can't seem to find a solution.

She says that she looked into childcare on campus, but that the facility wouldn’t hold a spot open for her until March, when her child will be old enough to finally start daycare. And then a nearby Early Head Start program bumped her to the wait-list after originally confirming her registration. “They told me, 'Hey, you're pretty poor, you qualify for Early Head Start,’” she said. But then two weeks later they called to say that she had been moved to the wait-list and her child's spot was no longer confirmed. She says that the daycare facility cited the fact that enrollment was need-based, not first-come, first-served, but that they told a friend of hers the opposite. Plus, Lewis says, she does in fact need the help. If she can’t arrange childcare, she’ll lose her graduate-assistant job and along with it her $800 monthly stipend and tuition assistance.

If she can’t find a solution by the time she has to go back to work, after the school’s 2015 spring break, she’s considered going into debt in order to fund both her studies and the cost of childcare.

It’s a solution that other student-parents have had to to rely on while in school. Andrea Fitch turned to loans while she pursued her bachelor’s almost five years ago.  She managed to earn scholarships or grant money for nearly all of her education expenses while she studied at Colorado State University. She says she looked into the daycare on-site, but “it was still charging $40 a day, per kid—and there was a wait-list because a lot of the children at that facility were from faculty and staff.” Fitch says that she also looked into subsidies for childcare, but at the time, Colorado’s Child Care Assistance Program was frozen, leaving little financial help available. In the end, she took out nearly $30,000 in loans in order to pay for in-home childcare while she earned her degree. “I felt like it was my only option for creating a next step,” she said.

Average Undergraduate Debt One Year After Graduation

Students who have kids tend to have higher student-loan debt than their childless peers, according to IWPR. That's particularly problematic given the fact that these parents are also more likely to have low-incomes than their fellow students. That makes subsidies, like the federal funds that support childcare at colleges, particularly important. But some of those services have also been reduced. In 2013 around $14.9 million was allocated to the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program, which provides funding for on-campus childcare services. That’s a far cry from the funding that was allocated in 2001, when $25 million was made available for such programs. And in many states, programs that offer funding for student-parents are facing frozen funds, require a certain number of work hours per week, or inflict limits on total school hours, making subsidies more difficult to qualify for and imposing more stringent schedules on those who do receive funds, according to IWPR's research.

So why is on-campus childcare so important? Well, it's partially because it could help more parents graduate, allowing them to secure better jobs and provide a more stable home for themselves and their children. According to IWPR, parents with dependent children drop out of college at a higher rate than any other demographic, with only 33 percent of students with children obtaining a degree or certificate within six years. Placing these facilities on-campus not only simplifies daily routines for parents, allowing them to spend less time (and money) commuting from home, to daycare to school, and back again, but also gives them peace-of-mind while at school, since they could easily reach their children in case of emergency. According to Gault, both advocacy groups and politicians who have touted educational attainment as a key component to moving families out of poverty, should be particularly concerned with the presence of childcare facilities on college campuses.

But the availability of on-campus childcare, and the funds to help students pay for these services vary widely by state. In Delaware, Rhode Island, and Nevada, all community colleges offer an on-campus childcare facility, according to the American Association of University Women. In New York, 32 out of the state’s 36 community colleges provide the service; and in California, 84 percent of the state’s 118 community colleges offer childcare. On the other hand, less than 20 percent of community colleges in Louisiana and South Carolina offer such services, and only 10 percent of Tennessee’s 39 community colleges have on-campus childcare.

According to Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the AAUW, these variations suggest that the presence of both childcare programs and the supportive funding that would help needy student-parents pay for them is as much an issue of state politics and policies as it is higher-education culture.
“There is a little bit of a regional difference, and I think that that suggests that some of the state policies are no doubt making a difference,” Hill says. “States that are providing childcare should be a model for those that are not doing it at the same level or same scale.”