The Obstacles Facing Student Parents
For many young women, including myself, the path from grade school to the working world follows an unambiguous narrative, from earning solid grades in high school to gaining admission to a top university to eventually beginning our career of choice or pursuing an advanced degree. Ready to reap the benefits of our mothers’ hard-fought battles for women’s rights—and in the wake of data showing that more women than men pursue higher education, and that young, childless, urban women out-earn their male peers—it seems no obstacle can prevent young women from achieving their goals.
Unfortunately, for undergraduate students who are also parents, and particularly single mothers, the path is not so clear. Despite the fact that there are 3.9 million student parents enrolled as undergraduates in colleges and universities (equal to nearly one-quarter of the 17 million undergraduate students across the country), they face significant barriers to postsecondary success, and institutions are ill-prepared to provide for their needs. According to a recent IWPR report, Improving Child Care Access to Promote Postsecondary Success Among Low-Income Parents, student parents are more likely to be low-income and working full-time than undergraduate students as a whole.
About half of married student parents and over 40 percent of single student parents spend 40 or more hours per week working, and parents must also devote a significant portion of their time to caregiving. In fact, 68 percent of married parents and 56 percent of single parents spend 30 hours or more per week on care. Further, only about 10 percent of single parents spend no time on care, compared to 60 percent of childless students, and women are more likely than men to spend long hours on care. Some student parents end up spending 70 hours per week or more on their jobs and caretaking duties—attending classes and studying seems like an impossible added burden.
Child Care Crucial to Success of Student Parents
Child care is therefore a critical resource to alleviate some of the stress of caretaking, and ease the strain of juggling competing priorities and obligations. According to surveys conducted at Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Michigan, having access to care is one of student parents’ top concerns. Child care facilities not only allow parents peace of mind and give them more time to devote to schoolwork and earning income, the facilities can also help increase retention among a group that is likely to drop out of school. Fifty-seven percent of student parents are low-income, meaning that off-campus care centers— which in many states cost more than average annual rent payments—are not realistic options for many student parents. Though often regarded as a lower-cost alternative to four year universities, community college is often unaffordable. With the added cost of child care, it may be unattainable for many parents.
Child care is one of the most effective ways that colleges and universities can help their student parents to earn a degree, yet most fail to provide on-campus care centers, much less affordable, high-quality care.
Only 49 to 57 percent of two- and four-year public colleges and universities, and a dismal 7 to 9 percent of two- and four-year private colleges and universities offer child care facilities. In fact, according to IWPR calculations, colleges and universities are only providing five percent of the child care slots that student parents need. Even when parents attend universities that offer care, the facilities are less than ideal: many have long waiting lists, few centers provide infant care, and even fewer schools offer care at night or during the summer.
Breaking the Cycle
By not supporting student parents with accessible and affordable child care, colleges and universities are denying a significant fraction of their community a chance to earn an advanced degree and obtain the types of jobs afforded to other undergraduates.
And high-quality child care not only affects parents—research indicates that low-income children significantly benefit from quality early education, and that children of college graduates are in turn more likely to attend college. Supporting low-income student parents is thus an effective way of breaking the cycle of poverty for many families
The policy implications of these findings are clear: by funding and supporting high-quality, campus-based child care, colleges and universities could help to ensure the success of one of their most vulnerable populations, as well as the generations that will follow. Many student parents enter college with heavier burdens than their peers; they deserve as clear a path to family security through a degree and career as anyone else.
For more information, please visit IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative webpage.
Elisa Garcia is the Office and Program Coordinator with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.