A Student Parent’s Story of Balancing School, Parenthood, and Debt
by Andrea Fitch
I. Deciding to Go Back to School: “We needed to be a dual income family.”
When I first learned I was going to be a parent, I was overwhelmed with a combination of joy and nerves. I was ecstatic to take on the journey of parenthood, but I had not realized the high cost of essentials, such as diapers, formula, strollers, and, especially, child care. I wondered how it would all work out.
I was fortunate to have my husband and father of my children along with me throughout my journey of parenthood. But even with a partner, it was difficult to meet our children’s basic needs. My husband worked a seasonal job in the landscape industry, and being a stay-at-home mother was never an option for me. We needed to be a dual income family. But with both of us working full-time, that also meant we needed to secure full-time child care.
After four years of struggling to pay for basic needs and child care, it became clear that high school degrees and the limited career fields they offered would not be enough. We knew we needed better paying jobs and that the way to achieve this goal was through higher education. With the support of my husband, I began a new journey: obtaining a bachelor’s degree.
II. Going to School Full-Time Still Requires Full-Time Child Care: “My only option was to take out more student loans.”
I reduced my work hours from 40 to 32 per week and started school part-time at a community college. Doing so allowed me to keep our health insurance and maintain our child care spots. But after one year, I was offered a significantly large scholarship that would extend throughout my graduation on the terms that I attend college full-time.
Quitting my job to attend college full-time meant that our monthly income would be dramatically reduced—but we still had the same expenses, including child care. Someone had to watch the kids while I was at school! I supplemented resources using public services such as Medicaid and SNAP. At the time—in 2010, when state economies faced many budget cuts—the Colorado Childcare Assistance Program (CCAP) was on a freeze and child care resources were not available. There just wasn’t enough money for all families in Colorado that needed the assistance. I needed to find an alternative way to pay for child care, which at the time averaged about $800 per month through a home care provider.
Although the college I attended had a child care facility on campus, there was a long waiting list and most of the spots were taken by faculty and staff at the university. Furthermore, the cost of the on-campus child care facility, which would have been the most convenient option, was more than our family could afford. My husband’s paychecks went to rent, cars, gas, and other needs public assistance services couldn’t provide. My only option was to take out more in school loans to pay for child care.
The logistics of sorting out child care arrangements were time-consuming and often stressful, but eventually, I found reliable, affordable child care for the kids while I was at school or studying. I was also grateful the kids were not in harm and loved the people they spent time with when I couldn’t be around. I had earned a 4.0 GPA my junior year and made the Dean’s list. Everything seemed to be working out as I progressed through my journey to a degree. This felt like a huge accomplishment for someone who thought a college degree was impossible.
But beyond all this joy lurked a new reality: paying back all the student loan money I borrowed. For two years, I took out additional money from my school loans to pay for child care—and the money was adding up.
III. Dealing with Debt: “Half of my school loan debt was due to child care costs alone.”
By my senior year, I had earned 5 scholarships and various grants, which was enough to fully fund my senior year of college. I was relieved that I didn’t have to take out extra loan money to pay for school fees, but these scholarships and grants did not cover child care. To get through my senior year and graduate, I had to take out more student loans just for child care.
After graduation, I was glad to have achieved a goal that would benefit not only me as an individual, but also benefit my family and our future. A few months later, however, the reality of my student debt began to sink in. My total school loan debt was near $30,000, a rather small amount compared to other graduates, but I still hoped it would be less due to the size of the scholarships and grants I had received. Then I realized that half of my school loan debt was due to child care costs alone. As I stared at the numbers my only thought was, “My school loan debt would be so much less if I didn’t need childcare.” I often wonder how much more freeing it would be for the financial future of my family if I didn’t have that extra debt. The quicker I pay off my student loan debt, the sooner I will be able to better provide for my family.
Although there were several roadblocks along the way, I achieved my goal and am better able to provide for my family because of my education. But even with a better paying job, I am still overwhelmed when I think about paying off my student loan debt. Loans were essential in paying for school and basic needs when I couldn’t, but it’s a debt that I must pay every month.
Andrea Fitch is a teacher in Colorado.
Learn more about IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative, and read the new report, College Affordability for Low-Income Adults: Improving Returns on Investment for Families and Society.