Candidates’ “Free College” Proposals Must be More Inclusive of College Students with Children. Here’s How.

Candidates’ “Free College” Proposals Must be More Inclusive of College Students with Children. Here’s How.

This blog was produced in collaboration with The Education Trust. Click here to view the original post.


More than half of the 2020 presidential candidates support some version of “free college” as a strategy to combat the rising cost of college. Whether or not “free college” is a part of the solution, candidates, policymakers, and college leaders must do more to consider the experiences of student parents, who represent nearly 4 million undergraduates in the United States and who sit at the intersection of the college equity, affordability, and access challenges facing this country today.

Any strategies to make college more affordable should include a focus on equity. How do students who are most affected by the college affordability crisis — including students with children, low-income students, students of color, and adult students — fare in plans to establish “free college” programs? Who will benefit from these plans and who will be excluded? How will they work to alleviate existing student debt and prevent excessive borrowing moving forward—and for whom?

The national conversation about making college free is growing in prominence, and many institutions, higher education systems, and states are implementing their own free college policies, which can be loosely defined as federal, state, or local programs that cover at least tuition and fees for some or all students based on certain eligibility rules. In May 2019, for example, the Workforce Education Investment Act was signed into law in Washington State, providing free or reduced tuition for middle- and low-income students attending community colleges and public institutions. Just two months later, the University of Texas at Austin joined other institutions by providing full tuition for Texas families making $65,000 or less per year.

Proposals to establish free college vary widely by presidential candidate. Senators WarrenHarrisSanders, and Gillibrand, for example, support free (or debt-free) college tuition and fees across all public four- and two-year institutions, while former Vice President BidenJulian Castro, and Senator Klobuchar support covering tuition and fees at community colleges. Some candidates, such as Mayor Pete Buttigieg, suggest making college free for students with the lowest incomes, while others (like Senators Warren and Gillibrand) support a program for which all students could be eligible. As candidates’ platforms continue to develop, they should keep student parents — whose caregiving and financial demands make affordable college essential to their ability to enroll and succeed — in mind. Free college programs rarely include assistance with living expenses and child care costs, for example, expenses which student parents must cover to continue in school. (Introduced last week, Senator Harris’s BASIC Act proposal would help higher education institutions meet basic, non-tuition needs—including child care—of their students.)

Student parents should be included in conversations about college affordability, given that they make up almost a quarter (22 percent) of all undergraduates and are more likely to be students of color (51 percent) and women (70 percent). Including student parents in the college affordability conversation is vital to achieving key educational, social, and economic equity goals. For instance, student parents often struggle with poverty while in school (68 percent live in or near poverty), and have more than 2.5 times more debt than students without children. One in three Black students are parents, the most of any racial/ethnic group, and their average undergraduate debt — $18,100 in 2015-16 — is higher than that of student parents or non-parents of every other racial/ethnic background.

Free college programs can play an integral role in meeting key workforce and economic demands, especially when they intentionally include underserved student populations, such as student parents and other working adults, who might otherwise bypass college or leave school before earning a credential that can help them earn a better living. At least 16 of the current presidential candidates come from states that have set educational attainment goals that commit to dramatically increasing the number of adults with college or workforce credentials by a target date in the 2020s. If candidates hope to help states meet or exceed these goals, they must put forward plans that actively recruit and serve students with family, work, and financial commitments.

Busy mom working at desk with young daughterAs candidates, policymakers, and college leaders develop plans to tackle college affordability, here are a few ways that they can be sure to include student parents in their solutions:

  1. Reevaluate eligibility rules that can restrict student parents’ ability to participate in free college or other programs aimed at making college more affordable. Restrictive eligibility rules include those that limit participation to younger students or recent high school graduates, or to students who can enroll full-time. Transparency around eligibility rules, participation requirements, and the full cost of attendance must also be central.
  2. Make programs be first-dollar programs so that students can cover non-tuition costs, such as the cost of child care, family housing, food, and transportation.
  3. Ensure that free college programs encourage institutions to be transparent about the true cost of college, and the return on students’ investment of time and resources. For families and other working adults, knowing that enrolling in college will lead to a degree that will result in a family-sustaining wage is essential.
  4. Include additional supportive services — such as advising on career paths and appropriate courses to achieve desired credentials, intensive coaching both in school and at jobs during and after education is complete, emergency aid, and other specific needs student parents may have—in program design to set students up for success and ensure they can meet their basic needs while pursuing education.

Many students, including student parents, stand to gain from free college programs, as long as these programs are accessible to them. Without intentional access for student parents, free college programs could end up exacerbating some of the inequities they aim to address. Student parents are ready and motivated to succeed in college (student parents achieve higher GPAs than other students), but policymakers, including those running for the most visible policymaking position in the country, must do more to include and support them.

IWPR’s Heidi Hartmann and Gina Chirillo Outline Child Care Agenda in Dissent

IWPR’s Heidi Hartmann and Gina Chirillo Outline Child Care Agenda in Dissent

In the current issue of Dissent, IWPR’s Heidi Hartmann and Gina Chirillo review research from around the world on benefits of child care and outline what a child care agenda for the progressive movement would look like.

Child care has been described by the late economist Barbara Bergmann as a merit good; it does more for society than it costs. Parents, many of whom have low incomes especially when their children are young, simply don’t have the funds to invest the optimal amount in their own children. And parents are not the only ones, or even the main ones, to benefit from their investment; well-educated children benefit all of society. As a society we underinvest in children, and only the public sector can fill the gap.

Read more at Dissentmagazine.org.

IWPR’s Liz Noll on How Joining Together to Support Other Student Parents Helped Her in School

IWPR’s Liz Noll on How Joining Together to Support Other Student Parents Helped Her in School

Elizabeth Noll, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist at IWPR, received both her B.A. and M.A. degrees in Sociology from Temple University and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Pennsylvania. Before pursuing her BA, Dr. Noll attained her associate’s degree in Computer Science at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC), while raising her daughter Marisa. Earlier this month, Dr. Noll was inducted into MCCC Alumni Hall of Fame, in part because of her decades of work to support the campus’s child care center, as well as her important work and scholarship since she graduated.

IWPR Communications Associate, Nicolas Martinez, interviewed Dr. Noll about her experience as a student parent pursuing higher education and how on-campus child care contributed to her success in school.

  1. Could you tell us a bit about why you chose to pursue higher education?

I have always had a drive to learn about the world, especially about why things work as they do. However, my parents, who were very bright but who had only high school degrees, felt that as the only girl, the family would be better served by focusing on educating my three brothers. Remember, this was in the late 1950s/early 1960s when only elite women attended college. My mother was a stay-at-home parent. It was also a time when it was possible for people to actually work their way up the ladder. My father did that by working as a custodian in a knitting company and working his way to mechanical engineer and had several patents for machines he designed.

So, although I was an honor student in high school, and had a real desire to continue my education, I entered the workforce, employed with the Department of Public Welfare in Philadelphia as a caseworker— a civil service job that at the time did not require a college degree. In 1980, when the Reagan administration began limiting welfare benefits for the poor, I felt I could no longer serve my clients and left that position. Around the same time, I gave birth to my daughter and, without a partner, found myself responsible for another human being.

I moved in with a friend in the suburbs of Philadelphia. There, I enrolled in Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) mostly because they had a child care program of sorts, in the form of a “Parents Club,” which was a cooperative where parents took turns caring for children while other parents were in class. Not knowing what course of study to pursue, I enrolled in a general studies program. Looking back, this was an ideal program, since it introduced me to a variety of disciplines.  Among other areas, the program introduced me to careers in computer sciences. It laid a foundation that I was able to use in a variety of settings, including social research.

  1. What helped you balance parenthood with school?

Clearly, having a place on campus where I felt my 4-year-old daughter would be cared for while I was in class made my education possible. An unexpected benefit was having a space to share with other parents (mostly single mothers), who were challenging the stereotype and who supported each other when the going got tough, which it almost always does for women raising children on their own. I established long-term friendships there that I have maintained today. (Attached is a photo from this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony with two of those moms). Finally, MCCC, by virtue of having a child care center on campus in 1984, was a forward-thinking college as it continues to be today.

  1. You now work on IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative. What sort of research are you doing now on these issues?

I feel very fortunate to (finally) be working on projects that I connect with personally. In just the year that I’ve been with IWPR, I’ve worked on several analyses of national education survey data (IPEDS, NPSAS) to produce reports on the growth of the student parent population, along with the decline in on-campus child care; an national and regional profiles of student parents; a report on how community colleges can become family-friendly; an analysis of findings from a survey of campus child care leaders; a report on ways to link campus child care and early childhood education systems (forthcoming); and currently a cost-benefit analysis of higher education for single mothers (forthcoming). In March I attended a national conference of child care centers in Long Beach, CA, where I had the pleasure of hearing from campus child care providers about the issues they’re facing in serving student parents and their children.

  1. You’re studying the benefits to individuals and society of single mother education. As a former student parent, what is your perspective on the benefits that higher education can bring?

In addition to the very practical benefits of higher education, such as allowing students raising children alone to provide  housing, food, healthcare, and education for their children through greater earnings potential, single mothers particularly benefit by acquiring the necessary skills for leadership to contribute to areas that directly address the economic barriers they have encountered—to enlighten researchers and policymakers who have not directly experienced raising children alone on those policies and interventions that actually reflect their lives.

  1. What sort policies would help student parents pursuing higher education today?

The policy of requiring low-income single mothers, who are attempting to attain a college education to work 20 or more hours per week while in school in order to maintain their public benefits is not at all helpful for the women or for society.

I would also like to see social service database systems reconfigured to  include performance measures that reflect the actual qualitative experiences of low-income mothers.  My dissertation research revealed disconnects in the designs  of college and welfare office data systems that caused some student parents to be sanctioned erroneously and, in many cases, caused them to withdraw from college.

  1. If you could change one thing about your college experience, what would it be?

I would like to have been able to attend college (especially graduate school) on a full-time basis. Not only would it have taken less time to complete, but part-time college attendance is a qualitatively different experience than attending full-time where one can be truly immersed in a discipline. It is often challenging for non-traditional students, especially student parents, to fully  integrate what is being taught when they have to compartmentalize so much of their time. On the other hand, life with children while attending college is an education in itself.

Dr. Noll works on IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative where she conducts policy research related to the needs and experiences of student parents with a focus on increasing postsecondary education access and persistence for low-income mothers. Find IWPR’s research and resources on student parents at IWPR.org. 

Take a look at when Elizabeth Noll, Ph.D. was inducted into the Montgomery County Community College Alumni Hall of Fame on Friday, April 28, 2017.

Videos produced by Diane vanDyke and Matt Porter. Music composed by Michael Kelly. Narration by Michele Cuomo.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

Building Family-Friendly Campuses: Strategies to Promote College Success Among Student Parents

Building Family-Friendly Campuses: Strategies to Promote College Success Among Student Parents

By Melanie Kruvelis

This post is the third in a new series by Higher Education Today, Beyond the Margins: Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students.

For parents, receiving a college degree is one of the best investments they can make to improve the financial security, social mobility, and overall well-being of their family. Research has repeatedly shown, for example, that college graduates have higher lifetime earnings than their peers with just a high school diploma, and are more likely to report experiencing better health than those with lower educational attainment. Yet for the 4.8 million college students raising children, navigating higher education—a space primarily designed with young, non-parenting adults in mind—can be uniquely challenging.

Today, more than a quarter of all undergraduate college students are raising children, and about 44 percent are doing so without the support of a partner. The majority of single parents in college—80 percent—are women. Women of color are particularly likely to be single parents while in college: Nearly 40 percent of Black women and more than a quarter of American Indian/Alaska Native women in higher education are raising a child without the support of a partner (in comparison to 19 percent of Hispanic women and 14 percent of white women).

While the share of parents enrolled in college has been steadily growing—according to the most recent data, the proportion of students with dependent children has increased 30 percent from 2004-12—the share of parenting students who complete college remains low. The most recent data show that about half of all college students earn a degree or certificate within six years of enrolling, while only a third of student parents complete school, with the rate even lower for single parents (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Share of Students Who Attained a Degree or Certificate Within Six Years of Enrollment, by Parent and Marital Status, 2003-09


Though the reasons for leaving college without a degree vary, the heightened financial and time pressures faced by student parents can pose significant challenges to graduating. Compared with their non-parenting peers, student parents are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty, and are much less likely to have the resources to pay for college than their dependent peers. Compounding the financial pressure, student parents must also find affordable child care, which is often a significant expense. According to the Care Index, the average cost of center-based care in the United States—about $9,589 annually—is outpacing the average cost of in-state tuition at $9,410. Meanwhile, the share of campuses with childcare centers continues to decline, despite the growing need.

As colleges work to improve attainment rates and address economic, racial/ethnic and gender inequality on their campuses, institutions should take steps to better understand and support their diverse student population, including students with families of their own. Ensuring that student data can be disaggregated by parental and marital status, for instance, can help administrators better understand the needs and experiences of students who are balancing school and parenting. Institutional leaders can work to protect funding for student parent supports, such as Pell Grants and the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program, which is the only source of federal funding available to facilitate low-income college students’ access to child care.

And institutions can employ strategies to make campuses more family-friendly, ranging from improving students’ access to childcare on- and off-campus, to stocking administrative offices with toys. A few examples of interventions that support parenting students’ college success include:

Connecting Student Parents with Financial Support and Education: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Life Impact Program provides participating low-income student parents with a $5,000 renewable scholarship. Life Impact Scholars are also connected with a life coach who helps students navigate on- and off-campus resources, such as child care, transportation supports, and career development programs.

At Norwalk Community College in Connecticut, parenting students can enroll in the Family Economic Security Program, which provides financial coaching, in addition to achievement coaching, peer support, and educational programs, to learners who have experienced interruptions in their college pursuit.

Targeting Academic Support to Student Parents’ Needs: Endicott College’s Keys to Degrees program provides tailored tutoring to participating student parents until they can maintain a 3.0 GPA. Keys to Degrees staff also coach students on how to talk to professors about balancing school with family responsibilities, help them secure internships related to their degree and ensure their graduation within four years.

At the University of California, San Diego, student parents can apply for priority enrollment so they can secure the courses they need to graduate while also creating a schedule that allows them to balance their school, family and work responsibilities more easily.

Making Child Care Accessible and Affordable: At the University of Michigan, low-income student parents may access a child care subsidy through the school’s Financial Aid Office, which they can use for licensed child care in the community.

Parenting students attending Lane Community College in Oregon are offered no-cost assistance finding child care through an on-campus child care resource and referral center.

Building Peer Community: At the University of Alabama, the Undergraduate and Graduate Parent Support programs developed online forums so that student parents can connect on issues related to balancing schoolwork with family responsibilities.

Student parents at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities can attend group lunches for parenting students, coordinated by the university’s Student Parent HELP Center.

Establishing a Family-Friendly Campus Environment: At Niagara County Community College in New York, the Mapping Opportunities for Moms program equips administrative and counseling offices with toys, signaling to students and college staff that families are welcome on campus, in addition to providing single mothers with a range of supports to help them attain a degree or certificate.

The Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley Community College has created a space on campus for the college’s parenting students, where they host play groups, as well as baby clothes exchanges, book exchanges, in addition to other two-generation services for parents and their children.

These are a few examples from a menu of options institutions may consider when developing family-friendly programming, and can be mixed, matched, and molded to fit the particular needs and capacity of institutions. While the approaches vary, what these supports have in common is the ability to help stabilize low-income student parents so they have both the time and economic security to focus on attaining a degree. By advocating for student parent supports, developing a greater understanding of student parents’ needs and implementing targeted interventions, colleges can build a more welcoming, productive environment that helps parents complete school and launch careers that provide economic security for their families.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org

 

Access to Child Care Can Improve Student Parent Graduation Rates

Access to Child Care Can Improve Student Parent Graduation Rates

By Barbara Gault and Lindsey Reichlin Cruse

Few studies systematically explore the link between access to child care and college completion among student parents. Existing research and program data, however, suggest that child care plays an important role in helping student parents stay in school and acquire the degree or credential that may open the door to better paying jobs.

Here is what we know about child care access and student parent success in college:

Students who used the on-campus child care center at Monroe Community College in New York were nearly three times as likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year college than student parents who did not use the center.

In 2013, the Office of Institutional Research at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY, studied outcomes among its student parent population, finding that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the students who used campus child care returned to school the following fall, compared with just half (51 percent) of student parents who did not use the center, excluding those who graduated. Students who used the center were also nearly three times more likely to graduate or transfer to a four-year college within three years of enrollment (41 percent of students using campus child care, compared with 15 percent who did not use the center).

Student parents receiving child care support from federally-funded CCAMPIS programs appear to graduate at much higher rates than student parents overall, according to data from several campus programs.

The Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) provides funding, on a competitive basis, to some institutions to provide child care access to low-income student parents. The program serves roughly 90 campuses, and outcome data for CCAMPIS students, while limited and without comparison groups, suggest an association between participating in a CCAMPIS program and improved college success, with substantially higher graduation rates than seen among student parents overall.

For example, among 77 students who participated in the University of Wisconsin-Madison CCAMPIS program from 2005-2011, 83 percent graduated. CCAMPIS participant graduation rates were nearly identical to the 2010 rate among all undergraduate students (85 percent), which is notable: in the United States overall, nonparents are more than twice as likely as parents to graduate (68 percent, compared with 33 percent).

women with child at office

More than 2 in 5 women community college students who live with young children say they are likely or very likely to withdraw from college to care for dependents.

Data from the 2016 Community College Survey of Student Engagement show that, among students living with young children, nearly three-quarters of women (71 percent) and half of men reported spending over 20 hours a week caring for dependents. These care demands are likely to lead student parents to drop out: 43 percent of women and 37 percent of men living with children say they are likely or very likely to withdraw from college to care for dependents. Previous research suggests that time spent working beyond 20 hours per week substantially decreases college completion rates. While it has not previously been studied, time spent caring for children is likely to have a similar effect, especially when combined with work. (Three states—Arizona, Kentucky, and Washington— require student parents to work at least 20 hours per week to be eligible for Child Care and Development Block Grant Act (CCDBG) child care subsidies.)

Nearly 3 in 5 mothers in Mississippi who had paused or dropped out of school said that having more stable and affordable child care would have helped them stay in college.

IWPR’s survey of 544 women community college students in Mississippi—31 percent of whom were raising dependent children—found that the lack of access to affordable child care threatened their college progress. Among mothers who had taken time off from school or dropped out, nearly three in five (59 percent) reported that having more stable or affordable child care would have helped them stay in college. Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents with children under age 11 said they could not get the quality child care they wanted because it was too expensive—a sentiment that was particularly strong among younger, lower-income, and African-American parents.

“Family commitments” are a top reason that students who leave college would find it difficult to return.

In a 2009 Public Agenda survey of 614 adults (ages 22 -30) who had done at least some college course work, two-thirds said that providing child care would help other students like them complete college successfully, as did over three-quarters (76 percent) of respondents who had not completed their postsecondary education program. In addition, “family commitments” was the second most common reason that returning to college would be difficult for those who had left without graduating.

Creative strategies to increase child care access would contribute to increasing college attendance and completion.

While it stands to reason that better access to child care would encourage parents to return to college and help them stay enrolled, we need more evidence on the strategies that allow states, colleges, and communities to provide these supports affordably and effectively. Parenting responsibilities are emerging as a much bigger factor in students’ ability to access and complete college than anyone might have thought—and better child care access would contribute to increasing college attendance and completion.


To view more of IWPR’s research, visit IWPR.org