For Student Parents, The Biggest Hurdles to A Higher Education are Costs and Finding Child Care
Student parents are working hard and making sacrifices to secure a better future for themselves and their children. Surely we can make it easier for them to succeed.
It’s hard to be a student parent. College students who are parenting must juggle work and family responsibilities while going to school and often struggle to find child care. It’s also expensive. The costs of child care, tuition, books, and attending to basic needs — not to mention one’s own physical and mental well-being — can quickly add up. Child care and college tuition costs alone can be insurmountable obstacles for those who are only trying to make a better life for themselves and their little ones.
In 2019, The Education Trust released a report — “How Affordable Are Public Colleges in Your State for Low-Income Students?” — that dispelled the myth that a student can still work their way through college in a minimum-wage job.
In continuation of this affordability work — with support from Imaginable Futures and in partnership with Generation Hope — we conduct a similar analysis, this time for student parents. In this latest report, we tally the cost of child care and the price of attending a public four-year college — including tuition and fees, housing, food, books, and transportation — to determine a student parent’s actual annual cost of pursuing a degree.
- There is no state in which a student parent can work 10 hours per week at the minimum wage and afford both tuition and child care at a public college or university.
- Many states that look affordable based on their reported net price actually have a wider affordability gap for student parents when one factors in the cost of child care.
- The out-of-pocket cost of attending a public college is 2 to 5 times higher for student parents than for their other low-income peers without children.
- A student parent would need to work 52 hours per week, on average, to cover child care and tuition costs at a four-year public college or university in the U.S.
- Net price alone is not a good indicator of college affordability for student parents; because child care access and costs vary widely; the number of hours a student parent must work to afford college and child care will also depend on their state minimum wage.
What Is the Student Parent Affordability Gap?
The Student Parent Affordability Gap is the average amount that a student parent from a low-income background would pay annually to pursue a degree at a two- or –four-year public college in each state plus the average costs of child care minus grants, scholarships, and earnings from working 10 hours per week at the state minimum wage.
Campus leaders, and federal and state policymakers must do more to support student parents, who are disproportionately single, students of color, and from low-income backgrounds. These students are often juggling work, school, and family responsibilities, and may be struggling to find child care and meet basic needs, especially amid the on-going pandemic and current period of high inflation. Student parents are working hard and making sacrifices to secure a better future for themselves and their children. Surely, we can make it easier for them to succeed.
Our recommendations attempt to address the needs of the whole student parent and their children, while advocating for more affordable child care and access to supports that would indirectly reduce the student parent affordability gap.
- Require all Title IV institutions to collect data on student parent status and mandate data reporting annually to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
- Double the Pell Grant to make college more affordable for student parents.
- Raise the federal minimum hourly wage to $20.
- Increase funding for the CCAMPIS program to $500 million.
- Support student parents by increasing funding for early childhood education (ECE).
- Restore and make permanent the monthly child tax credit.
- Collect data on how many young children have parents who are pursuing a higher education, so state leaders and policymakers can understand and expand access to high-quality child care for the children of student parents, especially those in Black and Latino families.
- Support student parents by allotting funding for new or expanded on-campus early child care education programs when appropriating federal ECE funding. For example, states should prioritize funding for on campus child care via the Child Care & Development Block Grant (CCDBG) — which provides federal funds to states to help low-income family members pursuing an educational degree or training to pay for child care.
- Invest in high-quality campus-based child care programs and ongoing, culturally and linguistically competent professional development for all early learning professionals in teaching roles — including assistant teachers and paraeducators — that uses evidence-based strategies for developmentally appropriate practice, child development (including social & emotional development), supporting children with delays and disabilities, and supporting language-rich environments, dual language learners, and collaborating with families.
- Prioritize the creation and expansion of more child care options (including center-based programs, family child care providers, Head Start programs, and public schools) on or near college campuses.
- Collect and report institutional-level data on student-parent enrollment, retention, completion, finances, and financial aid to the U.S. Department of Education via IPEDS surveys.
- Establish guidelines about who may be considered a student parent, including guardians and caregivers.
- Automate the inclusion of child care expenses as an allowable cost category in determining the cost of attendance (COA), so student parents can qualify for higher amounts of financial aid.
- Leverage available state and federal funding to expand access to child care. College and university leaders should take full advantage of state and federal programs intended to support child care, while also pursuing Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) subsidies for their student parents. 36 The federally funded Child Care Access Means Parents in School program (CCAMPIS) has led to an increase in student parent success.
- Help student parents access state child care subsidies.
- Prioritize the children of student parents for on-campus child care services over those of faculty and staff.
- Provide priority enrollment for student parents, so they can schedule classes around work and parenting duties.
- Ensure that campus-based child care programs offer full-day programs and hours that align with course schedules and stay open year-round to better accommodate families’ needs.
- Implement quick and easy application processes that are accessible via multiple modes (e.g., online and smartphone adaptive/responsive, in person, and via phone call) in multiple languages. Enrollees should not be required to provide information about the citizenship or immigration status of a child or family member.
Why Affordability Matters to Student Parents
Student parents face many barriers to completing a postsecondary degree, but financial hurdles are usually the biggest impediment. According to data gathered by the Department of Education in 2021, college costs have risen by 28% at public institutions and 19% at private nonprofit institutions since 2008, making a higher education less accessible for many students, particularly student parents.
The High Cost of College for Student Parents
While college costs have risen nationally, student parents have been hit particularly hard by tuition increases. According to recent research by California Competes on the net price of college, on average, student parents pay $7,592 per child in additional costs out of pocket annually than their counterparts without children.
Considering that two-thirds of student-parents (68%) live at or near the poverty line, it is unsurprising that these extra costs would make it hard for student-parents to afford a degree.
Student parents can apply for financial assistance using the FAFSA but the financial aid system and many college financial aid offices often fail to consider the unique financial plight of these students. As a result, many student parents wind up with ballooning student debt.
The Lack of Access to Child Care
Child care is critical for many student parents but the limited availability of on-campus child care services, in tandem with long waitlists, often makes it inaccessible. In 2015, 49% of four-year public colleges provided on-campus services, down from 55% in 2003.
Moreover, institutions that offer on-campus child care may not have enough slots to go around. Programs often have long waitlists, and few offer extended or evening hours, forcing many student parents to rely on a patchwork system of care. In some rural areas, there aren’t enough children to sustain a child care center, making home-based child care the only available option. And in some states, home-based child care costs more than center-based care, putting an added financial strain on the families living there.
The High Cost of Child Care
Regardless of the type of child care arrangement few low-income families can afford the full cost on their own, even before higher education costs are added on.
Student parents often have no choice but to turn to inconvenient and more costly alternatives, given the lack of available child care on college campuses. While child care costs between $7,000 – $8,800 per year, on average, depending on the age of the child, child care subsidies for low-income parents are about $4,600 per year, leaving student parents to fill the gap.
Student Parent Affordability Gap at Four-Year Institutions
The bottom line is that many student parents from low-income backgrounds must come up with thousands of dollars, and in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars — after grants, scholarships, and earnings from working 10 hours per week — to cover the full cost of attending a public college in nearly every state. We call this the “student parent affordability gap.”
According to the most recent data on college affordability, wages, and child care costs, there is no state in which a student parent can work 10 hours a week at the minimum wage and afford both tuition and child care at a public college or university.
In fact, many states that look affordable based on their reported net price actually have a wider affordability gap for student parents. When you factor in child care, the out-of-pocket cost of attending a public college often becomes 2 to 5 times higher.
We know that there is no state where a student parent can work 10 hours per week at the minimum wage and afford both tuition and child care, but how many hours would a student parent have to work to cover those costs?
Our analysis shows that a student parent would need to work anywhere from 30 to 90 hours per week, on average, to cover child care and tuition costs at a public college or university in the U.S.
Because many student parents working toward a degree need child care net price alone is not a good indicator of college affordability for student parents; the number of hours a student parent must work to afford college and child care will also depend on their state minimum wage. A student parent in a state with a high published net price, high child care costs, and a high minimum wage may, in fact, need to work fewer hours than a student parent living in a state with a low minimum wage.