With contributions from Lindsey Reichlin Cruse & Barbara Gault.

Over half of today’s undergraduate students live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (53 percent), meaning they need greater support than their higher-income peers to persist to graduation.[i] Low-income students’ stability requires a web of supports that helps them cover regular expenses, like food, housing, and transportation, that are harder to pay for when they replace paid work time with time in school and that often are not fully covered by financial aid. These supports could include targeted scholarships, emergency financial assistance, micro-grants, or assistance applying for public benefits, in addition to increased maximum Pell grants and federal financial aid policies that better account for the extent of their financial need.

Case managers who develop a one-on-one relationship with students to holistically address their individual needs, plan their educational and professional advancement, and monitor their progress can also help low-income students connect with resources that they may not have otherwise known about or how to access. Research suggests that case management can support the postsecondary success of low-income adults—with one recent study finding that access to comprehensive case management was associated with a 47 percent increase in completion—and can increase the probability of finding employment following graduation.

In addition to enhanced financial assistance and case management, college students who are parents of dependent children—a group which makes up 22 percent of all college students, the majority of whom are low-income (68 percent)[ii]—require a broader web of supports to achieve stability. Student parents need affordable family housing located on or near campus, reliable transportation that allows them to balance work and family responsibilities, and peer support or mentorship that helps to counteract social isolation.

Most importantly, student parents need affordable, reliable child care to be able to attend college and graduate successfully. Though few studies have systematically explored the effect of child care on college completion, recent IWPR analysis of data from Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY, finds that student parents who used the campus child care center were almost twice as likely to persist from one fall semester to the next, and more than three times as likely to graduate on time, than student parents who did not use the center.

To truly support the needs of low-income students, institutions must acknowledge the multiple demands in their lives—particularly for women and students of color—which often include substantial work and caregiving obligations. To improve the web of supports available to these students, policymakers, state and local leaders, and college institutions should work to:

  • Build commitment to increase access to child care for student parents by, for example, improving coordination of higher education and early childhood policy and increasing funding for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) program;
  • Expand efforts to help students access public benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and child care subsidies;
  • Develop targeted scholarships and campus supports for students who are low-income, working, and/or who have dependent care obligations, such as inclusive financial advising, inclusive campus policies, assistance coping with emergency financial shocks, programs to increase social connectedness, health supports, and single parent housing, and;
  • Design programs intended to increase persistence and completion that are sensitive to the schedules of students who are parenting, working, and attending school part time.

[i] Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16).

[ii] Ibid.

College Students Experience Substantial Financial Insecurity

About 30 percent of all college students live with incomes below the federal poverty line.[i] Among them, independent students (students with at least one defining characteristic outlined in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), such as being at least 24 years old, married, a parent, or a veteran, among others), are more than twice as likely than dependent students to be living in poverty (42 percent compared with 17 percent).

Students’ likelihood of living in poverty varies by race and ethnicity, gender, and parent status. Black (45 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native (40 percent), and Hispanic (37 percent) students are the most likely to live in poverty, compared with, for example, 24 percent of White students.[ii] One third of all women in college live in poverty, and women in each racial and ethnic group have higher poverty rates than their male counterparts. Among student parents, single mothers’ rate of poverty (63 percent) is more than triple that of married mothers, and student parents of color are, on average, 1.3 times more likely than their counterparts without children to live in poverty.[iii]

Many students have no financial resources to devote to college, even after accounting for financial aid. Two in five independent students without children, and 61 percent of student parents, have an Expected Family Contribution—or the amount they or their families are able to contribute to college costs—of $0, compared with less than a quarter of dependent students. The large majority of low-income students (85 percent) also have unmet financial need even after family contributions, grants, and need-based aid—$8,000 on average[iv]—and many graduate with significant student debt (especially women and single mothers).

Assessing College Students’ Financial Need: Room for Improvement

The FAFSA represents a gateway to college for many low-income students. It gathers information from students and their parents (such as demographics, dependency status, household size, and income) to estimate a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). EFC, in combination with cost of attendance (COA)— an estimate of a student’s educational expenses for the period of enrollment, including tuition and fees, books and supplies, transportation, room and board, and dependent care, among other expenses—is used to determine eligibility for federal financial aid and award size, in addition to contributing to eligibility for state, institutional, and some private financial aid.

While the FAFSA is essential to students’ ability to receive financial assistance, it does not include a number of important factors that affect financial security (like existing debt or mortgages). It could more accurately capture students’ available financial resources by better accounting for the amount of income needed for family care and allowing working students to signal planned reductions in income at the onset of college.[v] A lack of standardized methods for calculating living cost allowances and limited federal oversight can lead to inaccurate institutional COA estimates, jeopardizing students’ ability to receive aid packages that sufficiently cover financial need. While students can receive a dependent care allowance in their COA, increasing the amount of aid for which they are eligible, they often have to petition for this increase after receiving their award and without prompting from their institutions.[vi]

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Barbara Gault, Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, and Eleanor Eckerson. forthcoming. Rethinking Financial Aid for the New College Majority. Washington, DC: Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

[vi] Ibid.

Food and Housing Insecurity are Common

Low-income students often face a range of challenges in addition and often related to their financial insecurity. For example, recent research has shed light on the pervasiveness of food and housing insecurity among college students, with a recent survey of 43,000 two- and four-year students at 66 institutions finding that 36 percent of four-year students and 42 percent of community college students were food insecure in the previous month. Similarly, 36 percent and 51 percent of four- and two-year students, respectively, reported housing insecurity in the previous year (including homelessness).

Part-Time Enrollment Can Threaten Completion

Low-income students are also likely to attend school part-time, often to accommodate work and caregiving responsibilities, which has been shown to threaten students’ chances of completion. Independent students, including parents, are twice as likely as their dependent counterparts to attend school part-time.[i] Many programs designed to promote college success, however, do not allow for less-than-full-time enrollment. Eligibility provisions that include enrollment requirements can exclude low-income students who could also benefit from participation in emerging higher education interventions.[ii] Initiatives that work to increase part-time students’ college engagement and increase persistence and retention are needed to promote their chances of successfully graduating.

Independent and Parenting Students More Likely to Attend Predatory For-Profit Colleges

Low-income independent students are more likely to enroll in for-profit institutions than their dependent peers, with student parents and single mothers being particularly likely to attend these institutions: 21 percent of all student parents and a full 30 percent of single student mothers are enrolled in for-profit colleges.[iii]

Attending for-profit schools is problematic for a number of reasons. For-profit tuition is significantly higher than at public institutions, and a much larger share of for-profit students take out federal loans and graduate with higher debt than students at nonprofit or public schools. Although higher education is an important avenue for achieving economic stability, for students who turn to for-profits, their time and investment may not pay off. Only slightly more than one quarter of students at for-profit schools complete their program within six years, and those who earn a degree that does not lead to a living-wage job or who incur significant debt miss an important opportunity to establish economic stability.

Child Care is Critical to Student Parent Success, but it is Difficult to Find and Pay For

For students who are parents, securing affordable, stable child care presents another major challenge. IWPR analysis finds that, from 2005-15, on-campus child care centers declined in 36 states, particularly at community colleges, where the largest share of parents are enrolled. Even when campus child care is available, centers are typically faced with much higher demand than they can meet. A 2016 survey of nearly 100 campus children’s center leaders conducted by IWPR found that 95 percent of centers maintained waiting lists with an average of 82 children. For student parents seeking community-based child care, prohibitively high costs are common. In 2016, average annual costs for full-time, center-based infant care ranged from $5,200 in Mississippi to $23,000 in Washington, DC—amounts that are often infeasible for student parents who also have to cover college costs in addition to providing for their families.

Time Demands on Student Parents Require Tradeoffs between Care, School, and Work

The combination of raising a family, going to class, completing coursework, and holding a job can force student parents to make hard choices. Half of student parents have children ages 5 or younger and another quarter have children ages 6-10. IWPR analysis of data from the American Time Use Survey shows that single mothers in college spend, on average, nine hours each day providing care, doing housework, and in paid employment. They are also less likely than their peers without children to spend time on activities important for physical and psychological health, such as sleep or exercise. They have less time to focus on coursework, threatening their academic performance and potentially putting their financial aid eligibility at risk. The challenge of balancing parenthood with college is evident in student parents’ likelihood of graduating: just one third complete a college credential within six years.[iv]

[i] IWPR analysis of data from the 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16).

[ii] Gault et al. forthcoming. Rethinking Financial Aid for the New College Majority.

[iii] IWPR analysis of data from the 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16).

[iv] Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2003–04 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, Second Follow Up (BPS:04/09).

Combining work and college is common among low-income students: 60 percent work while in school, with nearly half working 20 or more hours per week (47 percent) and 20 percent working full time (at least 40 hours per week).[i] Independent students work 22 hours per week on average, or one eight-hour work day more than dependent students, and of all students working full-time, nearly 8 in 10 are independent. Among student parents, more than a third work full time. While working can ease students’ financial strain and make it possible to support a family while pursuing a degree, too much work extends the time it takes to complete school, can negatively impact grades, and lowers the chances of graduating.

[i] IWPR analysis of data from the 2015–16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16).

Public Benefits Can Help Eligible Low-Income Students Make Ends Meet

Federal benefit programs like TANF, SNAP, WIC, and child care subsidies can help students bridge the gap in their finances not filled by federal, state, or institutional aid or income from working. While federal guidelines for these programs typically set the benefit levels and basic eligibility rules for receiving these benefits, eligibility and applications are assessed at the state level, meaning rules like whether attending postsecondary education counts towards work requirements can vary widely.

Student Parents are More Likely than Other Low-Income Students to Receive Public Benefits

Among all low-income students (students with incomes below 200 percent of poverty), more than one third (36 percent) receive at least one federal public benefit (including TANF, SNAP, WIC, Free or Reduced Price School Lunch, or Supplemental Security Income). Low-income student parents are an average of 1.4 times more likely to be receiving any federal benefit than dependent students and more than twice as likely as their independent peers who are not parents.[i] About one quarter of all low-income independent students receive SNAP, 3 percent receive TANF, and 11 percent receive WIC, compared with 38 percent, 6 percent, and 21 percent of low-income student parents, respectively.

While a few states have programs that support TANF-eligible students attending postsecondary education and training—such as Arkansas’ Career Pathways Initiative or Maine’s Leveraging Investments in Families Today (LIFT) legislation—the vast majority of states fail to use the program’s flexibility to allow TANF recipients (who have been dwindling in number) to count college attendance toward work requirements.

Child Care Assistance is Hard for Many Student Parents to Access

Financial assistance for low-income parents to access quality care is available through state subsidy programs funded by the Child Care and Development Block Grant, though student parents can face challenges getting the support they need. Many states impose restrictions on the eligibility of parents who are enrolled in education and training. For example, a number of states require parents to work to be eligible for child care assistance while enrolled in an education or job training program.

Many states also place restrictions on the type of degree a parent can earn while receiving subsidies, which can jeopardize their future earning power. Other restrictions can include time limits on eligibility, a required amount of time in school or number of credit hours per week or semester, and the demonstration of “satisfactory academic progress.” Strict participation rules for child care assistance can make it substantially more difficult for student parents to manage multiple responsibilities and often unpredictable work schedules that complicate their pursuit of college.

Even when student parents meet the eligibility requirements to receive subsidies, long waiting lists or frozen intake can make it difficult to secure subsidized slots, and families may remain on a waiting list for months or years before receiving assistance. In 2017, 20 states had a waiting list or had frozen intake for state child care subsidies.

[i] Ibid.

The difficulty of assessing the potential return on an investment of college, and of specific colleges in particular, can make the college decision-making process daunting for low-income students and their families. Efforts to make college more affordable must be approached with an awareness of the role of gender and race in students’ ability to afford college, the decisions they make, and the value they gain from higher education. Interventions to shift institutional and consumer knowledge and incentives around enrollment in higher education should be examined from the perspectives of how they will affect women, independent students, students with children, and students of color, who may have disproportionate time constraints, dependent care obligations, and poorer labor market outcomes at all educational levels.

Communicating the potential return on an investment in college should also include estimates of lifetime earnings gains related to the attainment of different degrees and majors, with clarity around differential earnings for women and people of color. Clearly explaining differences in the quality of degrees, variations in earnings by occupation (and by gender and race), and employment outcomes of past graduates (through the continuation of the College Scorecard and gainful employment rule, for example) are also critical to ensuring low-income students have the information they need to make informed choices about their education.

Better access to information about the financial resources that can make college more affordable would also make college seem like a more manageable investment for low-income students. Transparency in cost of attendance estimates and clear communication of these estimates to students, for example, are vital to ensuring that students can make informed choices about the affordability of their college options and whether to borrow money to help cover their expenses. In addition, to better reflect the extent of financial need among students with dependent care obligations, institutions should proactively work to incorporate dependent care allowances into financial aid packages.[i]

[i] Gault et al. forthcoming. Rethinking Financial Aid for the New College Majority.

Colleges and universities can play a much stronger role in diversifying access to high quality careers for women and students of color. IWPR reviewed a set of promising programs and strategies that have been implemented at the community college level to improve women’s access to STEM careers and other well-paying fields, such as the provision of child care and financial supports; recruitment strategies, counseling, and academic supports that take women’s specific needs into account; and instructional practices that encourage women and students of color to “try on” high-paying, high-demand careers that may be unfamiliar or incongruent with stereotyped gender roles.

Returns to these occupations should be shared proactively, and in comparison to returns to traditionally-female and other lower-paying careers, to ensure students have an understanding of the implications of degree and major choice. In general, evaluating progress in diminishing racial, ethnic, and sex segregation in the attainment of high quality degrees should be incorporated into growing efforts to monitor institutional effectiveness, of which equity in outcomes should be a more central component.

Low-income students of color and student parents (especially single mothers) who are often preyed on by for-profit colleges also need accurate, clear information about the differences between for-profit and nonprofit and public institutions so they are able to choose schools which confer degrees that lead to good jobs and lower student debt. Greater consumer protections for student borrowers, as well as enhanced transparency around the outcomes of college graduates, are critical to ensuring students get the most out of their college investment.

Greater investments in supportive services, partnerships, and programs that help low-income students enter college and successfully graduate will bring substantial economic returns to graduates, their families, and society more broadly.

  • Communities and institutions should develop partnerships, programs, and interventions designed to ensure that available child care, case management, financial aid, and other community and institutional supports reach low-income students.
  • Philanthropy can inspire and support new programs and partnerships that follow promising practices and holistically serve low-income students and their families. Funders can also lead networks and initiatives to identify, evaluate, and scale promising, affordable strategies for increasing low-income students’ success.
  • Better integration of the early and higher education systems can improve access to quality child care for low-income parents in college—for example, by expanding the number of Head Start programs on college campuses, building relationships between campuses and child care resource and referral agencies, or integrating two-generation strategies into state policy.

Communities can become vocal advocates for the improvement of state child care subsidy and other public benefit eligibility rules to count postsecondary education and training towards work requirements, to allow all degree types (including four-year degrees), and to prolong and increase funding for the CCAMPIS program and Pell grants.