With contributions from Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield.

Today’s college students are increasingly low-income students balancing work, family, and school. Assistance with paying for quality child care services could increase student-parents’ ability to make ends meet and finish their postsecondary education and training, leading to good jobs and greater family economic security and child wellbeing.

Typical college students are no longer 18- to 22-year-olds from middle-class families who attend full-time and can depend on their parents. Thirty-eight percent of undergraduates are older than 25. Fifty-eight percent of students work while in college. The majority of low-income students attend community colleges, where the number of working students is as high as 70 percent. Fifty-three percent[i] of students have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line—and 32 percent receive a Pell Grant.

Student-parents are more common than many realize. Overall, 26 percent of students are parents and 43 percent of student-parents are single mothers. More than a third of low-income students are parents. When these figures are disaggregated by race, we find that 47 percent of African-American students, 42 percent of Native American students, and 25 percent of Latinx students are parents. Eighty-eight percent of student-parents live at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line.[ii]

Unfortunately, the existing postsecondary education and training system often fails adult students with only two in five students who begin at a public two-year college earning a certificate or an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years. Just 8 percent of single mothers who enroll in college end up graduating with an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with 49 percent of women students who are not mothers.

One of the principal barriers to more student-parents pursuing and completing college is the lack of sufficient financial aid and family income. Over the last three decades, college tuition and fees have increased nearly four times faster than the median income and four-and-a-half times faster than inflation. The rapid increase in college prices, along with student aid funding that has not kept up, creates sizable unmet need, which is the gap between what college costs and what students can afford to pay on their own or with aid that does not need to be repaid.

Average unmet need among community college students is nearly $5,000 per year.[iii] Unmet need is markedly higher for students of color than their white counterparts. Understandably, unmet financial need among low-income college students is a barrier to persistence and completion. Regrettably, this challenges our shared national value for students and their children to succeed.

The average annual tuition and fees at two-year and four-year public institutions are $3,570 and $9,970, respectively. Room and board add thousands to those figures, yet both figures are often lower than a student’s average child care costs. The median annual cost of center-based care is $10,926 for an infant and $8,604 for a four-year-old. In many cases, child care costs are the largest portion of a student’s postsecondary expenses.

Moreover, few low-income parents who are eligible for child care assistance get any help. Federal child care subsidies support fewer than one in six families who are federally eligible for help. The number of children receiving child care assistance has fallen precipitously for the past decade. Parents who can’t afford stable child care have significant difficulty succeeding in education. Unstable child care can make class attendance and study time unattainable and cause stress that interferes with focusing on school success.

Given the financial pressures on student-parents, high-quality child care that meets children’s developmental needs and assists their parents’ success should be a core support for student-parents.

[i] CLASP analysis of 2015-2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 16), National Center for Education Statistics.

[ii] CLASP analysis of 2015-2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 16), National Center for Education Statistics.

[iii] CLASP analysis of 2015-2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 16), National Center for Education Statistics.

Access to and success in postsecondary education and training are essential for families to achieve financial wellbeing, a critical component of child-wellbeing. Those with associate or bachelor’s degrees earn 31 percent and 77 percent more, respectively, than people with a high school diploma. Since 2008, 99 percent of all jobs created in the U.S. economy have gone to those with at least some college education. Our economy demands a higher college completion rate for parents to get the skills to enter and succeed at work and for employees to thrive.

College degrees bring important two-generational benefits that can improve children’s economic, educational, and social outcomes, while also enhancing a family’s long-term prospects for socioeconomic mobility. For instance, a mother’s educational attainment significantly predicts whether her child pursues postsecondary education.

While the two-generational benefits of postsecondary success are clear, low-income student-parents face even more hurdles and challenges than other low-income students and are more susceptible to lower completion rates. College students with preschool-age children take longer to complete their degrees and are less likely to stay in college than their childless peers, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Higher Education.

Students with preschool-age children had only about 10 hours per day to dedicate to schoolwork, sleeping, eating, and leisure activities, compared to 21 hours for childless students. Two-thirds of the student-parents surveyed said that child care services did not provide them with enough time to complete their academic work, and three-fourths of those students were on financial aid. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) has conducted time use studies of single mothers in college that find, unsurprisingly, that student-parents are spending more time on caring for their children and housework and less time on studying than their childless classmates.

We don’t know as much as we would like about the impact of access to high-quality child care on college persistence and completion. While this is an area for additional research, data suggest that student-parents who participate in federally funded Child Care Access for Parents in School (CCAMPIS) programs persist and graduate at higher rates than other student parents at those institutions. Unfortunately, the number of campus-based child care centers has decreased at the same time as changing demographics are driving an increase in demand. Recent data from Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY suggest that access to campus child care improves student-parents’ postsecondary outcomes.

A large body of developmental research makes clear that parental stress, health, and mental health all affect parenting and can hinder children’s learning and development. When student-parents experience stress and economic instability, children’s development can be directly harmed.

States have flexibility in setting eligibility requirements for assistance provided through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program. All states allow parents to receive child care assistance to attend education and training, but most put some restrictions on this assistance including requirements on working for a certain number of hours while also attending school. In addition, states can place limits on the time length of the assistance for attending school, the level or type of degree while receiving assistance, and the number of hours allowed for homework or travel time.

Parents may find it difficult to comply with these requirements while juggling the competing demands of family, school, and—in some cases—work. Such limitations on child care assistance can prevent parents from getting the quality child care needed for postsecondary education—thereby impeding their future earning potential and their children’s chances for success in school and in life.

State policy choices are often made in the context of limited resources. Nationally, just 6 percent of families receiving CCDBG assistance qualify to support their enrollment in education or training programs. In March 2018, Congress appropriated an historic increase in CCDBG funding, which is allowing states to expand access to child care subsidies. States can consider revising policies to support postsecondary students to ensure that more student-parents benefit from CCDBG. CLASP recommends states improve access to child care subsidies for low-income students by:

  • Allowing parents in postsecondary education to qualify for child care assistance without imposing additional work requirements;
  • Permitting child care authorizations to include study hours, travel time, labs, and other activities related to school attendance;
  • Defining education broadly to include certificates and degrees up to and including baccalaureate degrees and avoiding restrictive time limitations on completion of degree requirements; and
  • Implementing continuous 12-month eligibility for child care assistance so that parents can be assured of uninterrupted access to subsidies, regardless of breaks in school schedules.

States continue to update their child care policies in recognition that more low-income parents are pursuing postsecondary education to increase family financial wellbeing. For instance, Georgia recently expanded its eligibility to include low-income parents pursuing diplomas and associate degrees at certain public and private colleges and will provide child care hours for students to study. In addition, Georgia targeted some of its new CCDBG funding to colleges serving CCDBG-eligible families in child care lab programs.

CCAMPIS, which is administered by the Department of Education, is the only competitive grant program funding campus-based child care services. It supports low-income parents’ postsecondary enrollment with campus-based child care services through grant awards on four-year cycles. Many CCAMPIS sites provide coaching on parenting and require students meet academic and income requirements to remain in the program. The program was recently expanded from $15 million to $50 million. As the Higher Education Act reauthorization approaches, policymakers should recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy CCAMPIS program to support the increasing number of low-income student-parents pursuing postsecondary education and training.

A handful of states offer child care assistance for low-income college students through their student aid programs, which could be models for other states to replicate. Minnesota is the most generous of these, providing up to $5,200 per eligible child per academic year, but smaller amounts are also helpful. Washington state is exploring an increase in the dependent care allowance in the state’s student aid program formula.

Many state financial aid programs do not meet the full needs of low-income student-parents, whether because of their age, circumstances, or attendance patterns. In addition, free college or “promise” programs are largely aimed at recent high school graduates, which may exclude some student-parents, whose average age is 30. These programs also often limit support to tuition, which, while valuable, leaves low-income student-parents with a substantial gap in financial need due to child care expenses. State financial aid programs must provide aid to low-income student-parents and account for child care expenses.

Low-income student-parents need supports beyond financial aid and child care, including access to other programs that meet basic needs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Yet many income support programs have work requirements or restrictions on education and training that limit the combining of resources to cover tuition and fees, child care, adequate food, and stable housing. More states should align their basic needs programs to support low-income student-parents’ educational aspirations.

Finally, for many low-income student-parents who are also working, the conditions of low-wage jobs can further complicate family economic stability and college completion. A comprehensive package of improvements in labor policies, including an increase in the minimum wage, advance notice of job schedules, the right to request and receive flexible and predictable job schedules, minimum hours, paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days would support low-income student-parents as they juggle school, work, and family.

Funders can play a critical role in drawing attention to the changing face of postsecondary students, the needs of student-parents, and the shortcomings in the capacity of our higher education and child care systems to meet their needs. Funders can underwrite research to demonstrate the gaps and needs that exist as well as fund advocacy agendas in states and nationally to improve current policies. At the state level, this may include direct support to increase policymakers’ capacity to address this set of issues and reconsider how policies could be reformed to work better for student-parents.

Funders can also support convenings and other collaborative approaches that bring together state policymakers, higher education leaders, child care providers, and parents. These would add value by lifting up needs, challenges, and potential solutions and contributing to shared understanding among diverse stakeholders.

Finally, funders can support a research agenda that explores the impact of high-quality, subsidized child care on college persistence and completion by low-income student-parents. This research can inform best practices for state child care policies for student-parents.