Once upon a time, the average college student was between the ages of 18 and 22, lived on campus, attended school on a full-time basis, and perhaps, had a part-time job working a handful of hours a week.
However, times have changed. Now, more than 4.8 million undergraduate students (roughly 1 in 4) are parents. And the availability of childcare will play a large role in their successful completion of a degree – especially for single moms.
Karen Zakin, director of the Child Care Center at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA, notes that “Having high-quality, reliable childcare that is convenient is important support for single mothers because it allows them the opportunity to attend class without worrying about the safety and well-being of their children.”
She explains that many single mothers are working and trying to attend school at the same time. “Relying on relatives or friends to help just doesn’t provide consistent care for the child or reliability for the parent.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Tomie L. Lenear II, Student Parent Success Counselor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Student Parent Center, which is part of the school’s Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence.
“Most courses at UC Berkeley occur in the day, and understandably, single mothers and other student parents who might not be able to care for their child during class hours need childcare,” Lenear says. “It also helps holistically to break the stigma that in order to graduate from UC Berkeley, a single parent needs a spouse or partner, per se.” Lenear says his experience with single mothers proves that they are just as capable of graduating as any other student.
They are, however, more likely to face financial challenges. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 45% of children raised by single mothers are below the poverty line. For these families, the high cost of childcare is prohibitive.
Susan Warfield, program director of the Student Parent HELP Center at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities believes that cost of and funding for childcare is an issue that is sometimes overlooked. “As a professional with 17 years of experience in the field of student parent supports in higher education, I feel that most coverage on student parents is exclusively focused on childcare and campus-based care,” she explains. “You can have 10 childcare centers and a slot for every child, but it will do no good if the student parent cannot pay for it.”
But despite the need, childcare on college and university campuses is rare. In fact, I could only find a few higher ed institutions that offer childcare for students. So why are schools neglecting 25% of the student population? “Childcare is expensive to provide, especially for children in younger age groups which have lower staff to child ratios,” Zakin explains. “Most childcare centers operate on a break-even basis financially, and this can be especially difficult on a college campus where enrollment can fluctuate for children of students based on the semester.”
Another challenge is providing a suitable location. “Childcare and occupancy regulations can make using an existing space difficult, and building a dedicated facility for childcare can be an expense that is prohibitive for schools,” Zakin says.
Liability is also a serious concern for schools, an issue cited by both Lenear and Warfield. “After the Penn State scandal with Jerry Sandusky, some colleges were so alarmed that there were attempts at some institutions to ban children from campus to avoid the risk,” Warfield says.
Another component that undoubtedly complicates this issue is the lack of available data. According to Warfield, most higher ed institutions don’t have a formal process for tracking the number of student parents on their respective campuses. “They are what we have termed in our presentations and work, as ‘an invisible’ population of students,” she explains. “While we track racial demographics and first generation attendee stats, the only place dependent children are ever counted is on the financial aid form (FAFSA), and that is the most protected info on campus.”
It is possible, however, to provide solid support for student parents, as demonstrated by programs at UC Berkeley, Wilson College and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. At UC Berkeley, Lenear explains, the Early Childhood Education program offers care to the children of students, faculty and staff. Community members are also eligible, but students and school employees are the priority. To help with funding, students can apply for income-based subsidies and a Financial Aid Student Parent Grant. In addition, the Graduate Division provides graduate student parent grants and childbirth accommodation funding for women doctoral students.
“I don't see any clear reason why childcare can’t be provided at most colleges, given the student parent's due rights from Title IX law,” Lenear says. “If the funds are advocated for enough, I believe it could change.” However, he believes that colleges and universities must be provided with proof that there is a real need. “They also need pathways to funding, under Title IX obligation, to reasonably accommodate student parents.”
Wilson also has a childcare center that is open to students, faculty, staff and the local community. “However, Wilson is unique in that we have a residential program – the Single Parent Scholar Program – for single parents who can reside on campus with their children,” says Zakin. “For those children, we provide day care so that parents can attend classes, complete assignments and possibly work at a work-study job, but evening care is also provided if parents have evening classes.”
Zakin realizes that the success of Wilson’s childcare center is extremely rare, noting other centers that have closed or are struggling. “The cost of operating a center can be a drain on a college’s resources at times, and I think that advocacy by students and student development professionals who support them is a key factor in demonstrating the importance of a childcare center to parents on a campus.” To help with funding, she explains, “there is also potential for childcare centers and campuses to look for opportunities for partnerships with the business sector or grants.”
The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities is another example of a school that is on the front lines of supporting student parents. There are three childcare centers on campus, and more in the surrounding area. And while funding has been lacking in the past, Warfield explains, “the U of M recently developed a new childcare grant utilizing student fees funding that provides an additional $150,000 in childcare funding to all U of M fee paying undergraduate, graduate and international students.” The state of Minnesota also has a Post-Secondary Child Grant for both undergraduate and grad school students with children.
While the program currently serves 300 undergraduates and close to 200 graduate students, Warfield expects that with the new funding, they could have 1,000 students by the year’s end. “Our primary mission for the last 50 years has been to serve the lower income, first BA younger undergrad students with risk factors older grad and pro, more affluent, dual degreed students simply do not face,” she says.
Warfield also believes that it’s a mistake to focus solely on providing childcare services for student parents. “I think equally important is more fluid emergency assistance funding, and we are lucky enough to have this as well and can cover rent money to avoid evictions, food or other needed necessities for students who may be stretched too tight at times paying for tuition and family needs as well.” Some of the school’s other services for student parents include a weekly support group, advising and coaching resources, emergency assistance grants, student parent scholarships and a student parent lounge and computer lab.
For student parents, dependable and affordable childcare is a must-have, not a nice-to-have. Childcare costs equal or exceed tuition, making college attendance cost-prohibitive. And those who do enroll in a higher ed institution have lower graduation rates – especially single mothers – than childless students. As a result, colleges and universities must take a more proactive approach to supporting these at-risk students.
Terri has B.A. in English, and bylines at Yahoo, USA Today, The Economist Careers Network, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, About.com, Business.com, and Investopedia. She also contributed three chapters to the book “A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics,” which was published by Loyola University Chicago in 2014. Follow her @territoryone.