College students with dependent children have a harder time graduating, take on more debt, and are growing in number—yet funding for campus child care has declined steadily in recent years, Gillian White writes for the Atlantic.
A growing population
According to a study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) the number of undergraduate students with dependent children grew 50% between 1995 and 2011. In 2011, there were 4.8 million undergraduates with children—about 26% of students.
These students face a range of challenges. IWPR has found they tend to take on higher student-loan debt, have a six-year graduation rate of only 33%, and are more likely to be low-income.
There are few resources available to help students with children. "I felt like I had to set aside my parent status in order to be a student," says Michelle Marie, speaking of her time as an undergraduate at Oregon State University in 2001. Today, Marie is working on her Ph.D. and advocating for students with children. However, if anything, she has found things have gotten worse since she was an undergraduate. “Student-parents are still an invisible population," she says.
According to IWPR, the percentage of four-year public colleges that provide on-campus childcare actually declined in the last decade—from 54% to 51% between 2002 and 2013. For community colleges, the decline was even steeper—falling six percentage points to 46% in 2013. The majority of students with children attend public institutions.
Barbara Gault, the executive director at IWPR, says resources are declining because schools and policymakers fail to realize the scope of the issue. She says "it’s taking a long time for institutions of higher education to undergo a culture shift that reflects the changing demographics, and to begin to view themselves as organizations that are family-friendly—not just for faculty, but for students."
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Between 2001 and 2013, funding for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School program fell from $25 million to $14.9 million. States have also tightened restrictions on eligibility for child care programs to save money, for example, requiring parents work a certain number of hours a week or capping how many courses student parents can take.
As a result, some parents take out loans for child care so they can attend school. "I felt like it was my only option for creating a next step," says Andrea Fitch, a parent and graduate of Colorado State University.
A policy problem
As Gault points out, policymakers have made educational attainment a central part of the strategy to lift families out of poverty, but they have not yet provided the resources to make college a realistic option for many parents.
Other analysts agree, pointing to a large variation in resources for student childcare by state as evidence of a regional policy gap. Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW) says "states that are providing childcare should be a model for those that are not doing it at the same level or same scale.”
According to AAUW, three states provide on-campus childcare at all community colleges, while other states come close—for instance, 32 of 36 New York community colleges provide such services. Meanwhile, less than 20% of community colleges in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Tennessee provide childcare.
"There is a little bit of a regional difference, and I think that that suggests that some of the state policies are no doubt making a difference," Hill observes (White, Atlantic, 12/11).
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