STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

As more parents head back to school, child care options are declining

Mom and kids
Rebecca L / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Finishing college and obtaining a degree is challenging. Debt, work and other responsibilities often stand in the way. The path to college graduation can be particularly difficult for students who also have kids.

Nearly 5 million college students are parents of dependent children, according to the Institute of Women's Policy Research (IWPR). That's 26% of all college undergraduates.

And almost half of them are single mothers, 89% of whom are low-income.

One of the biggest hurdles between parents and education is child care. According to the Urban Institute, the most common challenges student parents faceinclude:

  • Complex child care needs and schedules;
  • Inadequate information about child care options and understanding of what is available;
  • Unaffordable care and inadequate public funding;
  • Inadequate supply of quality care; and 
  • Policy and systems barriers.

In other words, child care is difficult for students both to find and afford. And while the number of students with kids has increased in the past decade, the number of onsite child care centers at public two and four-year colleges has actually declined.
According to new report from the IWPR, less than half of four-year public colleges provided campus child care in 2015. That's down from 55% in 2003. And the share of community colleges reporting the presence of a campus child care center declined from 53% in 2003 to 44% in 2015.

In Michigan, just 22% of public two-year institutions and 79% of public four-year colleges have child care on campus.

Credit The Institute for Women's Policy Research
The share of two- and four-year public institutions with campus child care centers

Mary Johnson is a financial literacy expert at BankMobile. She wrote for The Huffington Post:

Financial issues, family burdens, and lack of affordable child care are the main reasons these parents leave or stop out of college. The complexity of juggling classes and coursework, competing family obligations and what often are unpredictable work schedules, can quickly overwhelm these students if they don’t have appropriate support systems.

Barbara Gault is the executive director at IWPR. She told The Atlantic both budget constraints and academic culture are to blame for the decline in the availability of child care. According to Gault:

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. Institutions are looking desperately for places to cut. Because there's so little awareness of the prevalence of students with children I think it often ends up looking like something that's an extra rather than something that's essential.

Student parents are eligible for financial aid through the federal Child Care Access Means Parents in School program. But a variety of restrictions coupled with long waiting lists can make it hard to get the funding. And access to state assistance for child care varies widely.

Some colleges and universities have programs in place that offer family-friendly campus support and financial aid policies, including Texas Woman’s University’s Student Pioneers Also Raising Kids (SPARK) program. The student organization formed in response to the need to find affordable housing options for single parents, according to The Huffington Post.

Now they have an emergency fund for students and offer workshops on topics like trauma, dating and disciplining children. And each year they host an annual child care and employment fair for all student parents.

Researchers at theUrban Instituteconducted phone interviews with staff in 17 such programs, and asked them what strategies they use to meet the child care needs of low-income parents seeking education and training. They identifiedsix steps for making sure student parents have the help they need.

1. Assess Needs and Identify Partners. 2. Structure and Schedule Workforce Development Activities to Facilitate Access to Child Care. 3. Assess Child Care Needs as Part of Intake and Planning and Provide Ongoing Support. 4. Help Parents Understand and Find Child Care Options in Their Community. 5. Help Parents Access Child Care Subsidies to Offset the Cost of Care. 6. Facilitate Access to a Supply of Affordable Care.

Educational attainment has been touted as a way for families to escape poverty. Helping these parents graduate will allow them to provide more stability for themselves and their kids. As Elissa Strauss fromSlate wrote:

We live in a culture that fails to accommodate even the mothers who follow our societally-approved timeline, and have babies at what is considered the ideal time and in the ideal setting. That we also fail to support those who deviate from it comes as little surprise. But the narrative about parenthood is slowly changing, and the public’s perception of parenthood is morphing from an inconvenience to a fact of life worthy of accommodation. One can only hope that the light of this new consciousness spreads students’ way before long.

Low-income parents are often told that they should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." And having affordable child care while they're in college could make it easier to do just that. 

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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