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‘A drop in the bucket’: Parents in college need child care, but federal dollars fall short

Javier Freeman, 3, attends the child-care center at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, where Rebecca Cournow is a teacher. A federal grant helps underwrite the center, which provides free care for the children of low-income students. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

With a $98,000 federal grant in 2018, Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland began providing free evening child care to low-income students four days a week.

The Education Department grant helped the campus expand the services of its Child Development Center, which has cared for and educated the children of students since 1977. A lot has changed since then. There are far more parents on campus and far more need for affordable, quality child care, said Tiffany Boykin, dean of student engagement.

When evening hours were added, it caught the attention of students, who flocked to the center to apply for nighttime and daytime slots. Evening care is at capacity. And the waiting list for daytime slots has grown from a few families to 45 people. While some are faculty and members of the community, most are students.

“If we had additional money, we could provide students more help,” Boykin said. “We are very appreciative of the money we received and have used every last dime. Our students have told us that without this support, they wouldn’t be able to attend.”

Although Congress tripled funding for on-campus child care in 2018, participating colleges still have waiting lists and face limitations serving students who are pursuing an education while raising a family.

The supply-and-demand imbalance in the federal child-care program — known as Child Care Access Means Parents in School — says as much about the high cost of child care as about policymakers’ slow realization of the challenges facing college students. As Congress seeks to update the federal law governing higher education, advocates say an opportunity exists to restructure the child-care program and to increase spending to meet the needs of more students.

Child care is more expensive than in-state tuition at public universities in about 30 states, according to the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. Tuition and fees at state universities in Maryland averaged $9,900 for residents in 2018, but full-time infant care at a licensed center cost nearly twice as much.

House Democrats unveil higher education plan to lower college costs

One in 5 undergraduate students is a parent. While that number has grown in the past two decades, the number of schools with campus child-care centers has dwindled, and those that remain are stretched thin, according to the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The 2018 spending increase — from $15 million to $50 million — was the first since lawmakers authorized the child-care program in 1998. The boost meant 196 colleges received grants to help low-income students with children, far more than the 86 schools awarded money in 2017. Even with the bigger budget, the institute estimates the federal program is reaching only about 11,000 students with children.

“It’s wonderful that . . . funding was increased, but . . . it’s a drop in the bucket,” said Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder of Generation Hope, a D.C. nonprofit that helps teen parents navigate higher education.

The Education Department provides four-year grants to colleges and universities that support child care on campus or in the surrounding community. Only parents eligible to receive federal Pell Grants for low-income students can participate. Schools can apply for up to 1 percent of the total amount of Pell aid awarded to their students in the previous year, a stipulation that can limit the reach of the program.

At Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Mass., federal grant funding declined by $10,000 because of a drop in enrollment. Fewer Pell-eligible students on campus meant fewer award dollars. Still, Ann Reynolds, the adviser for the child-care program at the community college, has a list of more than a dozen students who need child care. The grant secured care for 24 students this year, nearly all of whom were once on the waiting list.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who has fought to expand the child-care program, noted that some schools are receiving significantly less than 1 percent of their total Pell funds. Increasing that cap and ensuring the Education Department provides grant funding based on student need are priorities for the senator in ongoing negotiations to reauthorize the Higher Education Act.

“Millions of student-parents across the country are struggling to afford child care while getting an education, without even knowing there is help available,” Murray said. “We absolutely need to increase funding, raise awareness and look at ways to make it easier for universities to support student-parents.”

Diane Auer Jones, the Education Department’s point person on higher-education policy, called the funding cap an “artificial, structural barrier.” She suspects more students who are parents could be served if Congress changed the parameters of the awards. All the same, the Trump administration has been critical of the program, questioning whether the grants are effective in helping students remain in school.

Colleges can use the federal money for an array of services, including parenting classes, academic coaching or hiring more day-care attendants. Schools say that flexibility allows them to tailor programs to the needs of their students, but Jones said it also makes it difficult to evaluate the child-care program.

“You’re testing so many different kinds of interventions that it’s very hard to get statistical data to figure out what works,” she said. “Our interest is channeling as many dollars as possible to the student.”

Nicole Wetherby, 33, credits the flexibility of the program at Mount Wachusett with helping her graduate this year with an associate degree in graphic design. She was able to enroll her 2-year-old son in an accredited day care with flexible hours close to her house. It provided peace of mind as she juggled classes and cared for a toddler, a precarious balancing act.

At one point, Wetherby’s son was hospitalized and she had to miss a week of school. All of those missed classes and assignments resulted in her failing two courses. If it weren’t for the support of other parents in the child-care program, Wetherby said the setback could have derailed her from completing her degree.

“It’s hard when you’re a parent in school. One thing goes wrong and it messes up your schedule,” said Wetherby, who worked three part-time jobs while attending college. “The community is a huge plus in helping you get through.”

Wetherby is waiting for her son to enter kindergarten before she continues her education because of the dearth of affordable child care. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst is the only four-year school with a federal child-care grant in the state, but it doesn’t offer the degree Wetherby wants.

Hits and misses in the House higher education bill

House Democrats want to quadruple authorized funding for the campus program to $200 million so more colleges can support students. A provision in the chamber’s bill to overhaul the federal higher education law would also award performance bonuses to colleges with long-standing participation and track records of helping students with children graduate.

Under the House proposal, colleges could receive up to 20 percent of their annual grant award as a bonus. The incentive could help schools such as Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, which has participated in the child-care program for 13 years.

The 2018 appropriation had a significant effect at Pikes Peak, which witnessed a 29 percent increase in funding to $375,000 over the four-year cycle, according to Joneila Henselman, the child-care coordinator at the school. The additional money made it possible to pull more students off the waiting list.

“We’ve really been able to support students that were on a successful path, and they won’t need to take out a student loan for child care,” Henselman said. “Our students are going on to become nurses and mechanics. We have some looking at engineering programs.”

Central Georgia Technical College in Macon, Ga., also benefited from the expansion. A nearly $500,000 grant has allowed the school to serve 35 children at its two child development centers. Students are still waiting for child care at one center, but the list is considerably shorter because of the federal grant, said Brett Copeland, assistant director of the child development centers at Central Georgia.

Central Georgia, like many schools, couples federal and state grants to help parents in college. Most states have some form of child-care subsidies for low-income families, often supported through block grants from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Campus child care made it possible for this young parent to graduate college. Now Trump wants to ax the program.

The Trump administration has called for HHS to be the sole federal provider of child-care subsidies for low-income families. The Education Department proposed eliminating the campus child-care program in 2017, saying that “subsidizing expenses associated with child care is not consistent with the department’s core mission.”

Jones at the Education Department said the community-based programs supported by the HHS grants are better suited to meet the needs of students.

“It’s not that we’re fundamentally against providing child care; we’re just not sure campus-based child care is the most effective way,” Jones said. “Community-based child care provides more choices and probably serves the needs of adult learners.”

States have leeway in how they use the money from HHS, and some have rules that make it difficult for college students to access care. Eight states limit the length of time students may receive child-care subsidies while in colleges, while 11 states require students to be employed to be eligible.

“For a very long time, our parents who were receiving child-care assistance through the state were working 30, 40 hours and going to school,” said Angela Wheeler, who helps run the child-care program at Tacoma Community College in Washington state. “It’s difficult to maintain all of that, and most of them had two or three children.”

Other states have eligibility requirements for the HHS money that student advocates say are tone-deaf. Virginia, for instance, says students must obtain child support from an absent parent to be eligible for the state subsidy, with few exceptions. Lewis at Generation Hope said some students she works with have volatile relationships with their child’s father and worry about the consequences of taking them to court.

While the HHS block grant program is a critical source of funding, “it’s not enough, it’s not meeting the full need, and in some cases it’s placing barriers in the way of the student families being able to access help,” said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, a senior research associate with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The Education Department’s child-care grant “is more targeted and has fewer restrictions on student parents’ ability access help,” she said.

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