As a growing number of young parents find a way to pay for and attend college, they’re confronting a spotty and inadequate child-care system that drives many to drop out or load up on debt — a problem that threatens to undermine efforts to improve social mobility for young people from low-income and minority backgrounds.
Colleges, foundations and the federal government have made increasing enrollment in higher education — particularly among low-income and minority students, who are more likely to be young parents — a top priority. Over the past decade-and-a-half, the number of college students raising children has soared by 50 percent, reaching nearly 5 million.
Yet while financial aid, grants and scholarship programs can help defray tuition, advocates say assistance in paying for child care is much harder to find. In some cases, student parents have resorted to bringing their children to class with them or parking them at the campus library, community groups say. And even when a school does provide child care, demand often outstrips the available slots.
“Too often, when people have kids, they think that has to mean the end of their college education,” said Barbara Gault, executive director of the the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, which has analyzed the data. “If we really are serious about equity in education, it’s very important to consider parenthood status.”
In other words, though parents often cite their children as the motivation for enrolling in college, children themselves are also often the biggest obstacle to earning a degree.
For Ruben Gomez Jr. and Hazel Arceda, it wasn’t the price of tuition that forced them to consider dropping out of college two years ago. It was the cost of having a baby.
Gomez was 21 and a community college student in Florida, and Arceda was taking English classes there. Both were already juggling long days of school and work and struggling to make ends meet when they found out she was pregnant.
Paying for day care threatened to consume almost all of Gomez’s meager paycheck. But quitting meant giving up on a better job opportunities. “That completely shifted everything in my life. I didn’t have a clue how I was going to provide for him,” Gomez said.
The lack of affordable child-care options stands in the way of improving social mobility, experts say. Higher education has become almost mandatory for a good-paying job following the Great Recession. The unemployment rate for workers with only a high school diploma is much higher than those with even a few years of college and about twice those with a bachelor’s degree.
Though the bulk of student parents are enrolled in community college, only 46 percent provided onsite day care in 2013, compared with more than half in 2002. The federal government has provided meager additional aid: in 2003, the federal program that helps subsidize on-campus child care was slashed from $25 million to $15 million — and it has stayed there ever since.
“It’s wonderful to get parents into college. It’s a whole other thing to support them so they get their degree,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I am very worried about the amount of financial risk that’s accruing to the people who are starting college with very little resources.”
Low-income parents spend about 40 percent of their monthly earnings on child care, according to a recent report by the Census Bureau.
That is one of the reasons that student parents end up with more debt than other college graduates.
IWPR found that they finish school with an average of $28,350 in debt, about 13 percent more than students without children. Only about a third of student parents are able to even graduate within six years, according to IWPR, compared to half of childless students.
When her son, Matthias Gomez, was born, Arceda took a semester off from Miami-Dade Community College in Kendall. But she and Gomez, now her fiance, were determined that they would both stay in school — even though that means doing homework until 2 a.m. after their son has gone to bed, only to wake up three hours later to start the next day.
“Our whole routine changes,” Arceda said in Spanish. “You can’t just go to school and think about yourself … My mind is often on my son and his future.”
To pay for child care, the couple got help applying for a federal benefit through a national nonprofit called Single Stop, which has begun working closely with community colleges to assist vulnerable families.
Early results at several campuses show helping students apply for social services and other aid improved retention by as much as 32 percent. Gomez transferred to Florida International University with a double major in international relations and political science. He expects to graduate in December and eventually hopes to become a foreign service officer.
“It all comes down to resources,” said Elisabeth Mason, Single Stop Chief Executive. “Economic interventions made huge differences in the ability of community college students to stay in school.”
At Ohio State University, officials are partnering with local nonprofits to build dedicated housing for student parents that they eventually hope will include a child-care facility. The university already has two day-care centers that serve faculty as well as students, but there is often a waiting list to get in.
So Traci Lewis, head of the school’’s support program for student parents, helps fill in the gaps. She keeps a playard and plenty of toys in her office for little ones, and students sometimes list her as an emergency contact so Lewis can pick up their kids from school when they are sick.
“We’re going to do whatever we need to do to help them graduate,” Lewis said.
But perhaps the steepest costs of all are the ones that are the hardest to quantify.
Rishonda Holley, 38, says her weekends are devoted to homework rather than hanging out with her three sons, ages 8 to 20. Her goal is to finish up at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut next year, then transition to a bachelor’s program focusing on health-care administration.
Holley shares her grades with her sons — the good ones and the bad — to hammer home the importance of studying and sacrifice. Sometimes they say they wish she were home more, but Holley hopes they understand the bigger lesson she is trying to teach them.
“I want them to see that having anything takes hard work and dedication. You have to be serious about what you want,” she said. “My days are pretty long, and my nights are short.”