Becoming a parent made me desperate to go to college to pursue my education. I had my daughter when I was 19 years old, just a year after I graduated from high school, and was working full-time to support myself. Despite my dreams of going to college and eventually becoming a doctor, my reality made that dream seem unattainable. I was living paycheck to paycheck and renting a small room from a family. The cost of tuition alone can be a deterrent for many seeking higher education and being an immigrant made receiving financial assistance even more difficult because at the time, I did not qualify for certain grants, scholarships, or loans. Adding the cost of child care to the equation meant that while I was eager to go to college, my dreams were so far from my reality.
I wanted to go to college because I wanted my child to have access to more opportunities than I had, and I knew my situation would make her road to those better outcomes more narrow. Like many parents, she fueled my motivation to improve our circumstances. Due to my immigration status, I only qualified for out-of-state tuition, but in 2012, my college dreams became a reality when the Obama administration implemented the Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA), which allowed me to qualify for in-state tuition. I was now one step closer to building a financially stable life, gaining access to opportunities and the economic mobility that I knew a college education could bring. Finally, I was able to attend college three years after graduating from high school.
However, one set of obstacles quickly morphed into another.
Student parents are extremely motivated to complete college. On average, they maintain higher GPAs than students who are not parenting. However, their dedication, hard work, and motivation are met with a set of significant barriers outside of the classroom. More than half leave college without a degree or certificate because of circumstances beyond their control. Between juggling parenthood with jobs and classes, dealing with inflexible course schedules and meeting times, feeling the lack of representation for student parents, and/or campus cultures that exclude this population, and more, student parents face a number of resolvable roadblocks that impede their paths to graduation. One persistent issue is a lack of access to affordable child care.
For millions of student parents like myself across the country, child care continues to be one of the biggest hurdles we face while in school. The average cost of child care for one kid is approximately $10,000 per year and $16,000 per year for parents with infants. Student parents are more likely to experience low income and, unsurprisingly, identify financial hardship as one of their biggest concerns. Finding affordable child care is often at the top of a long list of financial and psychological burdens these parents face daily.
My difficulties with finding affordable and quality child care while in college have only been helped by being connected with people who assisted me in navigating through various systems and red tape. As a first-generation immigrant, I had no clue where to begin. I was fortunately connected with an organization, Generation Hope, that serves young parents in college, and they matched me with a mentor who ensured I had all the information I needed to access child care assistance. With their help, I was able to apply for the Child Care Scholarship (CCS) in Maryland, which provides financial assistance for child care costs for working families. My provider’s cost is $150 weekly, however, through the CCS, my co-pay is only $23 per week. While I was able to find this support, not every student parent has access to these resources or allies guiding them when they aren’t sure where to look. As a student parent, child care can be the difference between opening the door to economic possibilities and a dream deferred.
Receiving a child care subsidy doesn’t always solve a child care issue though. Student parents are also caught in a whirlwind of stigmas that make it hard for them to find safe, high-quality, and reliable child care. I experienced firsthand the stigma associated with parents who have government subsidies to help cover their costs. Often child care providers do not accept government checks citing lengthy paperwork and processing times to receive payment, and many that do accept these subsidies don’t always provide the best care. I’ve had gut-wrenching experiences where I’ve felt guilty about leaving my daughter in the care of certain providers, but I had no alternative.
While there has been some progress at the federal level to ease the financial burdens for parents like child tax credits allotted to families in 2021, there are still things that can be done to ensure that they do not have to choose between safe, quality care and financial relief. Investments like Build Back Better (BBB) could mean significant financial relief for millions of families across the country. Child care costs vary by state, however, parents spend $8,355 a year on care per child. With rising costs of necessities like food and housing, extreme costs of child care will force many student parents to make a choice between these necessities and completing college. BBB could ease the stress of child care by expanding free, voluntary pre-K, and providing financial assistance, making child care more accessible and affordable. Legislators have the tools to create relief for parents across the country, and investments like BBB could be the difference between a dream deferred and economic mobility for student parents.
There are also ways colleges and universities can play a more significant role in easing child care burdens for student parents. While some colleges offer care on campus, the number has decreased. Data shows that from 2004 to 2019, the number of public education institutions that offer child care services decreased from 59 percent to 45 percent. In addition, many campus child care programs don’t always offer flexible programming that is tailored to fit the actual needs of student parents. The typical child care center schedules don’t align with the shifting and often hectic schedules of student parents, who benefit from these services the most. If colleges want to make their campuses more student-parent friendly, they must listen and reevaluate how they can better accommodate that community on their campuses.
Higher education is a major step toward economic mobility, but for too many families, it is out of reach, in part, because safe, quality and affordable child care is similarly out of reach. Student parents work hard inside of the classroom and out and have so much to offer the world. Child care should not be the thing that holds them back from realizing their dreams and potential.
Generation Hope is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that student-parents have the resources they need to complete college and experience economic mobility. Learn more about the org here.