Why It's So Hard for College Students Who Are Parents to Actually Earn Their Degrees
Tysa Rose had done everything she was supposed to when she enrolled in her local community college in Fargo, North Dakota, two years ago. She signed up for classes that allowed her to keep working full time so she could afford her rent and $800 monthly daycare bill. She applied for financial aid. She searched for an affordable laptop.
Despite her efforts, things didn't go as planned once classes started.
"I bought the cheapest laptop I could find at the time, and certain programs that I needed were not accessible for me on that laptop, so I ended up not passing the course," Rose says.
Burnt out and not wanting to waste money by signing up for the next semester only to potentially have the same thing happen again, Rose put her studies on hold. Her experience is all-too-common for the student parents on college campuses across the country.
About 4.8 million undergraduate students in the U.S. are parents, according to a 2021 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). But in the past decade, their numbers have declined at a rate faster than the overall student population as they face more acute financial burdens.
With extreme demands on their time, plus too few affordable child care options, student parents drop out at rates far higher than their non-parent counterparts. Only 18% of student parents actually earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years, a problem that not only affects their own long-term economic stability, but that of their kids, too.
"Student parents [make up] almost a quarter of students on campuses, but for far too long, they've not been recognized as such,” says Julie Peller, the founding executive director of Higher Learning Advocates, a bi-partisan organization that advocates for the needs of college students.
For Rose, it wasn’t just technical difficulties that discouraged her. Rose’s 4-year-old daughter was born with amniotic band syndrome, a birth defect that requires both physical and occupational therapy on a weekly basis. Despite her initial excitement about earning a degree, the shuttling back and forth between work, school, day care and medical appointments became too much.
"I decided, ‘Maybe just focus on trying to make sure you keep your job because that's paying your rent, that's paying your daughter's day care,'" she says.
Accessing child care
Like so many parents, one of the most significant hurdles that student parents face is affording adequate child care. That was true before the pandemic, but school and day care closures over the past two years have put a spotlight on the issue.
The average annual cost of child care in the US is around $10,000 per year for one child, according to a report from the non-profit Child Care Aware. (The average cost of infant care is even higher, at $16,000 per year).
That's financially burdensome even for many dual-income married couples, but the price can be especially prohibitive for parents who are in college, particularly single parents. The report estimates that the median single parent has to spend more than 35% of their income on care for one child, compared to married couples who must spend about 10%.
"It's hard to balance being a single parent who is working and attending school, both financially as well as emotionally,” says Siobhan Davenport, the president and CEO of Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, a D.C.-based non-profit organization that helps teenage girls complete their education and develop essential life skills.
What’s more, the US has seen a 14% decline in the number of public colleges offering some form of on-campus child care over the past decade.
While hundreds of colleges do still offer on-campus care, securing a spot is no easy feat, nor is it always more affordable than off-campus care. Even when campus child care centers are more affordable, waiting lists are often long and parents have to win a lottery spot. One estimate showed that current on-campus child care centers only meet the needs of 5% of student parents.
The Department of Education does have a program that provides grants to support or establish child care centers on college campuses, but Peller calls it "woefully underfunded."
There are thousands colleges in the U.S., but in 2021 only 327 schools received a grant, with the average award being just over $157,000. Schools can only reapply every four years.
For Rose, access to free child care, provided through a non-profit organization called Jeremiah Program, meant she was finally able to enroll in another paralegal program after she dropped out.
The Jeremiah Program, which works with low-income single mothers, also gives Rose one-on-one counseling, access to weekly support groups with other single moms and a computer.
Rose still works full-time, but free child care opens up money in her budget so that she doesn't have to worry constantly about being able to pay her bills.
"This is the first time in my education where that’s been possible," she says.
Managing social stigma
Even when they’re able to work out affordable arrangements for child care, last-minute cancellations or emergencies can force student parents to either miss class, threatening their grades, or else bring their children to school with them, potentially inviting criticism from their peers or professors.
"So often our pregnant and parenting students say they feel judged and stigmatized," Davenport says.
Katt Alcantara juggles her life as a third-year student at the University of Maryland while also working full-time as a manager at a café and raising her 5-year-old son. She has plenty of family nearby that can help in a pinch, but nonetheless has run into situations where nobody is available to take care of him while she’s at school.
"One of my biggest struggles has been that if my family can’t watch him, he has to tag along with me to class," she says.
Alcantara, who graduated from a Crittenton Services program that focuses on single mothers, says her experience has mostly been positive, and she finds most professors to be understanding when she’s needed an extension or brought her son to class. (He mostly just plays on his iPad during lectures, she says). But not everyone is as accepting.
"I totally get it that it's not the professor's responsibility to accommodate you, but I’ve also had professors that just do not care," she says.
Parents who aren’t able to secure consistent child care may also struggle outside of the classroom when trying to find time to complete their homework. According to a 2018 study of more than 15,000 students in the City University of New York system, students with preschool aged children reported only having about 10 hours available each day for sleeping, eating, studying and leisure activities. By contrast, students without children reported having roughly 21 hours of free time for such tasks.
Changing harmful policies
Not only are student parents more likely to drop out, re-enrolling can become more and more difficult as time passes.
"Oftentimes people drop out — maybe a child care situation falls through or job schedule changes — and intend to return, but the policies and systems that we've created don't always make that easy," Peller says.
One of the biggest hurdles? Rules around federal financial aid. Students are only eligible to receive Pell Grants, a federal grant program for low-income students, for six years in total. About 64% of student parents attend school part-time and taking semesters off is common, meaning it takes longer for student parents to complete their degrees and they often run out of grant eligibility.
Additionally, most financial aid packages are dependent on students remaining in good academic standing. When students fail out of classes, that rule makes it more difficult to return later, since they’d have to pay without financial help. Even if parents are able to re-enroll, it’s not uncommon for them to have to repeat classes that they had previously paid for and passed at another institution. On average, only 57% of previous college credits successfully transfer to another school.
According to Peller, these problems actually have a few pretty simple solutions. First, on the federal level, Congress could pass legislation that allows financial aid eligibility to be reset for those who have been out of school for a certain number of years. Second, Peller says that institutions could make it easier to count class credits from prior enrollments. That way, "people aren't re-entering higher education and then needing to repeat learning they've already paid for."
With the help of the Jeremiah Program, Rose says she has finally found the stability she wanted for herself and her daughter when they first moved to Fargo three years ago looking for a fresh start.
"I'm able to now afford car insurance, rent my townhome, take care of my daughter, buy groceries and pursue my passions," she says.
Once she completes her two-year program, she will be able to move into a paralegal position at the company she currently works for, which will also come with a higher salary.
That is, perhaps, one of the biggest reasons advocates for student parents worry about how hard it can be for them to navigate college: Making higher education more easily accessible doesn’t just help parents, it also helps to better the outcomes for their children, especially those born to teens and young adults. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the poverty rate for children of parents with at least a Bachelor’s degree was 4%, as opposed to the national rate of 16%.
As a teenager, Alcantara, the University of Maryland student, recalls reading about the daunting statistics for teen parents. In particular, she remembers seeing that only 2% of teenage parents successfully graduate from a four-year university. But instead of feeling discouraged; she was determined.
"From the second I had my son, those numbers stuck in my head," she says. "I was going to be a part of that 2%."
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Jeremiah Program, which Money incorrectly referred to as the Jeremiah Project.
More from Money:
Inflation Is Hitting Groceries Hard, With Food Prices up Nearly 11% Since Last Year
Millennials Aren't Having Kids Because It's Too Expensive