Ideas and Evidence 2021

Three Ways to Better Support Student-Parents and Their Children

November 2021

This commentary was originally published by New America.

Did you know that college students who are also parents are 10 times less likely than their childless peers to receive their bachelor’s degree? As Congress considers historic investments to expand high-quality, affordable child care, state policymakers should start thinking about the best ways to support the needs of student-parents and their children with those new funds.

We know that parents who complete college can expect to earn more money. Less discussed, however, is that kids also benefit from these degrees. When parents—particularly mothers—increase their educational attainment, their children’s early academic and cognitive skills improve. In fact, maternal education is the strongest predictor of children’s later success in school.

But a key barrier to college completion for student-parents is a lack of access to high-quality and reliable child care. A declining number of community colleges offer on-campus child care, and most on-site care does not operate in the evenings, a common time for parents to take college courses. Student-parents often have to rely on a patchwork of providers, temporary babysitters, and family or friends. The pandemic has only magnified these challenges. In the last year, three-quarters of student-parents reported spending 40 or more hours per week caring for their children, leaving little time for college coursework. Unstable child care arrangements are also bad for children, who do best when they receive consistent, high-quality care that helps them form strong attachment relationships with trusted adults.

Ensuring that student-parents have access to the high-quality child care they need is critical to both helping them complete their degrees and supporting their children so they can thrive. Here are three evidence-driven approaches that states and colleges can take to accomplish those joint goals.

Expand access to high-quality on-campus child care. Although student-parents make up about 22 percent of all community college students, they are rarely able to access on-campus child care. There are federal supports—like Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) grants—that allow colleges to provide some help, but funding is limited and falls far short of demand. Out of 5,300 colleges in the United States, only 196 received CCAMPIS grants in 2018. The total funding was enough to provide care to 11,000 student-parents, far less than the 4.3 million student-parents nationally who could benefit.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently released their FY22 appropriations bill, which proposes to double spending on CCAMPIS grants. While significant, this investment will not be sufficient on its own to provide care for all student-parents. To meet that need, states could also target some of their new federal funding for child care to the colleges serving the largest populations of student-parents with young children. And regardless of the funding mechanism, colleges can take key steps to ensure high-quality care. Numerous studies done by MDRC have found that implementing curricula that support multiple domains of learning such as language, literacy, math, science, and social-emotional skills—coupled with teacher training and coaching—can substantially strengthen teacher practices and bolster young children’s development. Ensuring that on-campus child care is high-quality is essential to making this a dual-generation investment that improves outcomes for both student-parents and their children.

Another untapped resource for on-campus child care is early childhood teacher preparation programs on college campuses. The majority of early childhood degree programs in the United States are located in community colleges, with three-quarters of community colleges nationally offering some type of early childhood or child development program. Some colleges are already leveraging this direct access to early career teachers who need on-the-job training to staff their programs. For example, the Virginia Marx Children’s Center at Westchester Community College offers on-site, high-quality care to parents staffed in part by students in the college’s early education program.

Create partnerships between community colleges and local child care providers. States could also use federal funds to help colleges partner with local organizations, such as Head Start programs, and center- and home-based providers that can act as satellite child care sites for student-parents. Strong partnerships could help parents gain quicker access to care and more easily identify the providers that will work for their schedules and budgets.

Community colleges could create partnerships with child care providers similar to how some nonprofits have collaborated with Head Start programs. For example, Head Start programs operated by a nonprofit organization called CAP Tulsa also implement CareerAdvance, a workforce training program that prepares parents for careers in health care. While parents participate in CareerAdvance courses at Tulsa Community College, their children are enrolled in Head Start programming, including wraparound care during nontraditional hours. Head Start is nationally known as a high-quality program, implementing early learning curricula while providing professional development to teachers and additional services to support children’s health and development. The partnership between CareerAdvance and Head Start not only increased parental employment in the health care sector but also improved children’s attendance in the early care and education program.

Provide clear information to student-parents about how to access child care. Parents rarely have access to centralized information on the full range of child care providers in their community, the hours when care is available, program quality, and the costs of care. They must do their own research to piece together information and find the care that works best for their families. Yet, studies show that the percentage of parents who enroll their child in high-quality care increases when parents are given clear and individualized information on child care in their community. Community colleges could allocate some resources to provide clear information for student-parents with simple follow-ups—like personalized text messages and phone calls—to remind student-parents what steps need to be taken to enroll their children in care prior to the start of each semester. For example, these reminders could help ensure parents establish eligibility for child care subsidies and navigate any problems accessing that support prior to the start of classes.

As the number of student-parents continues to increase, supports for child care targeted at community colleges are needed now more than ever. By making smart investments in high-quality care for the over four million student-parents currently attending American colleges, states will be able to help families achieve their economic mobility goals and support children’s learning and development.