The Student Parent Trap

Each morning, Sherita Rooney wakes up around 6 a.m. She gets her 14-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son ready for the day. She makes breakfast and gets her children to school before driving an hour to West Chester University outside of Philadelphia, where she recently transferred after graduating from Montgomery County Community College.

Every day is difficult, but Tuesdays are especially so. She works from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. before class from 2 to 7. She picks up her kids, then brings them home and puts them to bed. As a math education major, she takes challenging classes that keep her up late studying. She goes to sleep around 2 each night. The next day, she gets up and does it over again.

Without the child-care scholarship she found through the Philadelphia-based nonprofit, Family Care Solutions, Rooney says, she's not sure what she would do. She'll find out this summer, when she's signed up for classes but won't have the scholarship.

Student parents like Rooney make up about a quarter of all postsecondary students in the United States, according to a new report released by the Institute for Women's Policy Research. The report estimates that of the total of 3.9 million student parents in the country, more than half are low-income. About 12 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States are single parents, and of those, more than three-quarters are low-income. The vast majority of them are women.

In many ways, schools have been slow to accommodate the needs of these students with services like on-campus child-care centers or student-parent support organizations. If, as President Barack Obama constantly says, we want to increase college graduation rates, especially among low-income students, then expanding access to child care at colleges is urgently needed.

And the need is vast. Student parents need the equivalent of an estimated 1.1 million full-time child care slots, and only about 4.8 percent of that need is currently being met at campus child-care centers. The IWPR report finds that only about 17 percent of postsecondary institutions offer some type of on-campus child care. Of those, public colleges and universities do the best: Half of them provide some time of on-campus child care. Private nonprofits lag far behind, with just 9 percent of private four-year schools providing such a facility and 7 percent of private two-year schools offering the service to students. The number of for-profit schools with child-care centers, at just 1 percent, is virtually nonexistent. Even if campuses have on-campus facilities, the children of faculty or staff often get priority, and student parents compete for fewer open slots or end up on waiting lists.

Some nonprofits, like Family Care Solutions, are helping to fill some of this need with a combination of federal grant money for low-income parents, private donations, and reduced rates or scholarships from private child-care centers.

Parents struggle nevertheless. Melissa Barker is one of the lucky ones. She's now at the University of California, Berkeley, earning her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies, but the road getting there wasn't easy.

Barker started out attending Diablo Valley College, a community college in Northern California. While there full time, she worked 35 hours a week and raised her daughter, Michaela, who is now 7. Barker transferred to  U.C. Berkeley and hopes to pursue a law degree after graduation.

"For undergraduate women at U.C. Berkeley, the pipeline to grad school begins to leak as undergrads, because the child care isn't there. The access to funding isn't there," she says. "There's so much that's expected of you if you want to get into a top university, and many of us do want to go on to grad school. In this economy, a BA is not enough." Barker feels she's building a better future for her daughter, too, since children of four-year college graduates are far more likely to attend college themselves and far less likely to live in poverty.

But even as she balances everything, it almost didn't happen for her. When Barker learned she got into U.C. Berkeley, she was thrilled. Her welfare caseworker wasn't so enthusiastic. "She told me, 'No, you don't get to go. This isn't part of your welfare-to-work plan.'" Her caseworker pressured her to pursue a more vocational major like nursing or teaching. It took some outside help and shuffling to get her case transferred to a different county, where caseworkers were used to full-time students on benefits.

Barker tightly manages her limited budget and can rattle off precisely what she and her daughter live on: $560 in cash assistance per month, $361 in food stamps, and $80 in transit benefits. She also takes advantage of U.C. Berkeley's student-parent housing, scholarships, grants, and her school's student-parent support group, of which she's the interim president. To say she's stretched thin is an exaggeration. "I sleep horribly. I have constant anxiety," she says.

Schools have resources to draw upon to help these students. There are grants from the Department of Education that provide funding for on-campus child-care facilities. But the current allocation for the program nationwide is only about $16 million, which averages out to about $7 per family that uses federally subsidized child care.

Some states, particularly New York, are standouts in trying to meet the need. The State University of New York system (SUNY) and the City University of New York system (CUNY) are said to have some of the best student-parent child-care centers in the country, even though their wait lists are sometimes a year or longer. This is simply because during his tenure in the 1980s, chancellor of the CUNY system Joseph Murphy made it a priority -- he mandated that all campuses provide some type of child-care facility for student parents. Though state funding has been cut in recent years, there remains an emphasis on providing child care for the student parents in the SUNY and CUNY systems.

"We hear students say, 'Well, now I can go full time' or 'Now I can graduate more quickly' or 'I also might have study time, so my grades are good,'" said Betty Pearsall, director of child-care and disability services at CUNY and president of the National Coalition for Campus Children's Centers. "It is an investment in the community because you invest in these people for the short term and you turn around and see more success, higher salaries, higher taxes, and then you see the data about the results for their children."

With budget crunches around the country, it seems unlikely that colleges will tackle this need any time soon. But that doesn't mean student parents are helpless. Students like Barker are connecting with students like Rooney to teach them how to maximize the existing system, support one another, and build their own support networks. They plan to meet again at this year's Student Parent Support Symposium in Ohio this June to connect with other parents and see how they can leverage their power and leave the campuses better for student parents down the road.

"People don't want to sit at home and just raise kids; they do want to be successful. They do want to teach their children better things, but they think it's not possible," Rooney said. But if Rooney, Barker, and others like them can convince those who care about increasing graduation rates to invest in child care, those parents can build better futures for themselves and their children.

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