The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Paying for College as a Student Parent Is...Complicated

Mother and daughter do homeworkYesterday on route to work my phone exploded with messages from friends and colleagues urging me to, "Turn on NPR right now,” to hear their story about student parents. I was a student parent myself, striving and struggling from GED to Ph.D. as a young low-income mother raising two daughters. In the years between then and now, I have continued to support the strides, struggles, and successes of student parents as a researcher, program developer, professor, and mentor working on the national stage to raise awareness of student parents, their prevalence, and the challenges they face in pursuing and completing higher education.

This week’s NPR news story discusses student childcare as a challenge and concern that is faced nearly universally by student parents. The story explains that federal financial aid dollars can (theoretically at least) account for student childcare costs, increasing student aid awards to cover the costs of childcare. This is entirely true. In fact, I used this method to pay for my own childcare expenses throughout my undergraduate and graduate education. To do this, a student must file a Cost of Attendance appeal with their school’s financial aid office, often providing receipts or other verification of childcare and other eligible expenses.

By increasing the student’s Cost of Attendance calculation, the student is eligible for more financial aid, including federal aid, institutional and external scholarships, and private student loans. As the NPR story explains, this is a policy that is rarely advertised, even by institutions hosting some of the top student parent programs in the United States.

Yet, the NPR story misleads the listener with the representation that the lack of awareness of this policy, “leaves federal dollars sitting on the table.” This assumes that the lack of adequate funding for student parents is caused simply by the fact that they need access to more money. However, this oversimplifies a very complex issue.

Think of the Cost of Attendance calculation as the capacity of one’s purse or wallet. The bigger the wallet you have, the more money you can put in it; but getting a larger wallet does not mean that it comes filled with more money than you already had to begin with. Today, there is rarely money available to fill the student’s existing wallet, let alone a larger one.

Most student parents (who are disproportionately low-income and who generally have a ZERO dollar expected family contribution), have already maxed out their federal grant and loan dollars long before dependent care costs are taken into account. Often, the maximum federal student aid dollars available to a student aren’t enough to cover the basics like tuition, fees, and housing, let alone childcare.

Each federal student aid program is capped at a certain maximum dollar value per student and funding for these programs is limited, which is why unmet need is so prevalent. For the 2019-2020 school year, the only guarantee of federal financial aid funding available to student parents is through Pell grants and Stafford loans capped at $15,695 for freshmen, $16,695 for sophomores, and $18,695 for upper-classman. With these funds student parents must pay for: tuition, fees, textbooks and supplies, technology, housing, utilities, food, transportation, and everything else. Regardless of how much their Cost of Attendance is increased to allow them to receive more funding, there are rarely any federal dollars remaining to be allocated to them.

To fill their larger wallets, students must then turn to scholarships or private student loans. Competition for external scholarships is fierce, and time-consuming applications may not seem worthwhile to student parents carefully allocating their time to work, family, and school commitments.

Private student loans are also difficult for student parents to pursue, as they generally hold income and credit requirements that the student cannot meet on their own. Without a credit-worthy cosigner willing to take on such a long-term debt (which most student parents do not have), many private loans are out of reach for these students.

Even if private loans were more attainable for student parents, it is not a viable systemic or policy solution. I know this as a scholar and expert in this area, and I know this first-hand as a student parent who borrowed private student loans to pay for her own childcare tuition. Those loans came at significant costs, both financial and in terms of post-college opportunities.

Private student loans have the highest interest rates and do not offer the income-based repayment and loan forgiveness options afforded by federal student loan programs. If we are concerned about the student loan crisis, the answer to addressing student childcare needs cannot involve finding new ways for student parents to take on more debt -- especially debt incurred through private student loans.

At the end of the day, student parents and their children cannot survive, strive, and thrive given the minimal amount of federal student aid dollars available in today’s context of skyrocketing costs of attendance.

Student parent programs at colleges and universities across the U.S. are taking the lead in addressing student parents’ needs using comprehensive and individualized approaches. Yet we still don’t know a lot about these programs, what they do, or how they work. In fact, we still don’t even know where they all are or how many colleges and universities have them. This is a clear sign that research on best practices for providing childcare and other supports to student families is sorely needed.

From 2014-2019 I led a research team that collected data on colleges that offer housing for students with children, finding that only 254 U.S. higher education institutions (9%) offer such an option. About 30 additional programs closed their family housing since we began the research project. Our data was turned into the Family Housing Database available to prospective student parents and their advocates as well as researchers and policymakers.

My team is also working to expand this research in 2020 to better understand other types of programs and services, such as campus childcare and comprehensive student parent programs that support student parent success. We will collect this information and develop a comprehensive national database of student parent support services and programs while studying how these programs work and promoting best practices for student parent success.

I work with student parents every day, and I am certainly all about finding them every dollar and dime that can help them get through school. Even though Cost of Attendance appeals can theoretically be useful to cover student needs, I am sad to say there are no "federal dollars left on the table" to fill in the gaps.

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. In addition to studying the lives of student parents, she has worked to help create two-generation programs on college and university campuses to support student parents and their children.

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Recognizing Student Parent Needs during Caregivers Month

Student Parent holding baby at graduation“Someday you will go to college, too,” a young mother tells her eight year old son at her baccalaureate graduation ceremony.

“Mom. You're silly,” he replies with a grin. “I already went to college with you!”

Walking hand in hand in cap and gown with their children at graduation is a culminating moment for nearly all of the student parents who I have known and worked with over the years as a researcher, program director, and mentor. These students are nearly universally motivated to pursue post-secondary education as a means to lift their families into the middle class and secure a better life for their children. Parents and children aim for a light at the end of the tunnel, but in the words of my colleague and collaborator Sheila Katz, Ph.D., we have observed that a family’s journey to and through college, doesn’t just make their lives better someday, but in fact begins to change and impact their lives in significant ways from the first day.

Having had the opportunity to work and visit with student parents and their children in multiple programs and in multiple capacities at colleges and universities across the U.S., what I see is that the most important moments are not at the end of the journey, but the everyday steps along the journey itself. It is through these moments that this little boy believed, unwaveringly and unapologetically, that he and his mom had gone to college together: celebrating grades and accomplishments by displaying their school work side by side on the refrigerator, finishing homework assignments side by side at the dining room table, reading together, and sharing in learning and developing knowledge and skills.

As a parent, there are also a number of other little things involved in this journey with the potential to make big impacts on making or breaking a family’s success: safe and affordable housing, childcare, and food security to start. Although one in four undergraduates in the U.S. are parents, these students often lack these basic foundations of college success. A recent study by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jed Richardson and Anthony Hernandez found that 63 percent of student parents experience food insecurity during college, while 77 percent experience housing insecurity and/or homelessness. Yet, we know through data we have been collecting on campus-based family housing, childcare, and student parent programs, that the need is much greater than the capacity of currently available programs.

Our free downloadable National Family Housing Database finds, for example, that only ten percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. offer student housing options that allow children to live in residence. Yet, this includes institutions where available family housing units may be extremely limited, and/or unaffordable to undergraduate students attending college with student financial aid. Furthermore, as we continue to update these data, we have observed a number of institutions that are reducing or eliminating their family housing programs, despite rising demographic need. This further varies by region, whereby disparities between need and available support programs are even further illuminated.

While the capital expenses involved in building family housing and childcare may initially be seen as cost-prohibitive by many institutions, colleges are also working to impact student parent success in other ways, starting small. Opportunities to engage and bring families to campus together provide low-cost strategies for impacting intergenerational college access and success.

For example, I worked with Endicott College’s Boston Student Parent Initiative to implement a family literacy program through which the program arranged trips to local museums and cultural events, at which each family received an age-appropriate children's book related to the field trip, to take home as an extension of learning together. After taking the families to see a musical rendition of the classic children’s book Caps for Sale, one of the students came to my office to report that not only had her son insisted on reading the book together every night for weeks, he wanted her to, “Sing it Mom! Like they did at the play!” At Mt. Wachusett Community College in Central Massachusetts, I was privileged to visit during a Halloween Arts & Crafts event organized for students and their families by the student parent program coordinator. Portland State University’s Resource Center for Students with Children provides tablets and activity backpacks that students can check out for the day if they need to bring their child to class with them. Partnerships between universities, government agencies, and nonprofits can also allow affordable retention and support strategies to be created for student parents.

Ultimately, student parents need support in both big and small ways: they need housing and childcare. They need support to balance work and family and toward their academic success. They need opportunities to engage with other students on campus and to share the college experience with their children. Ultimately, it is these experiences that not only caused the little boy to genuinely believe that he had gone to college with his mom, but also, to support their family together as learners so that both mom and child share in the mutual investment in education together.

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. In addition to studying the lives of student parents, she has worked to help create two-generation programs on college and university campuses to support student parents and their children together as families pursuing education and shared goals for a future of happiness, security, and opportunity.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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