Yesterday 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.