Too much to juggle

A student recently came into my office at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (New York), where I am a mathematics professor. A single mother with a 5-year-old daughter, the student told me she works 22 hours each week to make ends meet for her small family. But she was also taking 16 academic hours that semester.

Although she received federal financial aid, it wasn’t enough to pay for formal care for her child. The campus child care center was not an option since it was full and had a long waitlist. Instead, she relied on spotty help from family and friends, and tried to juggle her full-time child care responsibilities with her schoolwork.

She had completed several college-level classes successfully and had a 4.0 GPA, but she had to retake several other courses because she didn’t have sufficient time to study. She couldn’t lower her courseload without losing her financial aid. A number of federal financial aid programs require students to enroll full-time, and other restrictions often require even higher courseloads for the more than half of college students who are placed into developmental courses.

Not alone

This student’s experience is not unique. I have heard many similar stories from struggling student-parents over the decades. According to national data, college students who have children are 10 times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree within five years than students who do not have children, even though student-parents on average have higher GPAs.

This excerpt comes from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is reprinted with permission.

Past research hasn’t investigated the connection, though, between the time demands that student-parents face and their subsequent college outcomes — so my colleagues, Alyse Hachey at the University of Texas at El Paso and Katherine Conway at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and I decided to research potential links. In a study published last year in the Journal of Higher Education, we surveyed 15,385 students at the two- and four-year colleges of the City University of New York and found that time shortages were widespread among college students with young children, and that this significantly reduced their odds of staying in college or making progress toward their degrees.

We found that students with preschool-aged children had only about 10 hours per day left over — after paid work, housework and child care — to fit in sleeping, eating, leisure activities and schoolwork. Compare that to students with no children, who had roughly 21 hours for the same tasks.

Our research shows that parents of preschool-aged children were roughly twice as likely to drop out of college as those with no children, and that they accumulated significantly fewer credits each semester. These gaps were largely explained by the time that students spent on child care and, to a lesser extent, time that they spent working to support their families.

Although roughly two-thirds of student-parents we surveyed did not feel that available child care provided them the time they needed to complete their schoolwork, around three-quarters of them were on financial aid, which suggests that existing financial aid is insufficient to pay for necessary child care to provide time for schoolwork.

Ways to help

If we wish to improve educational outcomes for student-parents, policymakers will need to provide them with resources that allow them to spend more time studying. Expansion of on-campus child care centers could offer one solution, but government support for on-campus child care has been steadily decreasing (even as the number of student-parents has increased). As things stand, existing on-campus child care centers meet only about 5 percent of actual need.

Another approach to improve access to child care is to modify the federal financial aid system. While child care expenses are supposed to be included in a student’s financial aid calculations, in practice this is not done systematically because colleges don’t have the necessary data.

This could be solved by including a question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that asks each student for the age and number of their dependent children, and then requiring colleges to use the data to automatically include child care expenses in the financial aid calculations of every student-parent.

Currently, when colleges do include child care in financial aid calculations, they often underestimate the actual costs, especially for young children, which can be 10 times higher than for school-aged children. The Federal Student Aid Handbook could address this by giving financial aid officers specific guidance on where to obtain accurate local market rates for child care, how to calculate the appropriate number of hours of child care needed for a three-hour course, and how to correctly adjust these calculations for the exact ages and numbers of children.

Furthermore, federal financial aid policies could be changed to allow the living expenses of a student’s dependent children to be included in the student’s cost of college attendance. This would allow student-parents to work less and spend additional time studying.

Also, financial aid programs like the Pell Grant program could be changed so that part-time students could qualify for benefits that reflect the costs — and longer graduation timeline — of their part-time attendance. This would take the pressure off student-parents to attend college full-time.

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About the Author

Claire Wladis
is a mathematics professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, where she also works in education research.