Why Many Student Parents Drop Out
By Claire Wladis
A student recently came into my office at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, 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.
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.
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.
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 FAFSA 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.
But even with these changes, there would likely be little impact on the lives of students unless financial aid resources are increased so that aid packages actually meet student need. As things stand, 70 percent of college students have unmet financial need, even after taking into account their expected family contribution and all federal and grant aid awarded.
When Pell Grants were first established, they were large enough to meet all student financial needs at public two-year colleges (and over three-quarters at public four-year colleges). But cost increases and cuts to the Pell program mean that the grant now covers less than a third of the average cost of attending a public four-year college. In addition, many states have systematically underfunded their college aid programs and now no longer award aid to many qualified students who depend on it to complete their degrees.
The case of student-parents makes clear how counterproductive it can be to give students some money for college, without actually giving them enough money for college. The result is that these students must work more hours and reduce the actual time they spend on college work, which results in slower degree progress and higher dropout rates, essentially squandering the investment that they and taxpayers have made in their educations.
Even if changes to on-campus child care and financial aid were to cost more upfront, they could actually save taxpayers money in the long run. The ASAP Program, which was started at the CUNY community colleges and has been increasingly replicated nationally, is one of the most expensive programs on a per-student basis, but has produced a significant net savings to taxpayers because it has reduced time-to-degree and the number of dropouts.
Improving college outcomes for student-parents also has the potential to pay off even more than for non-parents, because it also improves the lives of their children.
Parents are often motived to return to college in order to provide for their children financially or to set a good example. Increased parental education can improve both the educational outcomes of their children and their own parenting behaviors. Students who earn a bachelor’s degree in America earn 68 percent more and are half as likely to be unemployed as those students with just high school diplomas, so their families are less likely to be in poverty.
The evidence is strong: Improving the college outcomes of student-parents could directly decrease educational and socioeconomic stratification in the United States.
This story about child care for college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Claire Wladis is a mathematics professor at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where she also works in education research.