Vital federal program to help parents in college is ‘a drop in the bucket’

Nicole Xu for NPR

Nicole Xu for NPR

Between studying for her weekly anatomy and physiology exam, and writing an English paper, Kate Hough somehow finds time for coloring, dress-up parties and putting together four different Halloween costumes (a princess, a cowgirl and two clowns).

Hough is working toward her nursing degree at Mount Wachusett Community College, in central Massachusetts, while raising four kids — two toddlers and two in elementary school.

“Being a student parent is all about balance,” Hough says. “It takes a lot, like I don’t go to bed until about 2 a.m. every night and then I get back up at 6 a.m. every morning.”

According to a recent government report, about a 1 in 5 college students in the U.S. are, like Hough, raising kids — that’s more than 4 million people.

Student parents often have higher GPAs than students without children, but they are also more likely to drop out, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. One of the biggest struggles these students face is getting child care, which has been declining on college campuses for many years, IWPR found.

A new proposal by U.S. House Democrats would expand the only federal program that helps: Child Care Access Means Parents in School, or CCAMPIS. The proposed expansion would quadruple CCAMPIS funding, upping it to $200 million. It’s part of a larger effort to overhaul current federal higher education law, which still has an uphill battle in Congress.

“This isn’t just about quality care for kids,” says Rep. Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts who’s leading the effort to expand CCAMPIS. “This is the workforce. If you want to recruit and retain talent, if you want people to get an education to fill those jobs that you need in your business, then we need to invest in childcare.”

‘It’s a drop in the bucket’

Here’s how CCAMPIS works: The Education Department awards grants to colleges to help low-income student parents pay for childcare — either on campus at a daycare or preschool, or off campus with an accredited provider.

In 2018, Congress more than tripled CCAMPIS funding — from $15 million to $50 million. Even with that increase, estimates by IWPR show the program only serves about 11,000 student parents.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” says Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, who studies student parents at IWPR. Reichlin Cruse estimates there are 1.8 million student parents who could qualify for the program — that means CCAMPIS currently serves less than 1% of those who could benefit from it.

“Child care is arguably one of the most — if not the most — important support for student parents to be successful in college,” Reichlin Cruse says. “Helping students graduate via helping them afford childcare is a real gain; a real benefit for society more broadly.”

In at least 30 states, average yearly child care costs surpass the costs of in-state tuition at public colleges, according to the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America. And access to affordable child care isn’t just an issue for college students — it has measurable impacts on the economy, especially when it comes to women.

“Campus childcare cannot fix what all families are experiencing with unaffordable child care,” says Reichlin Cruse, “but it’s part of a broader conversation about child care in this country.”

“It gives a parent peace of mind”

About 300 campuses nationwide receive CCAMPIS funds, according to estimates from IWPR.

Mount Wachusett Community College is one of them.

When visitors approach the main academic building from the parking lot, they’re often greeted by a surprising group of students: 3- and 4-year-olds. They’re preschoolers at the Garrison Center, the college’s on-site early education program for children of students and faculty.

It’s just one of the many ways this campus feels different — more geared to help its estimated 1,000 students who are raising kids. There’s also the bulletin board decorated with historical photos depicting college students and their children; and there’s the flier advertising a student parent club that meets once a month. The president of the college even wrote a children’s book called Mommy Goes To College based on his dissertation.

Kate Hough is working toward a nursing degree while raising two toddlers (Nova, center, and Winter, right) and two elementary schoolers with her husband, Joshua. (Elissa Nadworny/NPR)

“Try doing a 10-page paper with a 2-year-old in the room. It’s not going to happen,” says Ann Reynolds, who runs the CCAMPIS program at Mount Wachusett. “It gives a parent peace of mind by having their child in a childcare setting or preschool, so they can stay on campus to do school work, focusing, completing their education.”

According to the nonprofit Child Care Aware of America, the average cost of toddler childcare in Massachusetts is about $19,000 a year. At Mount Wachusett Community College, CCAMPIS only provides funding for 24 students each semester; and the waitlist for the program is nearly as long.

Kate Hough, who juggles class time with toddler time, uses CCAMPIS to help pay for her 3-year-old daughter Nova to go to the preschool on campus — just across the courtyard from her own college classes.

“Because of that, I’m able to study — most of the time,” she says, as Nova squirms around, with intermittent screams, on a chair next to her. “Having two young ones at home is pretty crazy,” she says laughing.

This isn’t the first time Hough has tried college. Last time, the community college she attended didn’t have child care or student parent support, and so she says she dropped out. She’s hoping this time around she’ll get her degree.

And the odds may be in her favor: Mount Wachusett reports that students in the CCAMPIS program are more likely to come back the following semester, and they’re more likely to graduate.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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