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Picture this: you are a student parent attending a public college. You come from a low-income family, making less than $30,000 a year. Between attending class, studying and parenting duties, you manage to work 10 hours a week making minimum wage. Think you can still afford both tuition and childcare?

According to a new report from the Education Trust and Generation Hope released today, across the U.S., a student parent from a low-income background (a household making less than $30,000 a year) who works 10 hours a week at minimum wage still cannot afford both childcare and college tuition at a public university in any state in the U.S. In fact, a student parent would have to work 52 hours a week at minimum wage in order to break even on their childcare and tuition expenses.

This report is the first of its kind to factor in both the costs of tuition and childcare to analyze college affordability for student parents. It provides new data showing how multiple challenges, including low wages and the high cost of college and childcare, create boundaries that make it difficult for many low-income students to attend college and graduate on time.

The Childcare Crisis and Student Parents

Childcare prices have outpaced the annual inflation rate in 2019 and 2020. The average annual cost of childcare in 2020 was just over $12,000, which is more than the annual cost of tuition for a four-year public university in some states (which ranges from $9,702 in the South to $13,878 in the Northeast).

College has become more expensive for all students, but student parents, who often face the cost of both tuition and childcare, are faced with additional challenges.

Student parents are typically low-income. Two-thirds live at or near the federal poverty line, and unlike students without children, they have the added financial liability of taking care of their children. Colleges do not consider these added costs when calculating a student’s net price of attendance.

Childcare and College Tuition

The study uses a metric called the “affordability gap” to determine how much more than 10 hours at minimum wage a student must work to break even on their costs for childcare and college tuition. The affordability gap is calculated by adding the net price of attendance (tuition and fees minus scholarships and grants) plus the cost of childcare, minus income earned from working 10 hours of minimum wage per week.

A past study from the Education Trust recommended that 10 hours of additional work a week is the most that a college student, regardless of whether they are a parent, can manage and still be successful academically. According to interviews with 100 student parents conducted by researchers for this report, half were employed, and a third worked more than 40 hours a week.

These findings highlight an important aspect of the study: that childcare or college costs alone do not show the full picture of the financial burden taken on by student parents. The study found that student parents pay out-of-pocket costs for college that are two to five times greater than their peers without children from similar financial backgrounds when the cost of childcare is factored in.

Even states that had low prices for in-state public college tuition were found to be unaffordable once the cost of childcare was factored in. For example, although the average net price for tuition at a public college in Florida is $5,400, this price increases to $16,800 to $17,300 once childcare is factored in. In New York, where the average annual cost of tuition at a public college is $8,403, the cost increases to over $20,000 once childcare is factored in.

As a result, student parents would have to work excessive hours, an estimated 30 to 90 hours per week depending on the minimum wage in their state, in order to afford both childcare and college tuition.

The affordability gap for center-based care in Washington, D.C., was the highest (more than $30,000), while in Pennsylvania it was less expensive ($25,000). However, a student parent would only have to work 53 hours a week at Washington, D.C.’s $16.10-per-hour minimum wage to cover the cost of childcare and tuition, while Pennsylvania’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage would require a student parent to work 81 hours a week.

“We found that net price [of childcare] alone is not a really a good indicator of college affordability for student parents just because the childcare costs vary widely,” said Jinann Bitar, director of higher education research and data analytics at the Education Trust. “In fact, a lot of states that have a lower reported net price for their public colleges may actually have a lot higher childcare costs.”

Interviews with participants in the survey, of which half attended college full-time, found that a majority of student parents spend six to 10 hours a week in class and an additional six to 10 hours a week studying.

Policy Recommendations

The findings of this report speak to a central question: What policies are causing certain states to have smaller affordability gaps?

Although the report did not take into account specific policies that states might have in place, such as childcare subsidies, the researchers found that the largest contributing factor to a smaller affordability gap was a higher state minimum wage.

“When we looked through the data, what we realized was that if a state reduced affordability, tried to make college more affordable, and they reduced their public out-of-pocket costs by a couple hundred or a thousand dollars or they did the same thing with childcare, it was not nearly as effective as increasing the minimum wage to the amount of money that a parent would make to cut down the cost of either,” said Britani Williams, a higher education senior policy analyst at the Education Trust . “What we found was that the largest mitigating factor was the amount of money the person would make towards the cost.”

The researchers recommended the federal minimum wage be raised to $20 to address the high costs found in this study.

They also recommended increased federal funding for Child Care Access Means Parents in School, a federal program that provides campus-based childcare to low-income students, to $500 million per year. Currently, the program receives $55 million, which is expected to increase to $95 million in the next fiscal year according to budget proposals from President Biden and the House of Representatives.

Another aspect for improvement was data collection. Currently, colleges do not make a distinction between students who are and are not parents, and as a result, it is difficult for campus academic and financial services to address the unique needs of these students.

In interviews held by researchers for this study, student parents said that they did not feel seen on campus and that certain academic accommodations, like fully online or hybrid classes, would help minimize their need for childcare.

The researchers recommended that the federal government require all colleges that receive federal funds to collect data on student parents and report them to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. This data would allow the federal and state governments as well as colleges to develop solutions to make college and childcare more accessible and affordable for student parents, said the researchers.

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