SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images
Community colleges serve high numbers of parenting students, but too few institutions have campus childcare centers, or sufficient spots to meet demand, to help these students persist and graduate. At the same time, Head Start, a federally funded program offering free early childhood education to low-income families, is suffering from enrollment declines and staffing shortages.
The National Head Start Association (NHSA) and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) are partnering in hopes of addressing both problems. Leaders of the two organizations plan to lay the groundwork to bring more Head Start centers to community college campuses. They say the program is a natural fit for campuses serving student parents, but these potential collaborations too often go unexplored because campus and Head Start staff members need help forging relationships and navigating the logistics of campuses hosting the federal program.
Over the next six months, NHSA and ACCT will hold focus groups and conducting interviews with Head Start program operators, community college leaders and campus childcare employees to create a road map to move Head Start centers onto their local community college campuses. The initiative is funded by a planning grant from the ECMC Foundation, which is focused on improving higher education for underserved students, and the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, a family foundation dedicated to equitable access to public services.
“Student parents come to us with great assets,” said Jacob Fraire, president of the ECMC Foundation. “They are hungry to learn. They are hungry to get their credential. They are hungry to get started in their career … but what we haven’t done yet is been thoughtful about the kinds of structures that the entire family needs.”
The organizations also plan to secure more funds to start pairing programs with colleges and helping get more of these rare collaborations off the ground. Of the more than 1,400 community colleges across the country, fewer than 100 have Head Start programs, according to a press release from NHSA and ACCT.
Abigail Seldin, CEO of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, said NHSA and ACCT are essentially going to be “matchmakers” for colleges and Head Start programs, “enabling local institutions to build relationships with one another and providing the resources for them to move relatively quickly from the meet-cute to the marriage.”
She emphasized that researchers and advocates for parenting students have been pushing for a concerted effort to bring Head Start programs to campuses for years.
“This is not a new idea,” she said. “In a lot of ways, this project is a natural next step or a culmination of a movement and a research agenda, an advocacy agenda, that’s been underway for almost a decade.”
A Win-Win Scenario
Research suggests many students stand to benefit from these pairings.
A report released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research notes that almost a quarter of undergraduates, nearly four million students nationally, have childcare responsibilities, and more than half of them have children under the age of 6. Meanwhile, 46 percent of college students with children in that age range, and 68 percent of students who are single mothers with children below age 6, fall below the federal poverty line, the income requirement for participation in Head Start. A report by New America, a Washington, D.C., policy think tank, also highlighted that the price of high-quality childcare is on par with college tuition costs in many states.
“We’ve talked for years about college affordability,” Fraire said. “We don’t always think of childcare cost as a part of the equation.”
Nicole Lynn Lewis, founder and CEO of Generation Hope, a nonprofit that supports teen parents, noted that campus childcare facilities remain “so few and far between.” A survey of student parents in the Washington, D.C., area, released by Generation Hope last month, found that 78 percent of respondents wish their campuses did more to meet their childcare needs.
On-campus childcare centers are often “targeting faculty and staff as opposed to students,” she said. “They’re at times not offering care when students really need care. They have long waiting lists. They’re still too expensive for students to actually access … The childcare system is broken for all parents, but it’s really an urgent crisis for parenting students.”
Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, senior fellow for postsecondary education at the National Skills Coalition, said good-quality childcare can improve parents’ academic outcomes and set their children up for future success. Cruse was formerly the managing director of the Student Parent Success Initiative at the IWPR.
“For student parents, just having any kind of childcare that can allow them to go to school and get a degree is a huge factor, especially parents with young children,” she said. “You can’t do your homework and watch a 3-year-old … And of course, their primary concern is their kids being set up with the best future that they can be.”
The partnership’s leaders and funders say more Head Start programs on community college campuses would be a win-win arrangement for institutions and Head Start, as well.
Head Start can provide free childcare to low-income parents and connect them with other benefit programs and services as they make their way through college. And, in turn, colleges can provide free facilities for Head Start centers, satisfying a federal requirement that these programs receive 20 percent of their financial support through philanthropy.
These partnerships could also help Head Start staff their centers, which have a shortage of early childhood educators, NHSA executive director Yasmina Vinci said. If Head Start centers are located on campuses, students studying early childhood education can work there and potentially continue after they graduate.
“We are going to look [at] how we make those opportunities for people to get excited about joining the early childhood workforce,” she said.
Jee Hang Lee, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees, said the partnership could also give community colleges an enrollment boost. Community college enrollments over all seem to be leveling out after steep declines during the pandemic. But numbers are still “significantly down” among students paying their own way through college. He’s also found that community college student bodies are visibly younger now when he visits campuses, and there’s growing concern about enrollment losses among adult learners.
“We believe that many of these students, especially single parents, are having significant problems with childcare access and they’re forgoing college because of childcare issues,” he said.
Meanwhile, Head Start programs currently have up to 180,000 spots unfilled nationwide, according to the release from NHSA and ACCT. So “undersubscribed” programs that could benefit from moving closer to families that need them will be a focus of the partnership, he added.
Some of these collaborations already exist. But Head Start operators say they and their campus partners sometimes struggle to figure out how to navigate the regulations of the federal program and what’s required for hosting campuses.
Keri Allred, executive director of the Rural Utah Child Development, said her Head Start program has had a successful classroom at Snow College, a local two-year institution, for over a decade, preceding her time there. But her attempts to partner with other campuses have faced roadblocks, she said. She’s now moving forward with plans to bring her program to a Utah State University campus, but it’s taken several years of trying. For example, she had to abandon one would-be partnership with another campus because administrators were intimidated by the logistics of meeting Head Start facilities standards.
“We would have had to change fences and do different things to the kitchen, and there are so many health and safety regulations that I think they backed out because it felt overwhelming to them,” she said. Her program had the money to pay for the changes, but “it would’ve taken a lot of coordination to make it successful.”
Linda Meredith, chief operating officer at Community Partnership for Child Development in Colorado, said when Pikes Peak State College, a local community college, couldn’t afford to keep its on-campus childcare centers open, her Head Start program took over one of them and pays $1 per year to lease campus facilities. The center was underenrolled during the pandemic but now serves almost triple the number of children, including the families of student parents and the broader community, and there’s a waiting list.
Meredith also encountered some initial obstacles, mainly that the requirements and pay scales for staff members at the existing on-campus childcare center and at Head Start differed, so some center employees couldn’t or didn’t want to stay when the changeover happened. That challenge prevented the partnership from happening roughly a decade earlier, when it was first discussed.
The employee losses were hard, she said. But the partnership, launched in August 2022, ultimately prevented student parents from losing on-campus childcare aligned with their class schedules.
Victoria Jones, senior director of data at NHSA, said a major part of the partnership with ACCT will be figuring out all the obstacles that may have discouraged these collaborations in the past and finding ways to help colleges and Head Start programs negotiate them.
She also wants to determine “what are the characteristics of both Head Start programs and community colleges that make them really good candidates for these partnerships … and also identifying what are the barriers and how can we support them,” she said. There are details to consider on the campus side, from maintaining secure playgrounds to meeting Head Start requirements for classroom square footage to installing “the little toilets for the little kiddos.”
Allred said a detailed framework, like NHSA and ACCT plan to offer, could help Head Start operators like her looking to serve parenting students.
“The value of a template, or a partnership that’s already framed out, is that it becomes the starting point of the discussion with a potential partner,” she said. “It’s not looking into the dark wondering what’s going to happen … There’s a lot of strength in a predicted outcome.”
She added that just because these partnerships have faced challenges in the past doesn’t mean they can’t be a widespread and successful solution for campus childcare in the future.
These partnerships are “just the greatest idea,” she said. “And I’m excited to learn how to do this.”