Leadership & Governance

The Challenges Facing Low-Income Female Students

Barbara Gault, executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

July 05, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Being a low-income student in college is difficult, but it’s probably tougher for women. Barbara Gault, executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, points out that female students are much more likely than men to be raising children and possibly caring for older relatives as well. Colleges’ schedules and services, which have long catered to traditional, childless students, she says, need to change to accommodate a new student population.


SCOTT CARLSON: I'm Scott Carlson from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I'm here with Barbara Gault, from the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Barbara, nice to have you at The Chronicle.

BARBARA GAULT: Thanks for having me. Glad to be here.

SCOTT CARLSON: So, as you know, I've been doing a number of stories about low-income students in higher education, and that's one of the main things that the IWPR looks at. But I'm kind of interested to talk with you a little bit about, What are the special challenges that women, female students, have in higher education, particularly if they are low-income students?

BARBARA GAULT: Well, women students, especially in community colleges, are much more likely to be raising dependent kids than male students are. In fact, we found that this varies quite a bit by race, and 54 percent of African-American students who are female have dependent kids that they're raising while they're in college. And many times they're working at the same time.

Native American women students also are very likely to have kids — Hispanic women a little bit less so. But even a pretty high share of white women as well have kids while they're in college. So it's a big issue for women, especially in community college and those who have low incomes.

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And the majority of them spend 30 hours a week or more caring for their kids. So if you combine that with work and school and time for study, it creates a pretty significant challenge and ends up having a fairly big impact on completion rates. So we've been trying to talk about how in all the policy efforts that are going on, in the philanthropic efforts to improve completion, we need to be thinking about students' caregiving responsibilities, especially since so many students nowadays are going to school as adults with bigger lives than just college.

SCOTT CARLSON: So in higher education, when we're looking at the costs to students, we're pretty good at assessing those costs on a monetary basis. We don't really consider the costs of time. I mean, raising children while you're going to school, while you're maybe working a job, while you're in some cases, with the students I've met in the series, these students are also taking care of parents who are disabled or whatever. That's a significant, taxing cost on that student that's just not measured in terms of dollars or cents.

BARBARA GAULT: Yeah, I think that's true. That's one of the points that we've been trying to get at through our research, is that we need to think about time as part of the whole calculus of affordability So a lot of students have caregiving responsibilities that even go beyond children. Students who don't have their own kids may be caring for elderly relatives, as you know.

And we think that colleges and universities need to take on a mind-set that's more comparable to that of large employers, where they're really thinking about, What are the outside challenges that might be getting in the way, or just creating challenges to the student's success? And what role can we play in making that a little bit easier? So in the corporate world it's called promoting work-life balance, and I think we need to do the same thing and make colleges and universities family-friendly for people who have caregiving responsibilities outside of school.

SCOTT CARLSON: Why don't colleges take that perspective?

BARBARA GAULT: I think that there's a tradition of colleges' thinking about students as the 18-to-24 age group. And gradually we've seen that the nontraditional really is traditional when it comes to higher education. But colleges have been a little bit slow to catch up, maybe because of the specific incentive structures that affect them that might be a little bit different than the incentives that affect employers. In the past, colleges' funding wasn't so much based on their students' completion. But now as we're moving more and more in that direction, where we're asking colleges to be accountable for the proportion of students who finish, they may start paying more attention to this, because they'll see that their ability to serve students and help them meet those outside challenges will improve their numbers and improve their ability to finance themselves.

SCOTT CARLSON: One of those services that IWPR has advocated for has been child care on campus, or having colleges help to find child-care providers for students. Where do things stand with that right now? Is that a service that more colleges are picking up, or more colleges are sort of discarding?

BARBARA GAULT: We're seeing that more and more colleges are closing their child-care centers on campuses, because child care is pretty expensive to pay for and to offer, and can be complicated in terms of the legal issues involved, coordinating schedules, the staffing, etc. It's not necessarily an easy service to provide on campus. But we do think it's extremely important in terms of the retention of students who have children. So we're trying to encourage colleges who might be on the brink of deciding whether to close a center or not to really look carefully at that decision, because even though it may cost $6,000 or $10,000 a year to care for a single student's child, if you compare that, say, to the cost of financial aid, it's not so different.

And in community colleges, a child-care center can be a wonderful place to serve students with any kind of intensive supportive services, because it's a place where students come day after day. And they develop a strong relationship with their children's caregivers and with the administrators in the center. So for those college-success efforts that are trying to really reach students in a high-touch fashion with financial education or with career counseling, that is the perfect place to do it. And getting rid of those centers is really working against some of the broader goals that we've been moving toward in higher education.

SCOTT CARLSON: If there's one more sort of policy issue that you think higher-education institutions or higher-education organizations should be advocating for, or really looking seriously at, what would that be to help out this population?

BARBARA GAULT: Well, there's been a growing discussion about helping low-income college students access a broader array of public benefits, like cash assistance, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, child-care subsidies, which are provided through the broader community. And students with children are especially likely to benefit from those kinds of supports. So that set of efforts to increase access to coordinated benefits is really important for students with kids.

SCOTT CARLSON: Well, thanks, Barbara. Thanks for showing up at The Chronicle.

BARBARA GAULT: Sure. Thank you very much. Nice to talk to you.

Scott Carlson is a senior writer who covers the cost and value of college. Email him at scott.carlson@chronicle.com.