The Child-Care Crisis

As a mother of two, including a seven-week-old infant, I think about child care constantly. Who provides the best care? How much does it cost? What’s the travel time involved? Can I find an arrangement that accomodates my desire to nurse? These difficult questions are keeping me up at night, as I struggle to find a situation that works for my infant, my toddler, my husband, and (last and possibly least) me and my career.

But I’m also aware that my situation is quite good, especially when compared with others on our college campuses. The number of unmarried parenting students is rising, doubling over the last 20 years from seven to just over 13 percent of the undergraduate population. More than one-third of black female undergraduates nationwide are unmarried parents, and so are 21 percent of all Native American undergrads.

More than half (59 percent) of these folks are really struggling — earning less than $10,000 a year. Unbelievably, 38 percent earn less than $5,000 annually! They are trying to make ends meet by doing it all — raising children while both working full-time and attending college full time. For example, national statistics indicate that in 2007-2008 three-fourths of all unmarried parents enrolled in college full-time were working at least 15 hours per week; and 30 percent were working 40 or more hours per week. This represents a dramatic change from earlier times — in 1989-1990, less than half (48 percent) of unmarried parents enrolled in college full-time worked at all. Given these statistics, we can’t be surprised that only 5 percent of unmarried parenting students finish a BA within 6 years of starting college (another 12 percent earn an AA, and 30 percent earn a certificate).

We could do so much more to support these men and women, and we have to start by providing affordable, accessible on-campus child care. Fully 25 percent of unmarried parenting students have unmet financial need of $11,500 or more — approximately the same amount that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates it costs to raise a child under age 5 each year.

While surveys consistently indicate that a lack of high-quality, affordable, on-campus childcare prevents full engagement in college life, only half of all institutions of postsecondary education provide any form of child care on campus, and most are over-enrolled. In fact, national data indicate a severe shortage of campus childcare centers — with existing resources meetings only one-tenth of the demand. This is particularly true when it comes to infant care — only about one-third of campus child-care centers accept infants. At the same time, federal support for the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (the sole federal funder of such centers) declined by 40 percent (to just $15-million) between 2002 and 2009. According to calculations by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, this means an allocation of just $8 per family headed by a parenting student. That’s just appalling.

Parents who try and juggle too much often end up stressed out, and stressed-out adults don’t make for the best parents.  This is a no-brainer — support these parents and not only will they complete their own degrees, but their children will also benefit — and be more likely to grow up to earn college diplomas of their own.


The statistics in this post come from a paper authored by University of Wisconsin at Madison graduate student Kia Sorensen and me, to appear in the journal Future of Children this fall.


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