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Congress’ Coronavirus Response Must Support Student Parents

Kyle Southern, Ph.D. and Nia Davis Sigona, Esq.

Across the country, students, college campus leaders, and policymakers alike face challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic—the necessary and abrupt disruption in higher education among them. Long before these campus closures and shifts to online learning, however, college students who are also parents were already struggling to balance their family, work, and academic responsibilities. Nearly one-in-four college students is also a parent, and we argue that any upcoming economic recovery legislation must support student parents.

Researchers at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) have found a steady increase over recent years in the number of student parents, even as the number of readily available child care centers has declined. According to IWPR’s analysis, “Community colleges enroll the largest share of student parents: nearly half of all student parents (45 percent), or approximately 2.1 million students, attend public two-year institutions.” Recent data show 1.7 million students—about 10 percent of all undergraduates—are single mothers, with nine-in-ten of single mother students living near or below the federal poverty line.

Before March, student parents might have asked themselves, “Where will I find the money, time, and energy to be both a good parent and a successful student?” That question will likely remain unanswered over the weeks and months ahead.

Some assistance may be on the way. The president signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act into law on March 27. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced the availability of more than $6 billion allocated by the CARES Act for institutions to provide emergency grants to students. Child care is listed among potential uses for this money, along with other essentials like housing, food, course materials, and health care.

The CARES Act also allocated $3.5 billion in additional funds to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program, which provides for access to high-quality child care programs for low-income families. For expanded programs by CARES Act supplemental funds, states can distribute money to child care providers with more flexibility than under the regular CCDBG process.

This aid is an important and necessary step to get through this emergency, but once college campuses begin to welcome back students on the other side of the pandemic, student parents’ need for robust support will continue to far outpace availability. For example, fewer than 100 institutions have received grants under Child Care Access Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS)—the sole federal program designed to support both on- and off-campus child care for low-income student parents. And although Congress recently increased CCAMPIS funding to $53 million, even this amount falls far short of addressing this critical need. The program currently serves only about 7,600 student parents.

We are not labor economists, but we have to assume the current economic downturn will only exacerbate the precarious finances of these students. Losing them from the undergraduate population would only hold back economic recovery, as single mothers with associate’s degrees earn a quarter-million dollars more in their lifetime than they would with only a high school diploma; a bachelor’s degree increases lifetime earnings by $625,000 compared to a high school diploma.

As the full social and financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on higher education becomes more clear, we urge Congress to center student parents and their needs. Doing so will put these students and their children on firmer financial ground during this crisis and should help keep students on track to achieve their educational and career goals for years ahead.

Kyle Southern is Policy and Advocacy Director for Higher Education and Workforce at Young Invincibles. Nia Davis Sigona is Government Relations Director at Higher Learning Advocates.