Divided We Learn

With number of student-parents up, availability of campus child care is down

The disparity could further widen the degree divide by race and income, experts say

University of New Orleans senior Timothy Juhas, 31, drops off his daughters at a rehearsal for a play in New Orleans during a late-afternoon lunch break from his job in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

NEW ORLEANS — Life is a little hectic for University of New Orleans student Timothy Juhas on this rainy Thursday.

Fresh out of morning classes, Juhas, 31, has stopped at a campus Subway for a sandwich, which he’ll wolf down while working at his job supervising playgrounds in nearby Jefferson Parish.

He’s saving his official lunch break for 3 p.m., when he has to shuttle his daughters to the final dress rehearsal for a nearby high school’s production of “Les Miserables,” opening that night.

This busy day is nothing compared to 2008, when he was forced to drop out of college as his youngest daughter approached her first birthday.

“I stopped going because money became a little more important than getting a degree,” said Juhas, who is graduating this spring with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. His daughters are now 12 and 9. “It was brutal. The only way I could make it work was to tend bar late at night.”

Related: Universities cut services for a big group of their students: those over 25

A lot of Americans like Juhas are seeking college degrees. More than a quarter of college students have children, and the number of student-parents has increased by at least 30 percent since 2004, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports.

But the proportion of colleges offering on-campus child care hasn’t increased to keep pace with the demand, the institute found. It has declined. While more than half of community colleges offered child care in 2004, for example, just 44 percent offered it in 2015; the figure for public four-year schools also dropped below 50 percent over the same time span.

The implications of this shortfall go way beyond inconvenience, said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, a senior research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. It may also widen the degree divide — by race and by income.

For example, Cruse said, nearly 40 percent of black women in college are single mothers. “If we’re not graduating these parents, that means we’re not graduating women of color,” Reichlin Cruse said. “It reverberates over generations.”

Nationwide, the number of 18-year-old, straight-out-of-high school college students will fall over the next few decades, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which tracks this. To keep enrollments up, colleges will need to attract and keep older students, who are more likely to have children, and may struggle without child care.

Related: A mother and son go from homeless to college

At the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, the YMCA took over child care after an outbreak of mold forced the campus’s center to close suddenly. But the Y only accepts children ages two to five, which doesn’t help students such as Marie Pessagno, whose youngest daughter is less than a year old.

Although Pessagno, 37, is lucky to have parents who can watch her two kids, any child-related problems force her to drive 45 minutes from the campus to deal with them. Campus child care would help immensely, she said.

University of New Orleans senior Silvia Gomez, 42, looks over homework at her Metairie, Louisiana, apartment. Gomez wakes up around 4 a.m. for the first of her two jobs, working 12 to 14 hours per day while attending classes and raising her daughter.

“If I have to leave school, I’m done for the day,” said Pessagno, a senior majoring in social work and gender and women’s studies. But that doesn’t excuse her from her academic responsibilities. “These professors are used to hearing excuses. An absence is an absence. They shouldn’t have to let me off the hook.”

The University of New Orleans, where Juhas goes, shut down its child care center in 2013. The university declined to discuss this, saying only, in a written statement, that it “does not currently have the capacity to offer on-campus child care services, but we will continue to evaluate that possibility in the future.” A spokesman noted that the university had endured years of deep budget cuts, a reason also used by other schools nationwide for shuttering child care centers.

The closure has been particularly difficult for the 430-student Interdisciplinary Studies Department, at least a quarter of whose students have children.

“I’m always amazed at the way they deal with that,” said Dan Harper, the department’s associate director. “I have seen students who could not cope at all.”

A lack of child care has forced many students to switch to online courses, he added. Others just can’t make it work. For parents of younger children, for example, even online classes and homework can be difficult. There’s little time to study.

“I went to the library last semester to write a paper and probably wrote 25 or 26 pages,” said Pessagno, the Maryland student with two young children. “The next day I stayed home and I maybe got three paragraphs done.”

At Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio, child care also was taken over by the YMCA after a campus child care center closed. Krista Kiessling, who directs service learning and civic engagement at the college, said student-parents rarely understand how tough it will be to juggle children, school and work.

Related: Budget cuts are taking the heaviest toll on colleges that serve the neediest students

“I definitely have seen students leave and not come back,” she said. “I think many times they think they can have a baby and go to school at the same time.”

While some student-parents never return to school, however, others persevere.

University of New Orleans senior Timothy Juhas, 31, stands on the school’s campus after finishing his morning classes. Juhas will travel to his job supervising playgrounds in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, and pick up his two daughters from school during a late-afternoon lunch break.

Silvia Gomez, 42, will finally graduate this summer from the University of New Orleans after several attempts to balance parenthood and college in three different countries. Gomez made it most of the way to a bachelor’s degree in Mexico before trying to finish in Canada and the United States, where pregnancy and financial realities stymied her educational goals.

But now, with her 18-year-old daughter about to head off to college herself, Gomez finally has found a way forward. She wakes up around 4 a.m. and heads to a courthouse outside New Orleans, where she works as an interpreter — one of two jobs she holds — and does homework while she waits for her next case.

It’s an exhausting schedule, especially if she wants to spend time with her daughter, but Gomez said it will be worth the trouble once she receives her degree.

“This is something I’ve wanted for so long,” Gomez said in her apartment in Metairie, a suburb just northwest of New Orleans, during a break from studying a dense textbook about research methods. “I’m doing what I want to do. And plus, I get to set an example for my daughter.”

Related: Colleges face a new reality, as the number of high school graduates will decline

Expanding campus child care will require an influx of state, local and private funding, said Reichlin Cruse, of the research institute. Budget cuts have forced many colleges to find savings anywhere they can, she said, and the Republican White House and Congress are unlikely to increase federal funding for these students and programs.

But the challenge also lies in educating colleges themselves about the problem, she said.

“They don’t see child care as being central to their mission,” Reichlin Cruse said. “I think communication is the key here.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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Matt Krupnick

Matt Krupnick is a freelance reporter and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times and the Hechinger Report. He was a reporter with… See Archive