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Junely Merwin was desperate for child care when she started community college in southern California at age 17 while also parenting a 2-year-old. She was living in foster care and had no family to rely on to help with costs. She was relieved when she was accepted into a subsidy program run by a California nonprofit that provided her with financial assistance for her son’s care. Soon after, she managed to get him a spot at a child care center so she could start school. Looking back, Merwin sees finding affordable child care as a critical turning point in her life. It was “my defining moment of pursuing the dream of having a college degree,” she said. “That was my ticket to going to college.”

For college students who are also parents, a population that makes up more than 20 percent of undergraduates, one of the most important supports is access to child care. But during the pandemic, as child care centers have shuttered across the country, many student parents who rely on campus-based care on public universities and community colleges have encountered another barrier to earning a degree. These closures have spanned community colleges and public universities nationwide; In June 2020, the University of Vermont shuttered its campus-based child care center, reportedly to save around $550,000 in annual operating expenses. In February 20201, Mount Holyoke College announced it would suspend its on-campus child care operations, which cost more than tuition brings in. In March 2021, Curry College in Massachusetts closed its on-campus child care center after 40 years due to Covid-19 challenges. And in April, Michigan’s Washtenaw Community College closed its children’s center due to enrollment declines.

The shrinking number of on-campus child care centers was also an issue pre-pandemic. Between 2003 and 2015, the number of campus child care centers declined precipitously, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In 2015, 44 percent of community colleges offered on-campus childcare, compared to 53 percent in 2003. Among public four-year campuses, 55 percent offered child care in 2003; that percentage dropped to 49 percent 12 years later. Some students say that even if it’s available, child care centers on campuses have long wait lists or may not offer the services needed, like after school care.

Shayna La Scala’s son sits in class with her. On days when she lacked childcare, La Scala brought her children to school so she wouldn’t miss important presentations. Credit: Shayna La Scala

Now, experts fear that the additional pandemic-related child care center closures could hurt graduation rates for student parents. Although student parents have higher grade point averages than their peers, they are already far less likely to graduate than peers without children. That’s largely because of the daunting economic and life stressors, which worsened during the pandemic. Nearly 70 percent of student parents live in or near poverty and one study found 68 percent had experienced housing insecurity in the past year. More than half of student parents in that report experienced food insecurity. “The pandemic is incredibly hard for everyone and incredibly hard in particular for student parents,” said Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez, executive director of California Competes, a nonprofit focused on higher education policy and outcomes. Student parents have to juggle so much, she says, which in the pandemic has included “work and life and keep yourself from getting sick and dying.”

If student parents experience worse college outcomes due to the pandemic, it could have a ripple effect on their children. A parental college diploma not only makes it far less likely that children will grow up in poverty, but it boosts children’s odds of earning a college degree and a higher income themselves.

Research shows finding a way to offer child care can be a critical step for campuses that want to ensure student parents can make it to graduation: One study by Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York, found students who had children under the age of six who used the college’s on-campus child care center were more likely to return to school the next year than student parents who did not use the center. They were also nearly three times more likely to graduate.

Shayna La Scala attends a meeting on her college campus with her two children. La Scala said more support is needed for student parents, especially physical spaces where student parents can bring their children on campus. Credit: Shayna La Scala

Even if child care is not available on campus, there are other ways to support parents, including with their child care needs. When 22-year-old Ajanique Dunlap, a student at Sacramento State University, first needed child care, her daughter was too young to attend the on-campus child care center, which serves children ages six months through kindergarten. But Dunlap was able to receive child care assistance through a program at Sacramento State, paid for by the federal “Child Care Access Means Parents in School” or CCAMPIS grant. The program paid 100 percent of Dunlap’s costs for an off-campus center so Dunlap could work two jobs and continue attending classes toward her degree in criminal justice.  Without that assistance, Dunlap worries she would have needed to quit school and work, as child care would have consumed almost her entire paycheck.

Also important, advocates say, is to be inclusive of student parents. While attending California State University Fullerton, Merwin and her friend, fellow parent Shayna La Scala, advocated for a student parent center, a physical space where student parents could connect and bring their children. Those areas are often lacking on college campuses, they said. “On campuses, there’s a center for everything. There’s a transfer center, there’s a women’s’ center, one for specific race and ethnicity,” said La Scala. “But they did not have a student parent center on our campus.”

Junely Merwin and her son pose at graduation day. Merwin said child care is what enabled her to start community college at age 17. Credit: Jamie Minamide

Merwin said there also needs to be more understanding among campus staff for student parents. During the seven years it took her to complete her associate’s degree and then a bachelor’s degree in Human Services in 2019 from California State University Fullerton, where she earned a full-ride scholarship, everything revolved around childcare. She had to schedule classes, find time to study and choose extracurricular activities based on the availability of care. When child care was unavailable or her son’s school was closed, some professors allowed her to bring her son to class and at times, friends and staff members watched him on campus while she attended class or took exams. Still, there were times when she had to miss class due to lacking care, which she said set her behind.  “The parent balance with school and work was very difficult. Something was always being sacrificed,” Merwin said, which is why child care was a critical form of help. “My son was my greatest motivator for me to complete my degree in order to have a good life.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

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Jackie Mader supervises all photo and multimedia use, covers early childhood education and writes the early ed newsletter. In her nine years at Hechinger, she has covered a range of topics including teacher...

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