The cultural forces that have made the push for affordable and accessible child care part of the national agenda, even for previous working-mom-phobes like Donald Trump, have failed to reach most institutions of higher learning. Over the past decade, there’s been a steady decrease in the availability of on-campus child care, all while the number of student parents increased.
According to a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 55 percent of four-year public campuses had onsite child care centers in 2003. Today, less than half do. The number of onsite child care centers at community colleges is also on the decline, decreasing from 53 percent in 2003 to 44 percent in 2015. During roughly the same time period, the number of student parents nationwide rose from around 3.5 million to almost 5 million. The largest share (43 percent) of student parents are single mothers, 89 percent of whom live in low-income households. Previous studies have found student parents drop out of college at a higher rate than any other demographic—only 33 percent of these students obtain a degree within six years—and there is a correlation between the absence of affordable and accessible child care for student parents and lower rates of degree attainment.
This decline in campus child care isn’t limited to a particular region. Thirty-six states currently have less campus child care than they did a decade ago, while the number remained the same in 13 states and the District of Columbia. North Dakota’s the only state in which the availability of campus child care has increased—17 percent more than a decade ago. Overall, California, New York, Illinois, and Washington offer some of the best child care coverage for student parents, and Texas, North Carolina and Vermont offer some of the worst. For example, around 80 percent of two- and four-year higher colleges in California and New York have a campus child care center, compared to 38 percent of colleges in Texas and 27 percent in North Carolina.
Financial aid is available to student parents through the Child Care and Development Fund, but many states make it difficult to access this funding.* Applicants encounter a variety of restrictions, including a requirement to work (in addition to studying and parenting), limitations on degree types, time limits, and activity and academic progress requirements. Students who manage to fulfill all the criteria can still encounter long waiting lists in a number of states, and sometimes a spot doesn’t open up for years.
The decline in campus child care can be attributed to a combination of budget constraints and academia’s failure to accommodate the rising number of students with children. As Barbara Gault, the executive director at the IWPR, explained to the Atlantic in 2014: “Institutions are looking desperately for places to cut. Because there’s so little awareness of the prevalence of students with children I think it often ends up looking like something that’s an extra rather than something that’s essential.”
The same societal blind spot towards the needs of parents is behind the obstacles many students encounter during pregnancy and early parenthood. Although the decades-old Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including matters relating to pregnancy and parenting, a lot ofwomen still experience it. This includes high school students, who often feel, according to a 2015report from the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, pushed out of school by their teachers’ and administrators’ unwillingness to accommodate them. Only 38 percent of teen moms graduate high school, and only 2 percent of women who had children in their high school years graduate college before the age of 30. The main response to this problem has been an effort to decrease the number of teen pregnancies, an effort that has beensuccessful, but schools should also follow the mandate of Title IX and find ways to support the teens who do become parents.
An eye-opening essay published last year in Rewire by writer and former teen mom Gloria Malone argues for better treatment of teen mothers. She points to legislation passed in New Mexico in 2013 as an example of how to improve matters. The New Mexico law, the first of its kind in the nation, offers more protections for teen mom and dads, including a ten-day parental leave policy following the birth of the child, and an additional four days for doctor’s appointments or to take care of a sick child. Similar laws have been proposed in Massachusetts and in the United States Senate, but they’ve yet to pass.
We live in a culture that fails to accommodate even the mothers who follow our societally-approved timeline, and have babies at what is considered the ideal time and in the ideal setting. That we also fail to support those who deviate from it comes as little surprise. But the narrative about parenthood is slowly changing, and the public’s perception of parenthood is morphing from an inconvenience to a fact of life worthy of accommodation. One can only hope that the light of this new consciousness spreads students’ way before long.
*Correction, Sept. 27, 2016: This post originally misidentified the program through which financial aid for child care is available.